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Monday, October 2, 2017

Neo-Nationalism and Identity in Japan

Over the past year I have been paying attention to a national scandal here in Japan that is centered around a kindergarten here in Osaka.  (The school is not far from where I was biking a few weeks ago along the Yodo River.)  The larger context of the scandal is the emergence of nationalist movements which are provoking debates over Japanese identity.

The Tsukamoto Kindergarten (école maternelle is a private school with some very public supporters including the wife of the current prime minister.  Elements of the curriculum are definitely on the very conservative side of the political spectrum and are meant to instill pride and patriotism in Japanese children.  Children stand before the Japanese flag, bow to a portrait of the Emperor, recite the Imperial Rescript on Education (1890) and learn what are called "pre-war" (World War II) values.  Here is a short video filmed at the school that shows a few of these activities.  (Note that uniforms are not something particular to this school, but are common in public and private schools.)

The scandal was not so much about the curriculum (though criticism of it abounds) as it was about anti-foreigner comments by school officials and corruption. The corruption is said to have occurred when the Japan government sold a piece of land to the school's owners at a very good (some say ridiculously low) price so they could construct an elementary school .   The bigotry was discovered in letters and pamphlets issued by the school with statements like, “The problem is that people who have inherited the spirit (of Koreans) exist in our country with the looks of Japanese people” and reports that  the school administrators were espousing belief in the "uniformity of the Japanese race."  
And for the cherry on the top, the school's principal is a member of a Far Right organization called Nippon Kaigi (The Japan Conference).  Lest you think that this is a marginal organization with few members, think again.  Nippon Kaigi is reported to have around 38,000 members but more importantly it enjoys strong support from the prime minister, members of his cabinet, and parliament. 

Here is a short video from France 24 in English about the organization which I think is fairly balanced reporting.  Looking beyond the title of the piece, The Return of Japan's Imperialists, Nippon Kaigi members are interviewed and give their side of the story.

This is a classic modern battle over national identity, one that is very similar to such debates going on elsewhere.  The tactics are also very familiar:  revising the curriculum, arguing for a different interpretation of historical events, creating a top-down movement led by political and social elites, and using religious, philosophical or ethical systems to support a return to an older (and ostensibly better) framework of national values. (And here I deftly avoid the question of whether or not Emperor worship is a religion.)  It reveals a belief that it is possible to construct a different national reality through institutions, the education of children, and persuasive efforts led by political elites.  And it makes me wonder to what extent these tactics, even in a democratic society, are a way of circumventing the wishes of the citizenry.   I do not see great enthusiasm for the prime minister's commitment to a more militarized society and yet, he seems to be moving forward anyway.

Ultimately, the big questions for me are:  How successful is this movement likely to be?  In other words, is Japanese national identity going to change significantly in the near future as a result of neo-nationalism?  (Perhaps it has already changed in some ways.)  And, if so, how might it change citizenship laws and immigration policies?  Or to put it another way do migrants and naturalized citizens have good reasons to be very concerned about where this might go?  

A suivre....


Inaka Nezumi said...

It is something I keep an eye on, but I don't feel very worried about it. I don't think Japan is likely to become as nationalistic and militaristic as, say, the US is these days. (Though if you had asked me 35 years ago, I wouldn't have expected that of the US either, so never say never, I guess.)

It will be interesting to see how the upcoming snap election turns out. The situation is very fluid right now, but as of today, the three "poles" that are shaping up are Abe's LDP, Koike's Kibou no Tou, and the liberal and leftist elements. The former two parties share similar stances on changing the constitution and the security agreement with the US, as well as ties to Nippon Kaigi (which they try to hide or disclaim), while the latter groups oppose any change. So technically, "liberal" and "conservative" are misnomers here, since it is the "conservatives" who want to change things, and the "liberals" aim to keep the status quo. Koike also has some liberal ideas (from a US perspective) for social policy, though whether they go beyond lip service (like Abe's "Womenomics") remains to be seen. So kind of tricky to really characterize all the parties.

I personally think Japan should be more sovereign and independent of the US, so am not absolutely opposed to changes to the constitution, though exactly what kinds of changes are proposed will be critical. In the end, any such changes need to be ratified by nationwide referendum, so I will at least get a chance to vote directly on whether I approve of whatever gets proposed. That prospect makes me feel more empowered than I have in years -- how often does one get to vote directly on one's own constitution?

Tim said...

What is interesting about Abe vis a vis Trump is despite the past perception of Abe being a right winger Abe has moved very quickly after Trump dumped the TPP to sign a Free Trade deal with the EU. Why this is important is the EU in its free trade agreements unlike the US includes a "values clause" that Japan is apparently quite eager to sign. I find this notable as there are a lot of scholars who believe that the EU and US will NEVER sign an FTA of their own as the US will never accept the EU's "values" clause especially with a Republicans President and Congress. Yet Abe for all his far right hardline reputation seems quite eager to signup to European values.

Below is a copy of the so called Framework or "Values" agreement the EU is has already signed with New Zealand and is going to sign with Japan later this year.

Similarily Agreements also exist between the EU and Australia, Canada, and South Korea but NOT the US.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Nezumi-san, Sounds like how I approach the Front National in France. I keep an eye on it. As you say, things can change very quickly. I never thought to see a united Germany or the fall of the URRS in my time. And I know exactly what you mean about "translating" political parties. The US terms and context don't apply elsewhere. The more I look into it the more I think you're right about Japanese sovereignty. What I'm less sure of is how soveriegn they can be given that China does intend to be THE power in the region. That would be a tricky negotiation.

Tim, Interesting. Perhaps the answer is in how the agreement is interpreted. How meaningful is that clause? Americans are so focused on contracts and the letter of the law. In other places it's the relationship that really matters and everything else is negotiable.