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.

David Pilling’s book, Bending Adversity, offers a useful perspective on these questions. Pilling is the Asia editor of the Financial Times and served as the newspaper’s Tokyo bureau chief from 2002 to 2008. He draws on a wide range of literature and numerous interviews to shed light on the brand of conservative nationalism advocated by Abe and his allies. Pilling skillfully reveals the historical roots of Abe’s worldview and takes a relatively hopeful view of its likely impact on Japanese society and Japan’s relationships with its neighbors and the world. But a more thorough accounting of Japan’s recent past—especially a series of electoral reforms that have created incentives for politicians such as Abe to embrace a more aggressive form of nationalism—points to a far less sanguine conclusion.


The title of Pilling’s book refers to a Japanese proverb about transforming misfortune into fortune. The book frames Japan’s history as a tale of overcoming obstacles—thwarting the ambitions of Western colonial powers in the nineteenth century and recovering from a devastating defeat in World War II—while still struggling with profound limitations that hold the country back. Within the latter category, Pilling focuses on two themes: what he calls the “geographic tragedy” that has shaped Japan’s role in the world and the fact that, despite Japan’s remarkable postwar resilience, the war’s legacy has turned Japan into an “abnormal nation.”

In Pilling’s telling, Japan’s geography, that is, being a small island nation dwarfed by its massive neighbor, China, did not become tragic until 1853, when a U.S. naval delegation led by Commodore Matthew Perry arrived to coerce Japan into opening its ports to American trade and diplomacy. The world had shrunk around peaceful, insular Japan, and the country was suddenly thrust into the geopolitics of Western colonial ambitions. Japan’s leaders concluded that the only way to survive as an independent nation was to emulate the powerful Western countries that had already begun to project power into Asia: to become, in a sense, un-Asian. Japan rapidly modernized and soon became a colonizer itself, seeking to dominate its neighborhood. In Pilling’s view, at that point, Japan became “a ‘European’ Great Power somehow trapped by location and history.”

But the defeat in World War II brought Japan to its knees. Postwar Japan became a client state of the United States, hosting a large U.S. military presence. Its postwar economic success, however, provided the foundation for a new national identity. Japan had lost its empire and seen its military crushed and yet had nevertheless regained its status within the world. No other non-Western country could match its achievements. Still, the Japanese felt anxious about the fact that they were, in this crucial aspect, different from other prosperous countries. “Stripped of its right to have an army by its American-written pacifist constitution,” Japan, as Pilling puts it, “was an economic giant but a diplomatic dwarf.”

Again, it was the United States that shook Japanese leaders out of their comfort zone and kick-started debates about how to “normalize” Japan. Prompted by Washington, Tokyo contributed $13 billion (but no troops) to the U.S.-led Gulf War of 1990–91. But Japanese leaders were then shocked when Japan was the only major contributor to the war effort to not receive any formal thanks from Kuwait for helping drive out the Iraqi occupation.

That shock triggered the realization that soft power was no substitute for hard power, kicking off a domestic debate about how Japan should become a more normal nation. Broadly speaking, two camps emerged. The first group can be considered pro-American conservatives; they want Japan to become a more reliable ally of the United States by ending the era of pacifism and taking on more of the military responsibilities that the United States expects of Japan. The second camp acknowledges that the alliance with the United States must remain a cornerstone of Japan’s foreign policy but worry about linking Tokyo’s decisions too tightly to Washington’s agenda. This group is best understood as anti-clientelist: its members want Japan to became a normal nation and not remain a client state of the United States. As Pilling notes, the anti-clientelist group has lacked coherence and is divided on specific questions, such as whether to reform the Japanese constitution to eliminate its pacifist elements and what to do with the huge U.S. military bases in Okinawa.

The rapid rise of China further complicated this debate and produced another division, this time between a nationalist camp and a pro-Asian camp. (The contours of these two groups resemble those of the conservative and anti-clientelist camps, respectively, without exactly matching them.) The nationalists want Japan to maintain its “un-Asian” identity and do not want to apologize to the country’s neighbors for Japanese behavior during the imperial era. For them, Japan’s geography is no tragedy, but losing the country’s status as a “Western” power would be. In contrast, the pro-Asians want to make amends for Japan’s past aggression and deepen its political ties with China.

