National Identity and Democracy: Lessons from the Case of Japan

The relationship between national identity and democracy is a complicated one. National identity provides a foundation for democratic politics in at least two senses. First, the spread of national identity can prepare the ground for democracy in the sense that nationalism breaks the elite’s monopoly on politics and transforms the masses into participants in the political process. Nationalism of course can arise without democracy. But at the least, it mobilizes the masses and instills in them the sense that they, too, are members of a political community, which could lay the groundwork for later democratization. Second, in many states, national identity provided a ready-made answer to the question of the boundaries within which democracy is to be practiced.1 In the case of Japan, the nexus of national identity and democracy was tested in the Meiji and Taisho eras, essentially severed in the prewar Showa era, reestablished in the postwar Showa era, and is being challenged anew in a rapidly shifting international context as the Heisei era draws to an end. These various tests and external challenges offer lessons on how the Japanese case is instructive for other cases.

Beyond providing a foundation for the practice of democratic politics, national identity may either support or undercut democracy, depending on how its specific content is defined. National identity provides an answer to the question of who we are as members of a particular nation, and what sort of position we (the Japanese, the Chinese, etc.) occupy and what kind of role we play in the wider world. National identity answers these questions in a historical context. The question of who we are cannot be answered properly unless we also answer the question of who we have been in the past, and where we might be headed in the future. Moreover, how national identity gets defined has important implications for the nation’s cultural, economic, and political development, including the development of democracy. Thus, an analysis of the impact of national identity on democratization has to take into consideration various aspects of national identity. In this article, I take three of the six dimensions identified by Rozman,2 and analyze, though in a necessarily brief and selective manner, how national identity has influenced the process of democratization of Japan from the Meiji era to the present. I then conclude with some suggestions about lessons to be learned from Japan’s history.

The ideological dimension: Making the Emperor safe for democracy (and vice versa)

The beginning of democratization in Japan may be traced back to the late-Tokugawa era, when demands were made for opening up the shogunal government for the participation of a broader group of actors. When it became evident that the Tokugawa shogunate was incapable of dealing effectively with increasing pressure from the Western powers, first the daimyō (domain lords), and later ordinary samurai, began to demand political participation, advancing slogans such as jinzai tōyō (allowing men of ability to advance and to occupy responsible positions), genro dōkai (letting people’s voices be heard in the corridors of power), and kōgi yoron (making political decisions on the basis of public discussions).3

As the demand for political participation spread, national identity became more widespread and politically relevant. In feudal Japan, the loyalty of the samurai was directed toward their personal masters, rather than to any abstract notion of the state or the nation. But when the weakness of the existing regime was exposed, the call for political unity across the boundaries of feudal domains gained influence. In this process, the role of the emperor became more significant, as the emperor could function as a symbol of national unity.

Japan’s historical experience was similar to that of many Western states in that the spread of national identity went hand in hand with the call for greater political participation. But it was different from the latter in that in Japan, both democratization and nationalism proceeded under the banner of Imperial Restoration. While Western political theories had very significant influence in Meiji Japan, few if any argued that the imperial institution was an obstacle to Japan’s political progress. Far from it, the role of the emperor as the central focus of Japanese polity was accepted almost universally, including by the most “progressive” activists.4 Unlike absolute monarchies in some European states, the Japanese Imperial Court prior to the Meiji era was not regarded as the capstone of an oppressive social order. Rather, in the context of the late-Tokugawa era, it came to be perceived as a symbol of change. Also, unlike European monarchies, which were enmeshed in transnational ties of dynastic intermarriages, the Japanese imperial court was regarded as unquestionably Japanese – as an institution inextricably linked with the origin of the Japanese state. For this reason, in Japan, the rise of nationalism and the initial stage of democratization coincided with the emergence of the Imperial Court as the central focus of Japanese nationhood.5

Seen from a different angle, this meant that Westernizing reforms of the Meiji era (including the introduction of constitutional government) were presented as something compatible with Japan’s national identity since they were carried out under the banner of “restoration,” or return to the original, proper order of things in Japan. This was in sharp contrast to many non-Western states in which Westernizing reforms were prone to be subjected to persistent criticism for “betraying the national tradition.”6 Thus, during the Meiji era, the Imperial Court played a significant role in legitimizing modernizing changes in Japan, including the introduction of constitutional government.

