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Postdoctoral Researcher, Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding of the Geneva Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, RIAC Visiting Research Fellow
On 8 July 1853, the U.S. Navy commander Matthew Perry, accompanying combat-ready fleets, suddenly showed up at the Bay of Tokyo and forcefully demanded the opening-up of Japan. At the time, the future of Japan was at a crossroad: our choices were either to become the West’s colony or a full-fledged empire on equal footing with the West. Japan chose the latter, the revolution prevailed, and the imperial path followed. But the opening-up of Japan was nothing but a part of a larger trend that had defined the Japanese statehood since its naissance. As an island nation, foreign ideas have played a decisive role in the making of Japanese history. After two decades of recession, the Great Debate over the future of Japanese statehood re-emerged in the early 2000s. The Great East Japan Earthquake also urged the Japanese to rethink its future. By employing a school of thought analysis, this article compares and contrasts different visions on the state and order in Japan since 2000.
On 8 July 1853, the U.S. Navy commander Matthew Perry, accompanying combat-ready fleets, suddenly showed up at the Bay of Tokyo and forcefully demanded the opening-up of Japan. At the time, the future of Japan was at a crossroad: our choices were either to become the West’s colony or a full-fledged empire on equal footing with the West. Japan chose the latter, the revolution prevailed, and the imperial path followed. But the opening-up of Japan was nothing but a part of a larger trend that had defined the Japanese statehood since its naissance. As an island nation, foreign ideas have played a decisive role in the making of Japanese history. After two decades of recession, the Great Debate over the future of Japanese statehood re-emerged in the early 2000s. The Great East Japan Earthquake also urged the Japanese to rethink its future. By employing a school of thought analysis, this article compares and contrasts different visions on the state and order in Japan since 2000 .
What are the changing sources of sovereignty and the national might/power?
Since the end of the Cold War, Japanese visions on sovereignty and international power have shown a notable divergence . This section surveys the six distinct visions of major opinion leaders, who are selected to represent the widest variety of viewpoints . As Figure.1 below depicts, these visions can be distinguished by two analytical axes.
Figure 1. Japanese Visions on Sovereignty and Power
The first category of vision can be termed as “Aspirationists” in the sense that they envision a wider role for Japan in the region and beyond. First, they proclaim that the position of a nation should be determined by its contribution to the international society. The adoption of liberal values and other predominantly Western-sponsored norms is thus cited as an imperative to be recognized as a fully sovereign nation. In this sense, state sovereignty originates internally from the will of the people and externally from being fully integrated into the Western-centric international society. Second, aspirationalists place a strong emphasis on Japan’s leadership in the international arena. In their vision, the material power is a prime condition to claim for a higher national prestige and international recognition. A uniqueness of this school of thought is its acceptance of Western values/ideas as an instrument to accelerate Japan’s ranking in the international realm. For instance, note that both Koizumi and Abe have made official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where the spirits of imperial soldiers are enshrined. This line of argument was most clearly pushed by the Meiji era imperial reformers who accepted the Western primacy as a “rule of the game” and maintained that the West can be countered only by Western methods.
The second category, “Nationalists,” represents a vision of hard-liners in the most generic sense. Mr. Toshio Tamogami, former Chief of Staff of the Japanese Self-Defense Force (JSDF), is a spearhead thinker of this vision in Japan, although he was removed from the position in 2008 for expressing an opinion that was irreconcilable with the official government view. His award-winning thesis “Was Japan an Aggressor Nation?” forcefully advanced an argument that the Japanese empire’s colonization of Asian countries was based on treaties exchanged with the host nations, as today’s American military presence in Japan is justified by the Japanese-American Security Treaty . The nationalist discourse advanced by Tamogami has found a wide variety of domestic followers, including the influential former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara. The nationalist school of thought in Japan sees state independence as a prime source of sovereignty. It advocates for the creation of a stronger sovereign army independent from American and Western influence.
Toyohara Chikanobu. A Scene in the House
The third category, “Civilizationists,” sees Japan as an independent civilization occupying a unique place in the international community. Masahiko Fujiwara’s “Kokka No Hinkaku (The Dignity of the Nation)” presented a most celebrated civilizationist vision. The book sold more than 2.5 million copies within six months since its first release in 2005, prompting a sensational revival of traditionalist worldview in Japan . As a long-time math professor in the U.S., the author argued that Japan’s dignity as a traditional nation is eroded by the proliferation of Western rationalism. He also dismisses democracy as a way of governance because Hitler was fundamentally a democrat: the dictator did not come to power by coup d’état but by a free and fair election which represented the cry-outs of the oppressed Germany nation at the time. Fujiwara’s million-seller book advanced a proposal for national restoration that emphasizes joucho (emotional richness) over rationalism and Bushido spirit of disciplined leadership over democratic governance which is doomed to descend into popular demagocracy.
