A New National Mood: The Reemergence of Nationalist Discourse in Japanese Politics and Society

This paper was originally submitted as a term paper at the University of Alberta on April 16, 2018.

By: Matthew D. Boyd


When the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe, took to the podium in a nationally-televised speech on the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, he was widely expected to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors by issuing a new apology for Japanese actions in the war. Instead, Abe challenged the status quo, arguing that “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with the war, be predestined to apologise”.[1] While this speech was widely criticized around Asia and abroad for being insensitive,[2] it reflects a broader trend not just in the Japanese government, but in Japanese society more broadly. For Japan, the post-war period has been dominated by the American-drafted pacifist constitution, which was designed to prevent the Japanese from maintaining a military and sought to eradicate the nationalism that had become pervasive in society in the years leading up to 1945.[3] Since the end of the war, Japan has generally been considered one of the most pacifist countries in the world, focusing on economic development and soft power, in a rejection of its militarist past.[4] There are signs, however, that Japan’s faith in the pacifist post-war order is being challenged. This paper will argue that the long-held status quo in Japan is changing, and Japanese society has become more welcoming to nationalist sentiments, dragging Japan’s political system further to the right. Since 2000, Japan has faced a variety of external pressures including stagnant economic growth, rapid economic development in China, and the increasingly pervasive import of South Korean pop-culture and media.[5] Compounding these pressures, threats to Japanese national security by an increasingly belligerent North Korean regime have challenged society’s confidence in the ability of the pacifist order to keep it safe.[5] In response to these challenges, Japanese governments under the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have taken a decidedly hardline approach to international relations in East Asia, and Japanese voters are adopting demonstrable shifts towards policies that have historically been associated with right-wing nationalism in Japan.[6] In order to document this consistent yet often subtle shift in the status quo in Japan, a three-pronged examination is required: an analysis of the changing policies of the national government, shifting behaviours of the Japanese electorate, and the increasing influence of non-government organizations in determining political outcomes. Through the utilization of this three-pronged approach, this paper will demonstrate that Japan has grown decidedly more willing to embrace nationalist values since the turn of the 21st century, and Japanese society will continue to grow more comfortable with governments that express nationalist sentiments in response to regional competition and external pressures in East Asia.

Japan and Nationalism

In order to understand the shifting political trends in Japanese society in the contemporary period, it is first necessary to establish an understanding of modern Japanese political history and what this paper refers to when it uses the term nationalism. The Oxford English Dictionary defines nationalism as “identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests”.[7] In this sense, nationalism can be used to describe a set of social and political preferences for one’s nation and national interests over the interests of other states or nations. While nationalism is a complex and multidimensional object of study, this paper will, for the sake of simplification, define nationalism as an adherence to two fundamental ideas: (1) A preference for the national interests over the interests of of a wider community, and (2) a strong identification with a national group in contradistinction to an other. In the Japanese context, this conceptualization of nationalism can be dated to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time in Japan’s modernization process that brought about great social and political change.[8] It was in this period that Japan began to model itself after European colonial powers, and sought to explicitly define what it meant to be ‘Japanese’. Government-sponsored scholarship highlighted the importance of native texts and traditions, and began a program of removing all foreign, mainly Chinese, influence from literature, religion, and politics.[9] This removal of Chinese influence can be explained using the aforementioned definition of nationalism, as it established Japanese collective identity in contrast to the Chinese other. This birth of a new Japanese national identity was strengthened by Japan’s decisive victory in the Russo-Japanese War, which lead to what historian Makito Saya calls “an abnormal and fanatical excitement”[10] within Japanese society. This fanatical conceptualization of nationalism would eventually lead Japan down the path of tragic colonial expansion and ultimately result in its crushing defeat at the end of the Second World War. Following the war, American occupiers began a program of reeducation, which involved rewriting the constitution, forbidding Japan from maintaining the capacity to wage war, and instituting decidedly pacifist and anti-nationalist school curricula.[11] This process was largely successful, as painful memories of the war were still fresh in the minds of the Japanese populace. Nationalism and militarism became taboo topics for decades, and Japan embraced a new era of pacifism both in its society and its state policy.[12]

