Nationalism: A Japanese History

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Every nation has its own distinct form of nationalism, yet the land of the rising sun has had a particularly complex relationship with those who claim to be its greatest defenders. As the way a state views itself and its history shifts, nationalism inevitably morphs in adjustment, yet rarely has one people had as many distinct incarnations of nationalism than the Japanese have had. For good or for ill,  understating modern Japan depends on understanding how it has been shaped by this ideology. 

In the 6th century, the Yamato people rose to prominence and became the dominant ethnic group inhabiting the Japanese islands. More than a millennium later, Tokugawa Ieyasu ended the feudal wars and unified Japan under his control. The Tokugawa period, from 1603 to 1867, was a time of economic growth, prosperity, internal peace and harmony – all of which had been lacking during the Sengoku Jidai. Nationalism would first emerge into this serene space. The Shoguns feared not only armed foreign intervention, but all influences and ideas from abroad, fearing they could disrupt the fragile peace and hurl Japan back into chaos. The Tokugawa relied heavily on semi-autonomous domains such as the Fudai, Tozama and Shimpan, but this national order was particularly susceptible to foreign sway, as  there was a lack of direct central control over these domains. Christianity was banned in the 1630s  through three exclusion acts.  In 1633, all Japanese people were forbidden from either travelling overseas or from returning from overseas. Trade was limited to only a few Dutch and Chinese merchants through a single port, Nagasaki. Their vision was of a closed society: the Shoguns formally declared their policy was of seclusion from the rest of the world. 

The vast majority of Japanese had a complete lack of contact with the outside world, and so feelings that  their culture  was the greatest naturally blossomed – and this can be considered the first form of Japanese nationalism. The blocking of other influences crystallised a unique Japanese culture – tea ceremonies, Japanese gardens and a language only spoken in Japan. Overall, the land of the rising sun was, in Japanese eyes, special.

On 8 July 1853, their way of life was fundamentally turned on its head. The end of the world, as most Japanese knew it, took the form of Commodore Perry and his fleet of gunboats. He opened Japan up to trade and ended the isolation which had defined the country for two centuries. Upon  his arrival, Perry immediately disregarded Japanese orders, signalling a new beginning for the island nation and an end to the isolationist nationalism of the Shoguns.  Thus, Japan was opened up, although only in so far as it began some reluctant  trading with the US. Yet it has been shown throughout history that as globalisation increases, nationalism also rises accordingly. A successor to the isolationist ideology emerged. This was the people’s call for greater imperial rule to unify the state in the midst of various uprisings. 

After Japan saw the Western powers enrich themselves by devastating China, they were determined not to have the same fate befall them. Therefore, the Meiji Restoration began. The Chōshū and the Satsuma provinces rose up in fury against the perceived Western interference in Japan. Adopting the slogan “Enrich the country, strengthen the army”, the pro-imperial elements grew in influence to the point that they overthrew the existing Shogunate and returned the Emperor to supreme power. Aggressive modernisation began, with the aim of creating a stronger and more secure Japan. Those who wished to make this vision a reality used existing nationalist sentiments to drum up support for more aggressive, militaristic and violent policies. The central tenants to this second nationalism included an opposition to exploitative Western powers, the superiority of the Japanese culture solidified in the Tokugawa period and the centrality of the Emperor. 

A picture of the Meiji was hung in every classroom and a new narrative emerged: that of a people with a history dating back to ‘the time of the Gods’, showcasing Japan as one nation under the emperor. History, religion and mythology were selectively edited into a single coherent narrative, with the Sun Goddess Amaterasu-no-ōmikami becoming the starting point for an imperial rule which continues into this era. State Shintoism was used to reinforce these beliefs, mixing religion with the politicisation of imperial Japan to create a society with ever stronger nationalist ties and affiliations. In the 1880s, the first true strand of ultra-nationalism emerged: the concept of the pureblood. The work of the Japanese scientists Yamanouchi Shige, Ikeda Shigenori and Hisomu Nagai spearheaded this new fascination with eugenics, which pushed for an ethnically pure race. It was at this time that the ideal of a homogenous Japan was born, and measures which would bring the nation closer to this ideal also first took root in Japanese culture at this time. These included a drive for low immigration, the marginalisation of other ethnicities and militarism.

For a time though this nationalism seemed to be dying out, with the foundations of a liberal democracy emerging in Japan in the early 20th Century. Yet with the trigger of the Great Depression, this second ideology spiralled out of control into a third nationalism, which held dear the same beliefs, but took them to ludicrously hyperbolic extremes. This climaxed into the rise of an ultra-militaristic, ultra-nationalist and ultra-xenophobic part of the militaristic, nationalistic and xenophobic faction. This group pledged such loyalty to the emperor they began to defy him in his name. Influenced by the works of Ludendorff, calling for the full mobilisation of the state for the use of the army, these third wave nationalists dreamed of little short of world conquest. The rapidly increasing spiral was broken by defeat in the Second World War, which annihilated third nationalism.  