With the consolidation of a Western-style legal and political system in Japan, however, the Imperial Court did begin to play a role analogous to that of European monarchies — as the central pillar of the social and political status quo. In this capacity, the Japanese Imperial Court also functioned as an obstacle to further democratization. The Meiji Constitution of 1889 vested the emperor with “rights of sovereignty,” and this set a limit to the development of democracy during the Taishō and early-Shōwa eras. Moreover, the Japanese Imperial Court had a history much longer than European dynasties, and its origins were shrouded in the myth of the divine descent of the Imperial family, going back to the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu. The fact that Japan had not suffered foreign conquest in recorded history and the fact that one and the same dynasty had reigned over Japan since ancient times, were regarded as demonstrating the uniquely superior character of Japan’s kokutai (literally, “national body”), defined by the Supreme Court as “the political system under which Japan has been reigned over and ruled by an unbroken chain of Emperors going back to time immemorial.” The ideology of imperial restoration helped Japan modernize in the late-nineteenth century without jettisoning its national identity, but the fact that an ancient myth was installed as the ideological pillar of modernizing Japan played a major role in derailing the country’s democratization in the early-twentieth century.7

Following its defeat in World War II, Japan underwent a comprehensive series of reforms under the allied occupation, the centerpiece of which were de-militarization and democratization. Postwar Japan made a fresh start as a “democratic state” (minshu kokka). This, however, did not mean a complete break in Japan’s kokutai. In the last days of the war, the Japanese government sought to preserve kokutai above all else, and indicated its willingness to accept the Potsdam Declaration only “with the understanding that… [it does not prejudice] the prerogatives of His Majesty as a sovereign ruler.” To this the allied powers responded that “[t]he ultimate form of government of Japan shall… be established by the freely expressed will of the Japanese people.” Japan surrendered upon receipt of this response, because the Japanese leadership was convinced that, if the people were allowed to express their will freely, the Imperial Court would survive in some form. They were vindicated in this expectation. Although public opinion in the allied states was very hostile to Emperor Hirohito, Douglas MacArthur decided to keep the emperor, for he felt that given popular sentiments in Japan, to abolish the position of the emperor or to put Hirohito on trial would destabilize Japan and render the task of occupation impossible.8 The reverence in which the Japanese people held the emperor ensured the survival of both the imperial institution and of Emperor Hirohito personally, preserving the continuity of kokutai at the bare minimum level.

Obviously, the prewar definition of kokutai did not survive intact. Under the new Constitution, the emperor became a symbolic figure, without powers related to government. The emperor also issued the so-called “Humanity Declaration,” and denied “the false conception that the Emperor is divine, and that the Japanese people are superior to other races and fated to rule the world.” The Imperial Rescript on Education (1890), which had served as the guiding principle of Japanese education, was declared ineffective. Postwar Japanese politics was to be carried out not on the basis of unique imperial mythology but based on principles of democracy and on “laws of political morality,” both of which were declared “universal” principles in the Preamble of the Constitution. Through these changes, postwar Japan achieved a compromise between commitment to democracy and preservation of a sense of continuity with the past.

The fact that the Constitution of Japan was introduced under the allied occupation complicated the relationship between national identity and democracy in postwar Japan. While progressives in postwar Japan strongly identified with the new Constitution, seeing in it a complete rebirth of the nation, many conservatives rejected the new Constitution as an illegitimate foreign imposition. But it is worth emphasizing that postwar Japanese conservatives were much more interested in preserving the emperor and his position than in rejecting democracy. After all, the Charter Oath issued at the beginning of the Meiji era had enshrined “public discussions” as one of the key guiding principles for a new Japan. Besides, the status of the emperor as a sovereign ruler (as stipulated in the Meiji Constitution) was something of an anomaly in the long history of the Japanese Imperial Court. The emperor’s symbolic status under the Constitution of Japan could easily be characterized as a “return” to an older historical tradition. For this reason, while many conservatives fulminated against the “imposed” Constitution as a violation of Japanese sovereignty, few advocated the restoration of the emperor to the position of an inviolable sovereign.9 Most embraced the “symbolic emperor system,” and, with it, democracy. This helped to turn democracy into an uncontroversial part of postwar Japan’s national identity.

Since the late-Tokugawa era, the imperial institution has served as the central pillar of Japan’s nationalist ideology, and it has provided an important focus of Japanese national identity. Although the notion of unique kokutai contributed to the derailing of democratization in the early-twentieth century, the imperial institution was adapted to the postwar era of democracy, and it continues to serve today as a focus of national identity in a democratic Japan.

The horizontal dimension: The evolution and the limits of a democratic identity

The “horizontal” dimension of national identity refers to how a nation views the outside world, and how that perception reflects upon the nation’s understanding of itself. Until fairly recently, the Japanese tended to understand the international environment in a vertical rather than a horizontal manner, and to assess the position—or status—of Japan within this hierarchical context. Partly, this may be a result of the outward projection of the predominantly hierarchical character of human relationships in traditional Japanese society.10 But this was also conditioned by the actually hierarchical character of international relations in East Asia—both under the Chinese world order, and then in the context of the modern international society centered around the West. For Japan throughout much of the modern era, the “horizontal” dimension of national identity concerned first and foremost the question of how Japan would improve its international status by positioning itself in relation to the dominant Western powers, and to the dominant values of the international society.

Except for a relatively brief period from 1931 to 1945, Japan has sought to improve its international position and to assert its identity in a manner that is compatible with the dominant values of international society. The development of constitutional politics in Meiji Japan was an attempt to establish Japan’s identity as a “civilized nation,”11 while “Taisho Democracy” was in an important sense Japan’s answer to Wilson’s attempt to reform the international order in a more liberal direction.12 Japan’s desire to occupy a respectable position in international society thus stimulated the development of constitutionalism in prewar Japan. Japan’s socialization into the Western-dominated international society was facilitated by the position that Japan had occupied in the premodern East Asian order. Because Japan in the premodern era found itself on the periphery of another great civilization (i.e. China), and was used to foreign borrowing, it did not pose too difficult a problem for Japan’s emerging national identity to import Western technology, institutions, and ideas.13

Throughout much of the modern era, Japan sought to improve its international standing and to sustain a favorable national identity through a strategy captured in the slogan of datsu-a nyūō, or “exit from Asia, entry into Europe.” In the language of social identity theorists, Japan adopted the strategy of “social mobility,” or “moving from [what was considered] a lower-status group to a higher-status group.”14 Yet, while Japan was in some sense successful in “exiting from Asia,” “entering Europe” was difficult at a time when racial and religious differences constituted higher barriers than they do today. Thus, starting in the 1880s, Japan also developed an identity of being “the leader of the Orient.” Until the 1920s, this alternative definition of national identity was compatible with the development of constitutional government and with movement toward democracy. Yet in the 1930s, when the relationship between Japan and the Western powers deteriorated, Japan came to see itself as leading a struggle of the East against Western dominance. Democracy, liberalism, and individualism were rejected as incompatible with Japanese identity.15

Following its defeat in WWII, Japan once again faced an international environment in which domestic political change was required for the purpose of improvement of international status. Since Japan’s reckless expansionism was seen as inseparable from its undemocratic political regime, building a democratic political system was a condition for Japan to be allowed back into international society. In the Preamble to the Constitution, the Japanese people “pledged [their] national honor” to accomplish the high ideals set out in the Constitution, including democracy. Thus, postwar Japan initially faced strong external incentive to make its democracy work, much as did East European states under the EU’s Copenhagen Criteria. With the beginning of the Cold War, it is true, external pressure for Japan’s democratization weakened somewhat, as Japan was “now counted upon to serve as a bridgehead of democracy, poised to check the influence of communist forces in the Far East.”16 But Japan continued to face a situation in which maintaining a robust democracy at home was a precondition for international status. From the adoption of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law of 1985 (following Japan’s ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) to more recent moves to raise awareness on the rights of sexual minorities, the desire to maintain Japan’s good standing as a democracy has contributed to upgrading the quality of Japanese democracy.

