‘Ukeikasuru Nihon seiji’ (‘Japan’s Politics Leaning to the Right’)

Nakano Koichi, Ukeikasuru Nihon seiji (Japan’s Politics Leaning to the Right), (Tokyo: Iwanami Shinsho, 2015)

On the day when the “Abe statement” in commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of WWII is issued, this review article considers one Japanese critic’s analysis of what lies behind the statement. After all, Abe is but the most recent, if also far the most prominent champion of the rightward and revisionist drift in Japanese politics. Rather than focus narrowly on which keywords he and his cabinet decided to insert or exclude in the statement, Nakano Koichi probes the big picture of how Japan has been changing in domestic politics and also in policies that influence bilateral ties, including those with the United States. While his book says little about the realist forces in regional security that shape Japan’s policymaking environment, it clearly sets forth the trajectory of domestic change and some comparative dimensions.

How should Abe Shinzo’s tenure as prime minister be seen in the light of changes in Japan’s politics and policies over three decades? How are contradictions between a realist foreign policy towards the United States and a revisionist approach towards South Korea and historical identity likely to be resolved? Was the tense relationship between Japanese and US leaders in the aftermath of Abe’s December 2013 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine a harbinger of future relations or an aberration we can forget in light of the upbeat Abe visit to Washington in April 2015? Is the rightward drift in Japanese politics similar to that in Great Britain since Margaret Thatcher and the United States since Ronald Reagan or are its roots in prewar Japan most salient? These are questions that came to mind as I read Nakano’s well-informed book.

Nakano sheds light on a tendency so far obscured in coverage of Japan: the link between the revisionist, right wing sentiment that their country is under siege and needs to find a path to “normalcy” and the underside of growing reliance on an ally whose way of thinking looms as an obstacle to the right wing’s true aspirations. In fact, Nakano’s book is not primarily about foreign policy. It can serve as a history of Japan’s domestic politics since the 1980s (including coverage back to the 1950s), an analysis of structural conditions that have been conducive to the rise of the right, and, also, a comparative interpretation of Japanese, British, and US political change. Indeed, the final chapter even explores conditions for the revival of a liberal-left coalition. This review, however, approaches the book from the specific angle of how it answers the questions I have raised above. As a critic of Abe’s domestic agenda, Nakano says little about the realist case for Abe’s foreign policy agenda, but he can help us to understand linkages between rightist thinking in regard to both agendas.

Nakano observes that historical revisionist politicians now are the mainstream in the LDP, and many are found in Japan’s other political parties. While they speak of the path to a “normal Japan” as modernizing or long overdue updating, he disagrees, attributing the shift of Japan to the rightists to a 30-year process led by the political elite, which has had its ups and downs but has succeeded in moving public opinion in that direction. As the shift was occurring with four prime ministers (Nakasone, Hashimoto, Koizumi, and Abe) playing a leading role, a qualitative change occurred in the nature of the right wing into what Nakano calls the Shinuha Rengo (new right alliance). It stands for traditional values and the restoration of social order, similar to the movements in Great Britain under Margaret Thatcher and the United States under Ronald Reagan. Nakano sees similarities in the effort to free companies from government control, but he argues that the New Right in Japan has given priority to forging a strong state, even amidst talk of management, through enterprises rather than through the public sector and decentralization in support of local society. Top-down reforms bypass civil society, and international relations to unite the nation are about strengthening the state rather than protecting civil rights and freedoms. The notion of restoring Japan means escaping from the postwar regime, which combines elements of rethinking historical consciousness and altering the balance within society. Nakano further argues that in seeking a paternalistic state with loyalty centered on it, the right wing is affirming modern Japan on the basis of pre-modern values, rejecting the modern West. The historical meaning of the Yasukuni Shrine—seen as legitimating the war as well as respecting traditional culture—elevates statism, diluting the message of neo-liberalism also coming from the New Right.

Economically and militarily, Japan is strengthening ties to the United States, aware of vulnerabilities that cannot be overcome otherwise. However, now that the political elite is free from the Cold War era balance with the progressives and has cast aside the old conservative stress on the Yoshida Doctrine prioritizing economic development over an independent foreign policy and constitutional reform, it is striving for more distance on other dimensions. Already by 1980, plans were drawn for expanding non-military diplomacy, including cultural diplomacy, under Foreign Minister Ohira Masayoshi, but it was Nakasone a few years later who advanced the New Right agenda with the claim that this would be the way to contribute to international society. Nakano describes his real goal as restoring prewar values, i.e., community, state, individual duty, and etc. Given the constraints of international society and public opinion, Nakasone was limited in what he could accomplish, e.g, making one visit to the Yasukuni Shrine and then agreeing not to go again. Indeed, his advisors were mostly from Ohira’s brain trust with the old conservative leanings. A transition had begun toward a new type of conservatism, but it would take time or new conditions.

