Resurgent Nationalism: Interpreting European and Japanese Trends

Among the most striking political trends of 2016 has been the increasing influence of nationalist parties and populist movements, notably in Europe and the United States. Recent years have seen a marked shift in the composition of Europe’s legislatures, with far-right and nationalist parties making gains in several countries’ parliamentary elections and nationalist sentiment and rhetoric playing a substantial role in influencing Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. This recent surge of nationalist politics is not strictly a Western phenomenon, however. Nationalism has been a powerful player in Japan’s contemporary political landscape, with President Shinzo Abe’s ambitions of revising the nation’s postwar constitution and expanding its military role at the forefront of his foreign policy.

Europe has long been a destination for immigrants and asylum seekers, though recently the continent’s commitment to multiculturalism has been tested by an unprecedented influx of refugees from conflict zones like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In 2015, over one million refugees arrived in Europe, many making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean and a significant number settling in Germany (last year, Germany received more than 476,000 new asylum applications). The migrant crisis has stirred nationalist passions in neighboring transit states like Hungary, whose prime minister, Viktor Orban, recently held a ‘Brexit’-style referendum to reject an EU plan for migrant quotas for member states. Orban frames his opposition to refugee settlement in overtly nationalist terms—at a conference earlier this year, he explicitly denounced the EU’s internationalism, explaining that he has “to protect [his] own borders” in accordance with his “national responsibility” and that he “[does not] believe in a European solution.” While the referendum turnout was slightly below the 50 percent threshold required to declare the results valid, 98 percent of participants voted against accepting the EU-mandated minimum number of refugees, indicating that the prime minister’s nationalist rhetoric resonates with a significant portion of Hungary’s population.

The electoral success of France’s National Front (FN), a controversial nationalist party headed by Marine Le Pen, highlights the growing significance of the populist dimension of European nationalism. France has long struggled to integrate its large North African immigrant population (in 1961 French police massacred more than two hundred Algerians in Paris), but a recent spate of terrorist attacks in major French cities has generated significant anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant backlash, fueling the rise of right-wing populist movements such as the FN. Typical of European nationalist parties, the FN employs a grassroots rather than top-down approach, eschewing large national party operations and instead directly translating popular discontent into votes. This strategy has seen considerable success in economically depressed regions of the country such as the northeastern city of Hayange, where earlier this year Le Pen gave a speech arguing that France had fundamentally changed in the wake of the Paris attacks and urging supporters to “be proud of [themselves], of [their] values.”

As the above cases make clear, nationalism in European countries stems from a sense of loss of national or cultural identity due to multiculturalism, large-scale immigration, and the pan-European vision of the EU. Populist fervor, evident in passionate FN rallies and the heated Brexit debate, is a defining characteristic of modern European nationalism. And while nationalism in Europe today is partially concerned with foreign policy decisions, especially those related to the EU, foreign policy is not at the core of the nationalist message. Rather, European nationalism is primarily a reaction to domestic changes, be they economic or demographic, and thus can be considered to have an “internal” focus. However, this is not the case in Japan.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of contemporary Japanese nationalism is its lack of emphasis on domestic issues. Unlike Western European nations, Japan is not a popular destination for migrants, due to factors such as its greater distance from countries like Iraq and Syria that refugees are leaving and its lack of birthright citizenship to deter large-scale immigration. Japan is also one of the world’s most ethnically homogenous states—98.5 percent of the country’s population is of Japanese descent, while the largest minority group, Koreans, makes up only 0.5 percent. (In contrast, 5.8 percent of France’s population was of North African origin in 2005.) Although far-right fringe groups (“uyoku dantai” in Japanese) are known to bombard Tokyo’s Korean neighborhoods with megaphone-wielding “sound vans” blaring nationalist propaganda, tensions between Japanese and Koreans have not triggered the same populist reactions seen in France or Germany. This absence of populism is a crucial distinction between Japanese and European nationalist politics. While Europe’s right-wing parties have become infamous for their bellicose rhetoric and boisterous crowds, Japan’s leaders pursue nationalist policies on behalf of a relatively ambivalent public. A New York Times report on Abe’s push to officialize a more liberal reinterpretation of Japan’s postwar constitution noted that the recent Japanese parliamentary election lacked the “fiery populist emotion” of Brexit or the US presidential race, with interviewees expressing “resignation with the status quo” and “[seeing] few alternatives” to the Abe administration.

With few explicitly defined internal causes, Japanese nationalism is less concerned with questions of cultural identity than with asserting Japanese power on a broader East Asian stage. Abe’s successful campaign to give Japan’s military greater authority to participate in foreign conflicts, and his justification for passing the “reinterpretation” bills reflects the outward-looking nature of Japanese nationalist politics. Though Article IX of the Japanese constitution still prohibits the “use of force as means of settling international disputes,” the 2015 reinterpretation, passed into law in July, allows the Japanese military to defend allies in the case of existential threats to Japan.

Abe’s presentation of the bill as a precautionary response to “the security situation surrounding Japan … growing more severe” is not without a basis. East Asian regional tensions have soared as China’s military aspirations expand to Japan’s doorstep. Months after an international tribunal in The Hague declared that Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea lacked “legal or historical basis,” Japanese officials argued that Sino-Japanese relations have “deteriorated markedly” due to territorial disputes in the East China Sea.

Japan’s motivation to pursue nationalist policies has a strong historical basis as well, as the legacy of imperial Japan continues to sour relations between the country and its neighbors. China has continually accused Japan of downplaying the brutality of its colonial campaigns from the late nineteenth century to World War II, and controversies periodically arise over the presentation (and omission) of war crimes, including the infamous 1937 “Rape of Nanking,” in Japanese textbooks. The textbook controversy is not strictly a Sino-Japanese issue—just last year, the Japanese and Korean governments disputed the treatment of Japanese sex slavery in American history textbooks. Though the issue of imperial Japan’s legacy roughly recalls aspects of the European cases previously mentioned, such as a focus on national identity in the context of a broader region, Japan’s motivation for revisionism is more decidedly outward-looking. In other words, Abe isn’t visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, a military shrine that includes honors of Class A war criminals, in order to make a statement about inter-ethnic affairs inside Japan itself, but rather to project a more assertive national identity abroad. While a 2014 New York Times editorial argues that Abe’s nationalist program is not directed towards one specific country but “against Japan’s own history since World War II” and “the self-effacing post-war regime,” this is only partially true. Abe’s statements do indicate a desire to challenge and revise the postwar order that was introduced by the American occupation, but this conscious shift is not without context. It is undertaken with the overarching goal of projecting national self-confidence in response to East Asian regional tensions.

A comparison of the European and Japanese cases highlights the striking variation in contemporary nationalism, in terms both of its underlying causes and of its expressions. Nationalist movements in Europe today are marked by their populist character and overarching focus on questions of national identity, while nationalists in Japan take a more far-reaching and external view, reflecting a desire on the part of the national government to expand Japan’s regional power despite popular indifference. These differences are possibly rooted in the power dynamics of their respective regions—the presence of the EU diminishes the appeal of armed confrontation in Western Europe, while in East Asia there is no such super-national entity—though such an analysis is beyond the scope of this article. In any case, the emergence of influential nationalist movements in these two regions marks a significant political shift that presents challenges to both regional and global order.

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