Paradoxically, Japanese nationalists, who often portray Japan’s “war guilt” as nothing but victor’s justice, nonetheless cling tightly to the alliance with the United States. Most share the view of Hisahiko Okazaki, a former diplomat who is very close to Abe, who told Pilling, “Japan had done fine so long as it was allied to either Britain or America.” Abe shares that perspective and wants to create stronger military ties with the United States, apparently untroubled by the inherent tension between remaining a junior partner in an alliance with a much stronger country and, at the same time, espousing a kind of Japanese exceptionalism. Abe is determined to push back against what he considers to be leftist, Chinese, and Korean propaganda about Japanese history. Furthermore, he sees the economy through a nationalist lens, viewing economic growth as a salve for the blow the Japanese suffered when, in 2010, China supplanted Japan as the world’s second-largest economy.


Although Pilling dislikes Abe’s nationalism, he does not see it as a major cause for alarm and doubts that the ideology will have much staying power. Pilling argues that Japan is now too internally diverse and too forward-looking to succumb to nationalist reveries about the past. This optimism may be related to his relative lack of interest in the institutional and political reforms that have occurred in Japan during the last 20 years. Yet it is only against the background of those reforms that one can understand the rise of nationalism in Japanese politics.
Contrary to Japan’s image as a country clinging to old habits, quite a lot has changed in its politics over the past two decades. In the 1990s, after the Gulf War had triggered Japan’s first attempt to become a “normal nation,” some senior politicians within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which at that point had ruled Japan for decades, proposed a major overhaul of the political system. Their goal was to replace the country’s bureaucratic, consensual policymaking process with a more decisive and overtly politicized one. They wanted a stronger prime minister selected by an electoral system in which two big parties would compete for power by presenting the public with two different political visions. To this end, Japan introduced a new electoral system in 1994.

Until that point, parliamentary elections in Japan had used a peculiar system in which voters cast a single ballot for one representative in a multimember district where up to a dozen candidates—including a few from the same party—would compete; the top three to five vote getters in each district would win office. The system created stark factional divisions within political parties and made it hard for voters to know exactly what the parties stood for. Politicians competed mostly on promises to maintain patronage systems in their home districts. As a result, national elections rarely revolved around party competition over major national issues, such as social welfare, national security, or economic policies. Strange as it may sound, under Japan’s old electoral rules, talking about significant national issues was not a savvy electoral strategy.

The electoral reform of the lower house of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, combined a first-past-the-post system with a proportional representation system. Three hundred members of the Diet are now elected by direct vote to represent single-member districts, similar to elections to the U.S. House of Representatives. The other 200 seats are awarded to the political parties according to the proportion of votes each party receives, similar to parliamentary elections in most western European countries.

The reform had a number of immediate effects. It eliminated party infighting during national elections, making interparty competition the new electoral focus. For the first time, political parties began to formulate party platforms on which their candidates campaigned. As intended, two dominant parties emerged, when a large opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), rose to challenge the long-dominant LDP. Although the parties were never sharply defined by ideological differences, the DPJ’s leadership consisted of pro-Asian anti-clientelists, while a core group within the LDP’s leadership maintained a paradoxical commitment to pro-American conservatism and Japanese nationalism.

The struggle between the two parties dramatically elevated the importance of party leaders, for two reasons. First, the new system allowed party leaders to shape their parties’ electoral messages and influence the process for nominating candidates. Second, since the public knew that a vote for a particular party effectively served as a vote for that party’s leader, the political skill, charisma, and electability of the party leader became critical, especially because Japan’s mix of a winner-take-all system and proportional representation now meant that a popular party leader could produce a landslide victory.

This new system profoundly changed the behavior of political parties and politicians. For the first time, the Japanese electoral system created incentives for ambitious politicians to specialize in important national policy issues. Political leaders in the LDP were quicker than those in the DPJ to discover that national security—and attendant appeals to nationalism—played particularly well during campaign season. Unlike economic or social welfare policies, patriotic calls to make Japan a beautiful or strong country did not face opposition from powerful interest groups and required few specific promises. Such themes also helped a party leader portray himself as a strong figure committed to defending the national interest.