Japan’s conservative political elite is constrained by its narrow kokkashugi views. By these are meant thinking that puts state first, minimizing individual rights and other forces that would limit the state’s capacity to reshape society and inculcate values.
The obsession in elite circles with the historical revisionist campaign in 2014-2015 targeting Asahi Shimbun and, later, historians and newspapers abroad, compounds the one-sidedness in treating South Korea. Whereas the neo-conservatives at first showcased their internationalism, as revisionists from the second half of the 1990s became the mainstream of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), they latched onto issues, such as textbooks, the Yasukuni Shrine, and “comfort women” that undercut this theme with anti-foreign inclinations. Nakano sees Hashimoto’s tenure as critical in this sharp transition.

The rise of kokkashugi, promoted by Nakasone in still unpromising conditions, was accelerated by the backlash to the pragmatic reconciliation steps culminating in the Murayama statement of 1995. The discrediting of the left, the adoption of the new electoral system, the collapse of the bubble economy, the end of the Cold War, and the targeting of foreign policy officials and other bureaucrats are among the factors conducive to the rise of this movement. Nakano points to organizations from the 1990s that championed its causes as well as to structural changes inside Japan that contributed to its political success. He is doubtful about the media’s role as a check.

The balance against excess centralization in Japan was long sustained by the weight of the progressive camp, customary limitations on the prime minister’s office as in understandings about bureaucratic bailiwicks, and reliance on LDP factionalism to limit the aspirations of the prime minister. One-by-one these checks have fallen, leaving Japan without critical safeguards of individual freedoms found elsewhere. The Koizumi era witnessed many changes in this direction, as taboos were falling.

In the critical period from the end of the 1990s through the first half of the 2000s, as neo-conservatives replaced the old conservatives in a massive electoral turnover, strengthening ties with the unilateral, neoconservativism in the United States was made easier. Nakano also agues that the linkage with global neoliberal arguments was conducive to this shift. The United States figures into the analysis as a source of legitimation, but also as a source of criticism, which Japanese rightists still confront.

Into this historical context, Nakano places Abe. He traces Abe’s objectives, points to various policies such as the secrecy law, and explains the motivations driving Abe’s choices. Readers are alerted to the right wing’s long-term agenda more than to the immediate calculations to pass a particular law or overcome a temporary impasse.

Nakano reviews Abe’s rise since he entered the Diet in 1993, showcasing his active leadership role in the transition from old, postwar conservatism to neo-conservative advocacy and policies. Abe is both representative of a rising political elite and the central figure in putting its agenda in the forefront. His departure from office will open the door for changes in the agenda, but the momentum remains with the elite he represents. While Nakano ends his book with ideas for reversing this trend, he does not give readers a strong basis to expect such a reversal in the near future.

The agenda of kokkashugi is to transform education with a new outlook on the history and culture of Japan, escaping from the postwar regime—not only its pacifist isolationism on security matters, but its welcoming of political diversity and limits on the power of the state. Its perspective is that all of Japan’s modern wars were for the safety of the country. The abductions issue in 2002 shifted the focus from Japan as victimizer to Japan as victim. Abe rode this issue to political prominence. His focus was to arouse the Japanese public rather than to coordinate with South Korea, and both to demonize North Korea as much as possible and to leave the door open to talks with it centered on Japan’s preoccupation. The image of an independent actor dealing with its own grievances bolsters the case for a strong, protective state.

The targets of kokkashugi include textbooks that are not in line with political will, foreign media, and academics who write critically of Japan’s revisionism. Nakano sees this state-centered doctrine as a threat to civil society and the freedoms that Japanese have enjoyed since the postwar era. He seems to find it more invidious than neo-conservative doctrines in Great Britain and the United States, harking back to some of the abusive uses of state power characteristic of the period before 1945.

At the core of Nakano’s message is the point of view that Japan’s rightward drift is different in important respects from similar transformations elsewhere. Failure to come to grips with Japan’s historical behavior and how it is regarded elsewhere is a decisive factor, but so too is a lingering image of traditional state-society relations and structural conditions that help to sustain it. Comparative analysis is a small part of this book, but it is suggestive about the value of conducting deeper studies.

Nakasone and Koizumi advanced their agendas for kokkashugi with the warmest ties ever to the United States during periods of the most conservative Republican administrations, when reliable “pipes” helped to smooth linkages. Nakano could have said more about the dilemma of South Korea since it is the main target of the revisionists and a main focus of US leaders, including Republicans, seeking to turn Japanese foreign policy in a more realist direction. Aware of this, the Abe regime and like-minded neo-conservatives have sought to change US thinking about Seoul: it is emotional and unreliable, it is under China’s sway, it is the source of frictions with Tokyo, and it is a far less important US ally in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. At a time of heightened Sino-US tensions and US defense needs in 2000-2002 and 2012-2015, the possibility of this tradeoff between a closer alliance and greater leeway for revisionism seemed real. The hope is that US leaders will accept revisionism as just “healthy nationalism.” Eventually, it will have to recognize that it needs Japan more.