During the Cold War era, the majority of democratic states were advanced states in Europe and North America. Against this background, Japan’s emergence as an “advanced democracy” assumed the character of another attempt at datsu-a nyūō. This time, entry in the West was easier than in the past, since the East and the West were now defined in terms of political regimes, rather than in racial or religious terms. Naturally, the Japanese continued to feel a sense of affinity toward other countries of Asia. The 1957 edition of Japan’s Diplomatic Bluebook, the first ever issued, listed “maintaining the firm stance that Japan is part of Asia” as one of the “Three Basic Principles of Diplomacy.” The 1958 edition of the Bluebook explained further that “Asia is linked to Japan through deep ties of geographical, historical, and spiritual nature.” From the 1970s to the 1980s, from the opening of diplomatic relations with the PRC until the “Tiananmen Square Incident” of 1989, there was a time when opinion surveys showed that the Japanese felt an equally strong “sense of affinity” toward China as they did toward the United States (See Chart 1).17

Yet, the basis for the development of Asianism in postwar Japan was rather weak. For one thing, the greater readiness with which Japan was welcomed into community of “Western” (or rich, democratic) states diminished the psychological need for Asianism for Japan. For another, given Japan’s dependence on the United States in both security and economic affairs, and given the negative regional memory of wartime Japanese domination, there was little room for Japan to opt for “leadership in Asia” at the expense of its relations with the US (or the West more generally). China proved that its zero-sum approach to thinking about Asian regional identity excluded Japan’s notion of Asianism. Rather than Asianism, Japan promoted economic and political integration in the broader “Asia-Pacific” region. In the 1980s and 1990s, when some Asian leaders (such as Mahathir Mohammed) called for Japan to lead Asia’s economic integration, the Japanese government chose to avoid provoking the United States by taking up the mantle of Asianism, despite the fact that economic friction between Japan and the US was at its highest pitch.18

Since the end of the Cold War, Japan’s economic relations with Asia have deepened at a rapid pace, with value chains extending across national boundaries, and trade with Asian countries now making up more than half of Japan’s foreign trade. Another significant change in the post-Cold War era was that, due to cheaper international travel and to increased chances of first-hand experience of foreign countries, the lens of international hierarchy through which many Japanese used to understand the rest of the world, began to lose its influence. Politically, however, growing tension with China and the persistence of history-related issues with Korea limited the possibility that Asianism would emerge as a viable option. Today, racial, cultural or civilizational affinity with Asia does not seem to play much of a role in shaping Japanese attitudes toward other nations. Instead, the sense of affinity appears to be aligned roughly with widely available democracy scores (such as Freedom House Scores, or Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index), with some notable exceptions such as South Korea (see Chart 2).

This pattern of distribution in Japanese citizens’ sense of affinity appears to provide some basis of support for the “value-oriented diplomacy” (kachikan gaikō) of the Abe Cabinet, which rhetorically emphasizes Japan’s allegiance to “universal values” such as freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and solidarity with other countries with which Japan shares such values. While value-oriented diplomacy has often been dismissed as a transparent attempt at normative containment of China, tense relations with a rising China provides only a partial explanation for it. The global financial crisis of 2008 aroused the fear among Japan’s policymakers that, due to a major shift in the global balance of power, Japan could no longer take for granted the continuation of a liberal, rule-based international order within which Japan has thrived. Events like Brexit and the coming of the Trump administration have only strengthened this fear. Paradoxically, it appears that the crisis of the liberal international order seems to have strengthened Japan’s commitment to the “universal values” of liberal, democracy, at least at the level of diplomatic rhetoric.19