Shifting Government Policy: Koizumi and Abe

For Japan, the turn of the 21st century was shrouded in much political and economic uncertainty. Following the collapse of the bubble economy in the 1990s, Japan faced the possibility that for the first time since the post-war period, it was no longer the economic hegemon in East Asia.[13] This new reality, compounded by the rapid economic development of both China and South Korea, created a collective mood of pessimism in Japanese society and in government.[14] It was during this period that Japan’s largest and most dominant political party, the LDP, began to demonstrate clear shifts away from the pacifist status quo through the election of political hard-liners with nationalist tendencies.[15] With the election of Junichiro Koizumi as Prime Minister in 2001, the LDP began to adopt assertive policies towards its regional neighbours that many argued were outside of the accepted status quo.[16] Under Koizumi, the Japanese government strengthened the position of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF), and for the first time authorized overseas peacekeeping operations for Japanese military personnel.[17] Historically, the SDF had been limited to Japanese territory as defined by the constitutions ban on an offensive force. Interpretations of this constitutional ban began to change under the Koizumi administration, which signalled further shifts in the willingness of the government to challenge accepted norms within Japanese law.
Koizumi’s willingness to diversify the capabilities of the SDF were not the only evidence of the government’s rejection of accepted norms. For most of the post-war period, Japan has been forced to grapple with its complicated and often controversial wartime past and the implications that the war has had on Japan’s relations with its neighbours. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, Japanese Prime Ministers have generally avoided honouring the war dead or holding memorial services for fallen soldiers of the Second World War.[18] Koizumi and his Cabinet challenged this premise by making regular visits to Yasukuni Shrine, one of Japan’s most famous Shintō Shrines in which thousands of war dead, including A-class war criminals, are honoured.[19] This action enraged Japan’s neighbours and put incredible strain on Japan-South Korea and Japan-China relations for months after the event.[20] While the diplomatic crisis that ensued was quite severe, Koizumi remained one of Japan’s most popular Prime Ministers in history for much of his tenure.[21] This speaks to the collective mood that had developed in Japan at the time, a mood that would facilitate a further move towards nationalist policy.
Koizumi’s handpicked successor, Shinzō Abe, who served as Prime Minister from 2006-2007, and then again from 2012 until the time of writing, has followed in Koizumi’s footsteps as a fervent challenger of Japan’s pacifist status quo. Abe has been even more outspoken than his predecessor on his desire to revise the Japanese constitution, implementing an expanded role for the Japanese military, enhancing the role of the monarchy in Japanese politics, and creating an “obligation” for Japanese citizens to defend their homeland.[22] These constitutional revisions are highly nationalist in nature when viewed within the definition of nationalism this paper has established. These changes reflect a desire to unite the populace under a common national identity in opposition to Japan’s external threats. While these changes have not yet occurred and would need to pass a referendum, they remain core interests for Abe and his administration. There has, however, been major policy shifts under the Abe Administration already. These include the establishment of a national security advisory board, sustained increases in defense spending, publication of a 10-year defense strategy, an expansion of Japan’s naval and coastguard capabilities, and the appointment of right-wing nationalists to the board of governors at Japan’s largest public broadcaster, the NHK.[23] Abe’s policy changes represent significant challenges to the status quo in Japan that would likely have been considered inconceivable in the 1980s or the 1990s. The relative acceptance of these policy shifts and actions by the government demonstrate clearly that Japan has become decidedly more willing to accept, and even embrace, nationalist policy initiatives.