A similar civilizationalist vision was put into practice by the former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who received Ph.D from Stanford University. His Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) gained a formidable democratic support in the 2008 congressional election, achieving the landslide victory (308/480 seats) over the dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). After sworn into prime minister, Hatoyama called for the relocation of U.S. troops in Japan while opening a number of diplomatic dialogues with China as an important regional partner. Hatoyama’s diplomacy was marked by the principle of equitable relations, arguing that Western and non-Western countries should be all treated equally. Most recently, Hatoyama visited the Crimea oblast in March 2015 and proclaimed that the reunification of Crimea was fully in accordance with international law and it reflected the democratic will of the Crimean people . In response the Japanese Foreign Ministry threatened to cancel his passport on the ground of expressing an independent opinion different from the official government view.
The forth category, “Internationalists,” presents a vision of a globalized Japan as a civilian power. Internationalists tend to downplay the importance of hard power, arguing that further internationalization of Japan should be encouraged to catch up with the waves of globalization. Mineo Nakajima, former President of the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies was a strong advocate of this vision. As a renowned International Relations scholar specialized in Chinese politics, Nakajima maintained that Japan needs to strengthen its international presence by reforming its ineffective foreign language education. His vision was crystallized by the establishment of the Akita International University in 2004, which became Japan’s leading international college just in a decade. In terms of foreign policy, internationalists often represent a pacifist strand and stress the role of multilateral diplomacy as a prime avenue to address global challenges.
How should we increase the efficiency of the state, but not at the expense of freedom? How should citizens influence and control the bureaucracy, especially in the information age?
The visions on Japanese domestic governance also demonstrate a sharp divergence, particularly since the early 1990s when the era of high growth ended. The influence of ministerial bureaucrats was raised as a major topic in the late 2000s, resulting in the historic victory of the DPJ reformers in 2008 who aimed at maximizing the control over bureaucracy by imposing strong leadership of the elected officials. Yet the popular call for stronger leadership dramatically receded when the Fukushima nuclear power plant explored, an event whose cause was predominantly seen as an indicator of political leaders’ lack of specialized knowledge to deal with crisis situations. Interestingly, the role of new technology in national politics has rarely been a point of discussion in Japan. The utilization of the internet platform in political campaign was legalized only after April 2013; before this reform, updating website/video/social media during a period of national political campaigns was strictly prohibited. Rather, the substantial focus of political debate was how Japan should navigate in a new information age. Figure.2 below demonstrates a mapping exercise based on these differences.
Figure 2. Japanese Visions on Domestic Governance
The vision of the Globalist school of thought aims to raise Japan to the position of a global leader in economic, political, and cultural spheres. For instance, Former Prime Minister Hatoyama proposed the creation of an East Asian Community, which manifested his desire to play a larger role in the regional and international arena. Those who envision a globalist Japan also emphasize that the capacity of government should be strengthened to tackle imminent challenges at home and abroad. Since 2012, a large scale public expenditure has been mobilized for Abenomics policy, which is somehow similar to the extended social welfare package implemented under the Hatoyama administration. However, Hatoyama’s and Abe’s visions sharply diverge on the role of bureaucrats, where the former is more apprehensive of strong bureaucratic power exercised in the national legislation process. Since Hatoyama’s DPJ lost congressional majority in 2012, ministerial responsibility and influence have been gradually expanded under Abe’s leadership, reflecting his inclination towards a more statist style of domestic governance.
The adoption of liberal values and other predominantly Western-sponsored norms is thus cited as an imperative to be recognized as a fully sovereign nation.
Japanese Neoliberals generally envision minimizing the responsibility of central government and advocate for further privatization in national governance, following a standard practice of libertarians abroad. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been a prominent advocate of this position. As one of the longest-serving prime ministers in Japan, he forcefully advanced the privatization of public agencies, promoted deregulation, and reduced public expenditure and supplementary budget for regional governments. Neoliberals like Koizumi and his chief economist Heizo Takenaka proclaimed that privatization policy would expand the freedom of choice; yet the limited success of his administration highlighted that the government is expected to play a predominant role in both public and private life in Japan. Mineo Nakajima could be also seen as a neoliberalist since he advocated for a more decentralized form of educational governance which gives more autonomy to universities, although this labeling may be somewhat misleading since he did not comment extensively on domestic governance. Toru Hashimoto, the leader of the Japan/Osaka Restoration Party, stands as a more prominent proponent of the neoliberal vision. He has pushed for a dramatic decentralization plan that gives much higher autonomy to regional governments.