Before the war, Japanese nationalists had seen their state as the most advanced in Asia, destined to rule swathes of the continent through conquest due to their racial, cultural and military superiority. This was forever shattered by the Second World War, yet many argue that nationalism did not die away. Instead, it again morphed into form a new, more modern form. From its old divine origins, it changed into a means of preserving the integrity of Japan. The old nationalists’ worst nightmare, a Western power dictating terms and dismantling the imperial apparatus (most prominently the army) had come true, and this profoundly influenced how the ideology would emerge. For while parts of the post-war settlement became controversial, large parts of it were adopted as key elements of ‘New Nationalism’.

Those who argue Japan is witnessing a fourth nationalism form point to a series of myths revolving around traditions and the centrality of the imperial family. The national holiday for the mythological founding of Japan by Jimmu Tēnno was introduced, as it had been pre-war, albeit now rechristened as National Foundation Day from the pre-war Empire Day. In April 2016, the emperor and empress both went to the alleged tomb of Jimmu, the divine ancestor of the imperial family, a historic site from Japan’s 19th century, which emphasises the imperial lineage. This culture is key to understanding modern Japanese nationalism. 

The other area some consider to be a central aspect of modern Japanese nationalism is a reimagining of its wartime history. It is well known that the defeated side in a war has a tendency to reimagine their history, as the vanquished’s faults are forgotten and their purposes are confused. What is peculiar about Japanese nationalism is how these revisionists have taken control of events. History is taught from the days of homo erectus all the way to the modern day, in chronological order. But given that there is only one year to teach this, most seldom get to World War II. The way Japanese history textbooks portray that conflict is extremely divisive. Despite being the seminal event in recent history, one such textbook devotes only 19 of its 357 pages on events from 1931-45. Many textbooks do not mention some of the most horrific aspects of imperial history, such as the infamous Rape of Nanking. Another textbook, introduced by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, was so controversial it triggered massive protests in South Korea and China. Relations between these nations and Japan are still profoundly influenced by the Second World War. To this day the Japanese government does not apologise for what its neighbours, and an overwhelming majority of historians, consider war crimes the empire committed.

This rebounding nationalism has had significant cultural impact. The Land of the Rising Sun is famed for its demographic crisis, with its population dropping by 400,000 annually. However, Japan is a nation that is sceptical about encouraging immigration. Recent laws have been so unpopular mass protests have been triggered. New laws were put in place in December 2018, but Japan still has not made serious steps to address the issues which disincentivise immigration, such as lower pay, longer hours and worse living conditions for non-natives. Visas expire extremely quickly and as a result only the most determined and highly skilled workers can actually come and integrate into Japanese society. In short, the laws are designed to make immigration extremely difficult.  

Politically, this movement is largely perceived to be focused on dismantling parts of the “post-war regime” – the socio-political and educational system established by the allies.  This ‘New nationalism’ is largely associated with one goal: to end the strict pacifism Japan adopted after the Second World War. The previous Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is largely viewed as a leading figure in this movement. In mid-August 2014, two cabinet ministers and over 80 lawmakers visited Yasukuni shrine, a historic source of pride for the Japanese army. At the same time Abe also took an increasingly assertive stance over China, especially over the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands, though some have argued this is more to do with geopolitical realities than ideology.  

The line between patriotism and nationalism is extremely blurred and, in a county with so complex a history with that ideology as Japan, terms can easily be misinterpreted for cheap political gain. Those who suggest that we are witnessing a new era of Japanese nationalism argue that the ideology changed in its nature after the Second World War, becoming less aggressive, imperial and focused on the divine. Instead ‘New Nationalism’ emphasises Japanese history, a desire for a rebuilt military, as well as a strange combination of a desire for a more active foreign policy and a profoundly insular outlook. This policy mix may seem paradoxical, but examining the four eras of Japanese nationalism reveals how each of these ideas emerged and evolved to their present state, and how each form of nationalism has fundamentally influenced modern Japan.

Only those indulging in crude hyperbole would imply an equivalence between ‘New Nationalism’ and the extremism of the 1930s. The latter was dedicated to military supremacy, overt racism and little short of world conquest. It emerged as the result of a vicious nationalistic spiral and a combination of fury at its treatment by Western powers and a fear that such exploitation would increase unless Japan rapidly modernised and subdued its neighbours. This nationalism was killed in the Second World War. ‘New nationalism’ can trace its root back to this older nationalism, but also in a sense from the American occupation. The role of democracy, pro-business attitudes and friendliness with the West can be traced to this time and are as important to modern nationalism as the desire to expand the military is. However, the legacy of nationalisms past have caused deep structural harms to society.

While nationalism can be uniting, it is equally destructive, not just to the rest of the world, but the very nation which the nationalists claim to prize above all else. The last incarnation of Japanese nationalism, that of the 1930s, crippled the country: it wrecked a prosperous economy, dragged the country into savage wars and its legacy still strains relations between Japan and its neighbours. ‘New Nationalism’ must be different – it must learn the lessons of history.

Dower, J., 2000. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II. Penguin.

Gaines, A., 2000. Commodore Perry opens Japan to trade in world history. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow.