Feeling Triumphalist in Tokyo

The Real Reasons Nationalism Is Back in Japan

Visiting hours: Shinzo Abe at the Yasukuni shrine, Tokyo, December 2013.
Visiting hours: Shinzo Abe at the Yasukuni shrine, Tokyo, December 2013. (Toru Hanai / Courtesy Reuters)

Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival. BY DAVID PILLING. Penguin Press, 2014, 400 pp. $29.95.

Japan is back in the news. This time, however, the headlines are not about Japan’s recession or the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Rather, in the past year, news coverage of Japan has focused on the country’s assertive new tone under Shinzo Abe, who returned to the prime minister’s office in 2012, five years after resigning from the post after a single year in office. Abe’s economic platform -- a mix of fiscal stimulus, quantitative easing, and structural reforms dubbed “Abenomics” -- has lifted the Japanese stock market and stirred optimism about Japan’s economic prospects.

Meanwhile, Abe has stoked a patriotic fervor, promoting Japan as a “beautiful country,” untainted by the ugly episodes in its past. In a sharp break from the country’s postwar international posture -- which, mindful of the transgressions of Japan’s imperial era, emphasized humility and circumspection -- Abe and his allies consistently express pride in Japan’s national strength and maintain that during the twentieth century, Japan behaved no worse than any other colonial power.

Abe has built his long political career around such themes. During his first, brief stint as prime minister, in 2006–7, he implemented a conservative education policy and upgraded Japan’s Defense Agency to a full-fledged, cabinet-level defense ministry. Yet during that first tenure as Japan’s leader, Abe was careful not to provoke the Chinese and refrained from visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to Japan’s war dead that honors a number of political and military leaders convicted of committing war crimes during World War II.

Abe has taken a different path this time around. Japan’s relations with China and South Korea have deteriorated in recent years, but Abe nevertheless chose to visit the shrine last December, prompting predictable howls of outrage from Beijing and Seoul. The visit signaled that on matters both domestic and international, Abe has become much bolder. What remains unclear is the extent to which his popularity and political strength reflect a deep-seated shift among the Japanese public in favor of a more assertive, nationalist foreign policy -- one that could prove a source of trouble as tensions in Asia rise to levels not seen in decades.

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