Although the maintenance of a liberal international order may well be in Japan’s national interest, the foundations of “value-oriented diplomacy” remain shaky at the level of national identity. This is because, unlike pacifism, postwar Japan’s commitment to democracy and freedom never became a focal point of Japan’s national pride. Pacifism became an important pillar of postwar Japan’s identity in no small part because it allowed the Japanese to believe that, despite its defeat, Japan still had something valuable and unique to offer to the rest of the world. By contrast, within the community of democracies, Japan was a latecomer, so democratic identity could not offer the Japanese much as a source of national pride. For this reason, postwar Japan’s democratic identity never generated a robust policy of democracy promotion comparable to the much-celebrated “peace diplomacy” (heiwa gaikō). The Japanese government in the Cold War era was consistently reluctant to come out clearly in support of pro-democracy movements, whether the matter concerned Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or South Korea. Even in the post-Cold War era, when Japan’s Diplomatic Bluebook declared (in its 1993 edition) that “[l]iberty, democracy, and market economy…are universal values,” Japan’s approach to democracy promotion remained indirect, focused on preparing the socio-economic or legal-institutional conditions facilitating democracy.20 World Values Survey data for 2010-14 show that the percentage of Japanese who strongly believe in the importance of living “in a country that is governed democratically” is lower than in many other advanced democracies, which appears to indicate that in today’s Japan, democracy remains less important a part of national identity than is the case in many other Western democracies (See Table 1).

Historical dimension: Waning memory of the Second World War

Building and sustaining a democratic political system was an essential precondition for postwar Japan to be allowed back into the international society. The desire to maintain a positive national identity in the context of international society has continued to provide an incentive for Japan to maintain and upgrade its democracy. But the need to conform to the international standard and to maintain a positive self-image was not the main driver of democratization in postwar Japan. The successful consolidation of democracy in postwar Japan would not have been possible unless democracy was located organically in the nation’s historical narrative, and unless it was embraced for its own virtues. In this connection, it was significant that Japan had, of its own initiative, experimented with proto-democratic politics during the Taishō era, and that, through the symbolic emperor system, democracy was made compatible with what had been the central pillar in Japanese national identity. But the consolidation of democracy was facilitated by the negative experience of war and militarism, which may have served as a functional equivalent of “entrenched and serious conflict,” identified by some theorists of democratization as a necessary step in the genesis of democracy.21 Democracy was eagerly embraced by a majority of the Japanese precisely because the period of war and militarism had brought suffering and personal degradation to the Japanese – as well as to millions who suffered under Japanese aggression.22

Yet, historical memory concerning Japan’s role in WWII remained divisive, both within the country and internationally. Conservatives depicted Japan as having veered off the mainstream of historical development only since the 1930s, and only under adverse international circumstances. On this basis, they sought to rehabilitate Japan of the Meiji and Taishō eras, and to understand postwar Japan as a continuation of the achievements of the recent past. By contrast, the left-wing, led by Marxists, depicted Japanese history since the 1890s in a negative light, and envisioned postwar Japan as a country reborn, based on decisive negation of the entire imperial era. In addition, they rejected the conservative government that dominated postwar Japanese politics as an atavistic hangover from the imperial past. The right-wing persisted in the view that Japan had fought for the right cause of “liberation” of Asia, though this view remained rather marginal during the Cold-War era. Under the strong influence of the left-wing ideology in postwar Japan’s academia and journalism, many Japanese of the postwar era psychologically distanced themselves from the Japanese state—definitely from the prewar state, but also, to a significant degree, from the postwar Japanese state. While the Japanese in the postwar era retained a strong sense of national identity, many hesitated to identify with the Japanese state.23 Instead they were inclined to seek national pride in sectors such as the economy or culture.

The distancing from the state in postwar Japanese national identity also influenced the way in which the Japanese remembered the war. In postwar Japan, anti-war sentiments were widely shared, stretching across the progressive-conservative divide. But the memory of war as presented in the mainstream media tended to focus on suffering of the Japanese, including firebombing of Japanese cities, the dropping of the atomic bombs, rampant cases of starvation among frontline soldiers, etc. Stories of Japanese aggression and atrocities tended to conveniently drop out of sight or be given short shrift.24 A large part of this is no doubt explained by the desire of the Japanese (especially on the conservative side of the political spectrum) to avoid the discussion of past wrongs. This avoidance was facilitated by the fact that discussion in Japan took place in relative isolation from the outside world, aided by a high language barrier, and by the weakness of regional integration in the Asia Pacific.