An Evolving National Mood: The Japanese Electorate

Japan’s politics of the post-war era have been largely defined by Japan’s vibrant and successful implementation of liberal democracy. Following the end of the Second World War, Japan held some of its first free and fair elections. Since then, Japan has consistently demonstrated smooth democratic transitions of power from party to party, and it is often considered to be one of East Asia’s most stable democracies.[24] Although Japanese politics have usually been dominated by the LDP, which held an uninterrupted majority in the legislative assembly from 1955 until 1993,[25] the largely non-ideological and highly factional nature of the LDP leadership has facilitated a significant degree of responsiveness to public opinion within the party.[26] Because the electorate is still in relative control of the direction of the country, as with any liberal democracy, government policy can be explained as a product of the ‘mood’ of the electorate. This democratic mechanism suggests that the aforementioned shifts in Japanese governmental policy can be viewed as a direct result of shifts in the electorate. As previously discussed, Prime Minister Koizumi maintained some of the highest approval ratings of any Japanese Prime Minister in modern times. This occurred in spite of his often aggressive political stances to Japan’s neighbours, as well as his antagonistic approach to memories of the war. It is useful to compare this popularity with a decidedly different era in Japanese politics: the late 1960s. In 1968, Japanese universities erupted into violence in protest of renewing the existing defense treaty with the United States. Demonstrators shut universities down for weeks in support of leftist causes and called for a rejection of both militarism and of cooperation with the United States.[27] The Japanese public at this time had grown frustrated with the Japanese government’s cooperation with the United States as a bulwark against Communism, and many students had developed an affinity for Chinese-style socialism.[28] This period of Japanese history contrasts starkly with the warm response that Prime Minister Koizumi received for his nationalist leanings, and it can be concluded that there has been a noticeable shift in public opinion away from the socialist and pacifist mood of the 1960s.
A changing mood in Japanese society is also evident in the political leanings of Japanese youth. As our definition of nationalism states, nationalist tendencies exist within a desire to define one’s group in contradistinction to the other. In line with this definition, there has been a quantifiable increase in pro-Japanese, anti-Chinese, and anti-Korean rhetoric among youth and on social media in Japan.[29] One useful way of gauging this trend is by examining trends in internet content. Japan’s largest and most popular online message board, 2-Channel, is dominated by content that the New York Times has called “xenophobic, especially towards Koreans”.[30] Political scientist Hironori Sasada also notes that “[2-Channel] users tend to be nationalistic and conservative … and often express their distaste for China, South Korea, and North Korea and advocate more aggressive approaches to these countries”.[31] This phenomenon of growing nationalism among youth is not limited to the internet, however. As political science Rumi Sakamoto notes, there has also been a noticeable increase in anti-Korean demonstrations on the island of Tsushima, as well as increased turnout for anti-Korean demonstrations on the Japanese home islands.[32] This increasing xenophobia, as well increases in nationalistic rhetoric among youth online, suggests a larger trend among the Japanese populace. Reasons for these trends are debated, but there is an undeniable correlation between rising nationalism among youth and threat perception among the Japanese populace. According to the Japanese Cabinet Office in 2015, nearly 80 percent of Japanese citizens responded ‘yes’ when asked if Japan faces a risk of war, compared to only about 50 percent in 1975.[33] This significant increase in Japanese perception of threat is vital in understanding the increasingly nationalist tendencies of Japanese youth, and of the electorate as a whole. As threat perceptions have increased, the desire to secure Japan’s own national interests have become more prevalent among the population. This desire to protect the national interest fully supports this paper’s definition of rising nationalism in Japan.