Former LDP Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was the first conservative politician to come to power after the electoral reform had taken full effect. Koizumi himself appealed to nationalist sentiments by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. Although Koizumi succeeded in projecting an image as a leader unafraid of China and North Korea, his approach contributed to a deterioration of Chinese-Japanese relations. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Japanese government’s Cabinet Office, the percentage of the Japanese public that felt no “affinity” for China or tended not to feel such an affinity rose from 48 percent in 2003 to 63 percent in 2005.

That number fell back to 59 percent after the DPJ took power in 2009 but spiked again in 2010, to 78 percent, when tensions mounted over the disputed islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku by the Japanese and the Diaoyu by the Chinese. In 2010, right-wing Japanese politicians began to tap into public anger over Chinese claims to the islands. These politicians painted the Japanese government, then led by the DPJ, as weak and incompetent. In 2012, Shintaro Ishihara, a strident right-wing nationalist and then the governor of metropolitan Tokyo, began a fundraising campaign to purchase some of the islands, which at the time were privately owned. By threatening that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government would purchase the islands, Ishihara succeeded in pushing the DPJ government into nationalizing them, which provoked violent anti-Japanese protests in cities across China. By 2012, a Cabinet Office poll found that 81 percent of the Japanese public reported feeling no affinity for China or tending to feel no such affinity.


This resurgent nationalism provided the backdrop for Abe’s election in 2012 and helps explain why he has adopted a more overtly nationalist style compared to during his first tenure, when he pointedly refrained from visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. Three other factors have also allowed Abe to be bolder this time around. First, the ideological composition of the LDP has changed. According to candidate surveys conducted jointly by the University of Tokyo and the Japanese newspaper The Asahi Shimbun, in 2009, only 61 out of the 271 LDP candidates running for first-past-the-post seats in elections for the lower house of the Diet shared Abe’s views on defense and constitutional reform. In the 2012 elections, 189 out of the 264 LDP candidates for those seats shared his views.

Second, unlike in 2006, when Abe had to prepare for national elections the following year, this time around, he will not face national elections until 2016. In Japan, where the electoral cycle is usually very short, four years is an eternity, giving Abe more leeway than most recent prime ministers have enjoyed.

Third, LDP nationalists have now cornered the electoral market on pro-American sentiment, emerging as the most vocal advocates of a stronger military alliance with the United States. Since the United States also wants to strengthen its military relationship with Japan—a central aspect of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia—Abe knows that the Americans have little option but to support him and his allies, even if his provocations sometimes cause headaches in Washington.

Given these favorable political conditions, unless the economy falters badly or a catastrophe occurs, Abe stands a good chance of becoming a rare long-serving Japanese prime minister. That might be a good thing for Japan’s politics, which could use a respite from weak parties and even weaker leaders. And perhaps Pilling would count this as another example of Japan bending adversity in its favor. But Abe’s success at home might not bode well for the wider region. Japan’s nationalist turn will make peaceful compromise in Asia more difficult, since China and South Korea will feel less inclined to negotiate over territorial disputes with a nationalist who won office partly by taking a hard line on the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and questioning the extent of Japan’s past transgressions.

Pilling points out that although Abe’s approval ratings are relatively high, the majority of Japanese do not support the nationalists, and he may be right. But public opinion on a contentious issue can change quickly. And for the nationalists to control the policy agenda, they don’t need to maintain overwhelming public support, thanks to low voter turnout. This is a phenomenon familiar to Americans: since the majority of eligible voters don’t bother to cast ballots, emotional appeals that can mobilize a minority of committed voters can make a huge difference in elections. Abe and the LDP seem to have bent that particular adversity of Japanese politics to their own ends—creating a new, more troubling environment for Japan and for the rest of the region.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • MARGARITA ESTÉVEZ-ABE is Associate Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University and Chair of Public Policy at the Collegio Carlo Alberto, a research foundation in Italy.
  • More By Margarita Estévez-Abe