At the same time, the character of Japanese memory was shaped also by the nature of postwar Japan’s national identity. To the extent that many Japanese kept their distance from the Japanese state, and to the extent that they saw “ordinary Japanese” as victims who were simply “visited with the horrors of war through the action of government” (to quote from the Preamble to the Constitution), it was difficult to view the war from the viewpoint of perpetrators. The mainstream narrative in Japan during the Cold-War era revolved around the determination “never again to fight a war.” Japan was never to fight, because in a war, ordinary people—ordinary Japanese above all—would suffer, at the hands of their own government. However self-absorbed it might seem, within the limited scope of postwar Japan’s public discourse, such a narrative was embraced in all sincerity, and it did serve to transform an aggressive empire into a peace-loving state. But soon, the Japanese memory of the war was to be shaken up by changes in the environment.

The reemergence of history related issues in Japan’s relations from the 1980s onwards had a number of causes. Democratization in authoritarian states such as South Korea, coupled with the loosening of Cold War tensions, opened up new political space where formerly unheard voices could be aired. The discrediting of Maoism encouraged the Chinese Communist Party to rely increasingly on nationalism to prop up the regime’s legitimacy. The enshrinement in 1978 of the seven class-A War criminals at the Yasukuni Shrine turned Japanese prime ministers’ visits to the shrine into a major diplomatic issue. Japanese newspaper reports on such issues as the contents of Japanese history textbooks and on the so-called “comfort women” issue helped to internationalize these issues.

With the eruption of the “history issue,” the debate in Japan concerning the memory of the war was transformed. On the one hand, there was greater attention to the history of Japan’s aggression and atrocities. But nationalistic outbursts in Japan were also conspicuous. Japan’s responsibility for past aggression decades after the war was unsettling to many Japanese of the postwar generation, because when faced with critical voices from outside, they could not easily distance themselves from the object of criticism. Thus, the history issue forced them to recognize that they cannot ignore the question of Japanese aggression and atrocities, even though they may not be personally responsible for them. A more explicitly political form of national identity began to emerge. Forced to face up to the nation’s negative past, some Japanese willingly acknowledged and embraced it, seeking to use history to shake up the conservative political mainstream. Many acknowledged it partially, and with varying degrees of reluctance, or simply avoided the issue (as was most often the case). But some came out in open defense of the wartime Japanese state, denying that Japan fought a war of aggression or committed atrocities in its pursuit of war. In my view, this new upsurge of historical revisionism is essentially an attempt to defend a positive self-image of Japan (including the wartime Japanese state) from what is regarded as “attacks” on the nation’s honor. However offensive and misguided, historical revisionism in Japan should not be seen as portending a revival of expansionist nationalism. Yet to the extent that it involves denial of past aggression and atrocities, it could not but exacerbate the tensions between Japan and its neighbors and strengthen the already widespread perception of Japan’s “inability to squarely face its past mistakes.”

During the 1990s, the Japanese government sought to address some of the contentious problems by issuing the 1993 Kono Statement on the “comfort women” question, the 1995 Murayama Statement apologizing for the damages brought by Japan’s war, and the 1998 Japan-ROK joint declaration, in which Prime Minister Obuchi apologized for Japanese colonial rule. Japan’s apology diplomacy has continued, with prime ministers Koizumi and Abe issuing war apologies on the occasion of the sixtieth and seventieth anniversary of the end of WWII, and with Prime Minister Kan issuing an apology on colonial rule over Korea in 2010. But in more recent years, domestic Japanese support for taking additional measures to resolve issues related to the war has diminished considerably. China’s massive military build-up and assertive foreign policy have strengthened the suspicion in Japan that China is utilizing history issues for gaining political advantage. The festering of the “comfort women” issue with South Korea even after the “final and irreversible” solution was reached at the end of 2015 has exasperated many Japanese. As of this writing, it appears difficult to contain historical controversies within manageable bounds, let alone resolve them.