The third category Societists refers to those who call for the restoration of the traditional forms of micro-level governance, including the collective/ consultative decision-making process, the Bushido-inspired rule of norms, and the prominence of societal authority. As Masahiko Fujiwara argues, the rule of norms in Japan functions through a process of strong self-discipline and is enforced by social pressures and societal authority . This is somewhat different from the rule of law, whose legitimacy stems from a rational-individualist worldview and is enforced by legal order and contractual mechanisms. Although the rule of norms and the rule of law are not mutually exclusive, Fujiwara maintains, the former should command the latter in Japan. The society, not individuals, should be the highest end in governance. For instance, demonstrations in public space in the individualist culture are generally understood as an expression of freedom, whereas they are often seen as a disturbance to societal tranquility in Japan . Indeed, in a national survey in 2013, only 24% replied that demonstrations and other forms of political expression have power to influence national politics in Japan . Unsurprisingly, the rule of norm thesis was mostly dismissed by the Western writers as a political fairytale until 2011, when the debate re-emerged as a consequence of the Great East Japan Earthquake. At the time of crisis, the police was paralyzed and stores were half-destroyed (with a rumor spreading that the radiation from Fukushima will bring the doomsday to Japan), but those who rushed to supermarkets quickly picked-up the fallen products from the floor, made a line in front of cashiers, calculated the total sum of purchase by themselves, left the money at the register and left stores in order. Panic was rarely observed and the rate of crime stayed extremely low. Indeed, the vision of societal governance seems unrealistic in the eyes of the Westerners, but the fact that Fujiwara’s book sold more than 2.5 million copies just in a half year indicates that the societalist vision still remains highly influential in Japan.
Yet the popular call for stronger leadership dramatically receded when the Fukushima nuclear power plant explored, an event whose cause was predominantly seen as an indicator of political leaders’ lack of specialized knowledge to deal with crisis situations.
The last category, Restorationists, represents those who advocate for a stronger role played by the state to restore social solidarity in Japan. This school of thought includes nationalists like Toshio Tamogami, but also encompasses a wider range of opinion leaders who call for national restoration to address the deficits of globalization. The major difference between Societists and Restorationists is the envisioned role of state; while the former stresses the societal mechanisms of governance where the government is largely a coordinator/ facilitator, the latter advocates for a government with highly centralized power and for a stronger army to secure national independence. Another notable difference can be the purpose of governance; the former prioritizes the preservation of the traditional Japanese society, whereas the latter is more concerned with raising Japan to a higher-ranked, great power-like nation in international society.
The analysis presented in this article revealed that a great degree of heterogeneity exists in Japanese politics. Despite the alarm for over-simplification, the analysis is useful for describing an overall trend. In recent years, pro-globalization leaders have been a dominant visionary in Japanese politics, with a stronger role envisioned for the state. Yet the dramatic oscillation of voter preference (for example, from Koizumi’s libertarian-neoliberalism in the early 2000s to Abe’s statist-globalism) indicates that domestic audience is in search for a new source of social prosperity and is open for new approaches. Another notable trend is a unique dualism of Japanese visions, where pro-Westernism is seen more as a matter of political methodology (how a nation should be governed) rather than of political values (what should be the purpose and priority of governance). Overall, a vast majority endorses a vision that employs the Western methods of governance in order to preserve traditional values of the Japanese society. Abe’s “pro-Western nationalism” is popular precisely because he understands these dynamics. The dramatic demise of the Koizumi administration indicated that the Japanese nation still prefers a leader who prioritizes the preservation of societal stability over the expansion of individual freedom. Indeed, “free” in Japanese language (ziyuuna) means selfish, as a free man (ziyuuna hito) indicates someone who pays no attention to societal responsibility. In the years to come, the debate over the state and order in Japan is likely to continue its current path and the visions that combine Western approaches and Japanese values will be most likely to retain their influence.
1. On the methodology of the school of thought analysis, see, for example, Nau, H. R., & Ollapally, D. M. (Eds.). (2012). Worldviews of Aspiring Powers: Domestic Foreign Policy Debates in China, India, Iran, Japan, and Russia. Oxford University Press.
2. For a contemporary debate on sovereignty, see Biersteker, T. J., & Weber, C. (Eds.). (1996). State sovereignty as social construct. Cambridge University Press.
3. The visions may also fluctuate over time. For example, Prime Minister Abe in his first term (September 2006- September 2007) expressed a much less nationalistic vision on the future of Japan, with his campaign slogan being “Utsukushii Kuni (Beautiful Japan).”
4. Toshio Tamogami. (2008). “日本は侵略国家であったのか [Was Japan an Aggressor Nation?].” Hokorerukuni Nihon. I. Accessible in English at http://www.apa.co.jp/ronbun/images/pdf/2008jyusyou_saiyuusyu_english.pdf.
5. Masahiko Fujiwara. (2005). “国家の品格 [The Dignity of the Nation].” Shincho Sha.
6. Japan Times. (2015). Ex-prime minister Hatoyama defends referendum in Crimea as constitutional, 12 March 2015.
7. Societists often referto the fact that Japan was extremely stable and prosperous under the authoritarian rein of the Edo Tokugawa Bakuhu for 260 years, without even a single war occurring (until the West came to Japan in the mid-nineteenth century).
8. Notable exceptions exist such as anti-American protestations in formerly U.S. occupied Okinawa region and anti-nuclear demonstrations which were popular for a short period after the Fukushima incident.
9. NHK. (2014). “日本人の意識・40年の軌跡 [The opinions of the Japanese in last 40 years].” Accessible at http://www.nhk.or.jp/bunken/summary/yoron/social/067.html.
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