Those around the Abe regime are optimistic that a Republican victory in 2016 would clear the way for US acceptance of revisionist Japan, quieting criticism of Abe in return for prioritizing loyalty in the geopolitical strategy against China. While in military and economic matters, the new right will follow the United States more closely, its price is to be given a pass in its pursuit of kokkashugi. Yet, the Obama administration has refused to make this bargain, expressing alarm about strong kokkashugi even as it welcomes Abe’s approach to Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and national security. In Congress, there has been growing alarm about Japan’s revisionism, Nakano notes, but he could have added, consistent with his overall argument, that Republican control makes it easier for other priorities to take center stage. To the extent that Japan presents itself as an outcaste in international society refusing to follow the strictures of political correctness, it can take solace that many Republicans would be sympathetic to this argument. For the moment, however, intense propaganda to convince Americans about the justice of Japan’s historical case is not successful.

Prospects for US-Japan relations are left unclear by Nakano. Viewed from Tokyo, the Obama administration is a barrier to the bargain that is sought, and Abe is likely to remain ambivalent in dealing with it. Making an end run around it, as Israeli leader Netanyahu has attempted, has little promise, given the daunting symbolism of the Yasukuni Shrine and “comfort women.” Cultivating ties to long-standing “friends” of Japan poses the problem that they are mainly realists, who prioritize improving ties between Japan and South Korea. Nakano’s view is that, despite setbacks in winning acceptance of its revisionist and kokkashugi agenda, the advent of a Republican administration would give new life to efforts to cut a grand bargain, whereby ties would be viewed as so strong that Japan would essentially have carte blanche on its rightist agenda. This is a cynical view of Republican adherence to universal values.

As for which image is likely to prevail—that of a US-Japan tense standoff in the first quarter of 2014 or that of US-Japan accord in the second quarter of 2015—, Nakano gives us little reason to expect anything but a seesaw ahead, given the intensity of the neoconservative agenda. He does not figure into the calculations the impact of international relations, especially with China. Troubled Sino-US relations appear to give more leverage to Japan, especially if Sino-Japanese tensions are not foremost.

Roh Moo-hyun’s targeting of Japan in the mid-2000s is mentioned, but coverage of South Korea is minimal in this book despite frequent mention of “comfort women” as a wedge issue for the rise of the revisionists. There is enough here, however, to be aware that Tokyo’s treatment of Seoul is a test of balance between realism in dealing with the United States, China, and North Korea, and revisionism in focusing on historical vindication and pride even at a cost to diplomatic objectives. Nakano leaves no doubt that the latter takes precedence; so Abe’s treatment of South Korea does not require more extensive explanation. It is a litmus test of Japan’s priorities.

The implications of this book for reconciliation in East Asia are rather pessimistic. If Japan overcomes the troubled times of 2013-2014 with more regular summits, there is little likelihood of increased trust, given its revisionist historical obsessions. Without considering how China or South Korea may share responsibility for recent distrust, Nakano’s treatment of Japan’s current political elite offers little basis for optimism.

Nakano warns that Japan-US relations are more fragile than many think. There is potential for what he labels “infantile anti-Americanism” if and when the two wings of Abe’s New Right coalition fall apart. After all, the revisionists have only begun to realize their far-reaching agenda. On domestic matters, neo-conservatives may not agree to cultural wars—similar to the divisions faced by the Republican Party as an extreme wing has become obsessed with a narrow array of issues. In international relations, the contradiction between realist and revisionist aspirations also poses a threat, especially to relations with the United States, which revisionists are likely to blame for pressure to point Japan on a more realist course and refrain from moves that would alienate it from the international community, especially South Korea. In building a coalition of the right, Abe and several predecessors have been able to overcome internal contradictions. This is increasingly unlikely in the coming years, and the United States may well bear the brunt of the clashes that ensue. After all, it is the ultimate revisionist target as well as the main external support for the realists.

  • Hitokiri 1989

    Nakano’s characterization of the Republicans as rather simplistic. For one I find it doubtful that the Republicans, a party that prides itself on its supposed dedication to the military and American exceptionalism could ever accept the revisionist narrative that Japan were the victims of Western aggression and only bombed Pearl Harbor in self-defense. Also Nakano ignores the fact that Abe during his time as PM in 2007 was forced to admit and apologise on the issue of comfort women to Pres. George W Bush. There is no guarantee that a Republican administration would be accommodating of the revisionist historical narrative as the revisionist line that Japan was a mere victim of “American aggression” will never be accepted by the Republican Party.