Viewed from a long-term historical perspective, Japan may be regarded as a country which has achieved considerable successes in building democracy, while preserving a distinctive national identity.  It is not easy to draw generalizable lessons from Japan’s experience because the success in Japan’s democratization was facilitated by a combination of favorable (and not easily replicated) circumstances, including the achievement of national unity at an early stage, the weakness of resistance to importation of Western ideas and institutions, and the fact that the negative experience of military dictatorship prepared the ground for embracing democratic values. Nevertheless, it is worth venturing a few general observations.

First, the Japanese case demonstrates that the international normative environment can play a significant and positive role in facilitating the process of democratization. During the Meiji and Taishō eras, and again during the postwar decades, democratization in Japan advanced during those periods when democratization of the domestic political system was considered necessary for improvement in international status. Conversely, during the 1930s, when international society was split ideologically between democratic, communist, and fascist camps, Japanese politics lost its anchor and drifted toward military dictatorship. Even today, peer pressure from other democracies continues to provide strong incentives for Japan to keep upgrading its political practices. Democracy, of course, is not a show put on for the enjoyment of international audiences. It is something to be achieved for the benefit of the people themselves. But external incentives could strengthen the hand of pro-democracy forces domestically, and democratic experiment, even if it is carried out as a mere show, might end up creating new constituencies for democratization.

At the same time, the case of Japan also illustrates the importance of demonstrating that democracy is compatible with those traditions and institutions which constitute the core of the country’s national identity. In Japan, reconciliation between democracy and national identity required devastating defeat in a total war. Moreover, defeat in the war did not automatically lead to this outcome. A viable solution was found only as a result of determined effort by the Japanese officials to save at least a semblance of continuity of the imperial institution, and through the wisdom of the US occupation authorities in allowing its continuation.

Obviously, the impact of national identity on Japanese democracy is not all positive. One undercurrent throughout this essay has to do with the persistence of parochialism in Japanese national identity. Due to its historical development on the distant periphery of more advanced civilizations, Japan appears to have developed an intellectual habit of viewing the rest of the world through the lenses of imported worldviews, while keeping Japan itself exempt from wholesale application of universalist thinking.25 This attitude has allowed Japan to flexibly import technologies, institutions, and ideas from overseas, while preserving a distinctive sense of identity. But it also poses some challenges when Japan seeks to play a leadership role in a diverse and globalized international society, for to the extent that Japan itself is treated as a unique country, there tends to be a gap between Japan’s universalist rhetoric and more parochial domestic practices. Parochialism in national identity may also be a complicating factor in resolving issues related to the history of WWII.

Another and related worry concerns the possible impact of rapid demographic changes. Throughout the modern era, Japan has been a prototypical nation-state, a condition which has generally facilitated Japan’s development as a democracy. For the vast majority of Japanese citizens, “the Japanese” (Nihonjin) have been understood not only as a group of people sharing common citizenship. In a country where the vast majority of citizens cannot trace their ancestry beyond the archipelago, “the Japanese” have been understood simultaneously as an ethnic group, speaking a national language, and sharing the same “culture.” This dense conception of Japanese-ness was a strong asset which helped in the process of Japan’s nation-building, which in turn provided a stable basis for building a democratic political system. However, this view has made it difficult for Japan to integrate the increasing number of minority population. With the rapidly aging population, and with the growing presence of foreign residents in the country, the possibility cannot be excluded that the Japanese polity might at one point be seized by a sense of national crisis, which may arouse xenophobic outbursts. How to manage the rapid shift in demography is the key challenge that Japanese democracy faces in the coming decades.

The future of democracy is ultimately in the hands of the people in each country. What the international community can do is only to provide a favorable environment. But for this to happen, the “established” democracies must begin by rebuilding their own citizens’ trust in the democratic process by addressing the problems of economic disparity and ideological acrimony that afflict them. What is needed most is perhaps to recover the sense that, regardless of their many differences, the citizens are involved in a shared project to ensure a better future for the nation as a whole. Only through regaining confidence in democracy at home will the “established” democracies be able to muster the strength, patience, and wisdom required for promoting democracy abroad.

1. Dunkwart A. Rustow, “Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model,” Comparative Politics 2, no. 3 (1970), 350-51.

2. Gilbert Rozman, ed., East Asian National Identities: Common Roots and Chinese Exceptionalism (Washington, DC and Stanford, CA: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2012), 9.

3. Sakamoto Takao, Meiji kokka no kensetsu 1871-1890 (Tokyo: Chūō Kōron, 1999), pp. 28-32.

4. Ibid., 22.

5. Sakamoto Takao, Shōchō tennō seido to Nihon no raireki (Tokyo: Toshi Shuppan, 1994). For a contrasting view, see Kevin M. Doak, A History of Nationalism in Modern Japan: Placing the People (Leiden: Brill, 2006).

6. Tadashi Anno, National Identity and Great-Power Status in Russia and Japan: Non-Western Challengers to the International Order (London: Routledge, 2018), 141-42; Sakamoto Takao, Meiji kokka, 132-34.

7. Bitō Masahide, Nihon no kokkashugi: ‘Kokutai’ shisō no keisei (Tokyo: Iwanami, 2014).

8. John Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: Norton, 2000), 287-301

9. Oguma Eiji, Minshu to aikoku: Sengo Nihon no nashonarizumu to kōkyōsei (Tokyo: Shin’yōsha, 2002), 165; Nagai Ken’ichi, et al., eds., Shiryō Nihonkoku kenpō, vol. 2 (Tokyo: Sanseidō, 1986), 296-324.

10. Satō Seizaburō “Bakumatsu Meiji shoki ni okeru taigai ishiki no shoruikei,” in Satō Seizaburō, et al., eds., Kindai Nihon no taigai taido (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press. 1974), 21.

11. Shōgo Suzuki, Civilization and Empire: Japan’s Encounter with European International Society (London: Routledge, 2009).

12. Mitani Taichirō, Taishō demokurashī ron: Yoshino Sakuzō no jidai, 3rd ed. (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 2013).

13. Marius Jansen, “On Foreign Borrowing,” in Albert M. Craig, ed., Japan: A Comparative View (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979), 18-48.

14. Michael A. Hogg and Dominic Abrams, Social Identifications: A Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations and Group Processes (London: Routledge, 1988), 54-56.

15. Tadashi Anno, National Identity and Great-Power Status, 132-33

16. “Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida’s policy speech at the National Diet, delivered on January 26, 1951.”

17. Gaikō ni kansuru yoron chōsa, But according to another series of surveys conducted by the Jiji Tsūshin Press Agency, the Japanese had a more favorable impression of the US than of China during the same period, with the difference in net favorability (defined as the percentage of people having a favorable view minus the percentage of people having an unfavorable view) between the two countries averaging about 10% during the 1970s and 1980s. See Murotani Katsumi, “Nihonjin no suki na kuni, kirai na kuni,” Chūō chōsahō, no. 575,

18. Hatano Sumio, “Nihon gaikō ni okeru Ajiashugi no kinō: Sono hikari to kage,” in Shindō Eiichi, et al., eds., Sengo Nihon seiji to heiwa gaikō (Tokyo: Hōritsu Bunkasha, 2007), 111-19.

19. Tadashi Anno, “Values in Japanese Foreign Policy: Between ‘Universal Values’ and the Search for Cultural Pluralism,” in Krishnan Srinivasan, James Mayall, Fredrik Erixon, and Sanjay Pulipaka, eds., Values in Foreign Policy: Investigating Ideals and Interests (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2019).

20. Michael R. Auslin and Daniel E. Bob, eds., U.S.-Japan Approaches to Democracy Promotion (Washington, DC: Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, 2017).

21. Dunkwart A. Rustow, “Transitions to Democracy,” 361.

22. John Dower, Embracing Defeat.

23. Murakami Yasusuke, Shin chūkantaishū no jidai: Sengo Nihon no kaibōgaku (Tokyo: Chūō Kōron, 1983), 207-09.

24. James J. Orr, Victim as Hero: Ideologies of Peace and National Identity in Postwar Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001), 3.

25. Maruyama Masao, Senchū to sengo no aida: 1936-1957 (Tokyo: Misuzu Shobō, 1976), 132.