Nationalist Lobbying: The Rise of Nippon Kaigi

Democracy is a vastly complex political system, and it would be naive to argue that the mood of the electorate is the only factor that determines political outcomes and government policies. While the electorate is the driving force behind the makeup of the legislature and its politicians, there are other forces influencing lawmakers and pushing a nationalist agenda. Lobby groups are a natural reality in liberal democracies, and Japan is no different in that regard. As discussed in previous sections, Japan’s government under Koizumi and Abe have made strident shifts towards more nationalist policy platforms, and lobbying has been critical to this. The largest and most influential lobby group is known as Nippon Kaigi, or the Japan Conference.[34] Nippon Kaigi exerts incredible influence on elected officials, and many members of the Cabinet, including Prime Minster Abe himself, are also active members of Nippon Kaigi.[35] The organization is a radically conservative, nationalist, and revisionist group that lobbies on behalf of nationalist causes. Some of the group’s stated goals are the restoration of the Emperor as head of state, a dramatic rewriting of the constitution, nationalist education in schools, and significant increases in defense spending.[36] The influence of the organization cannot fully be known due to its secretive nature, but Nippon Kaigi’s connections to elected officials is undeniable. One important statistic to consider in understanding the influence of Nippon Kaigi in the national government is the proportion of Nippon Kaigi members in Abe’s cabinet. As of 2017, 15 of the 21 members of the Abe Cabinet, Japan’s executive and most powerful branch of government, were members of Nippon Kaigi.[37] While the amount of influence the group has on these elected officials can be debated, it is undeniable that the policy initiatives enacted by the Abe Cabinet since 2012 have been largely in line with Nippon Kaigi goals, such as constitutional revision.[38] The success of such a blatantly nationalist organization in national politics is due in large part to shifting public opinion and rising nationalism in the Japanese populace. Nippon Kaigi enjoys the financial backing of Reiyūkai and Jinja Honchō, Japan’s largest Buddhist and Shintō religious organizations, respectively.[39] This is highly significant, as it suggests that Nippon Kaigi is almost entirely funded by donations from worshippers throughout Japan. The role of lobbying cannot be ignored when attempting to explain changes in government policy. The spectacular rise of such a powerful and outwardly nationalist group clearly demonstrates changing Japanese attitudes towards nationalist ideas.


Japan, through most of the post-war period, enjoyed incredible levels of economic growth and relative political stability. The post-war order was based on an adherence to pacifism, which had been enshrined within the American-drafted constitution at the end of the war. With the turn of the 21st century, however, there has been significant evidence to suggest that the post-war pacifist order is being challenged by a new generation of Japanese politicians and citizens. Nationalism, a concept which had been largely taboo in the post-war period, has once again appeared in political discourse, and the Japanese public have shown that they are not abhorrent to nationalist ideas, as they were in the past. This paper has demonstrated the interplay between government, the electorate, and the nationalist lobby when it comes to shaping Japan’s political future. Government policy and discourse in recent years has clearly reflected a new affinity for nationalist ideas, from constitutional reform to expansions of military expenditures. This paper has clearly highlighted the link between public mood and opinion with government policy. As Japanese youth continue to feel a significant degree of external threat from Japan’s neighbours, they will continue to push an agenda of increased securitization and nationalist xenophobia. While much of this is rhetoric, it cannot be denied that these feelings of anxiety have had clear implications in the public sphere. In addition, the rise of lobby groups such as Nippon Kaigi have demonstrated the pervasiveness of the nationalist lobby in government. Direct linkages between the radically conservative and nationalist group with the Abe Cabinet further highlight the growing importance of nationalist discourse in Japanese politics. The shifts away from the status quo highlighted in this paper demonstrate the growing acceptance of nationalist ideas in Japanese public life. As external pressures and threats to Japan continue to grow and develop in East Asia, it can be expected that this trend towards increased nationalism will continue. Japanese society exists in a time of political uncertainty, and government policy will continue to be shaped evolving attitudes of the Japanese public.

End Notes

[1] Justin McCurry, “Japanese PM Shinzo Abe stops short of new apology in war anniversary speech” last modified August 14, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/14/shinzo-abe-japan-no-new-apology-second-world-war-anniversary-speech.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Axel Berkofsky. “Japan’s Post-War Constitution. Origins, Protagonists and Controversies.” Il Politico 75, no. 2 (224) (2010): 5.
[4] Yuan Cai. “The rise and decline of Japanese pacifism.” New Voices Volume 2 (2008): 187.
[5] Tomohiro Osaki. “Abe pledges more robust defence strategy for Japan in annual policy speech to lawmakers.” The Japan Times, January 22, 2018. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/01/22/national/politics-diplomacy/abe-pledges-robust-defense-strategy-japan-annual-policy-speech-lawmakers/.
[6] Fabian Schäfer, Stefan Evert, and Philipp Heinrich. “Japan’s 2014 General Election: Political Bots, Right-Wing Internet Activism, and Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s Hidden Nationalist Agenda.” Big data 5, no. 4 (2017): 301.
[7] Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. “Nationalism,” accessed April 10, 2018, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/nationalism.
[8] Alistair Swale, The Meiji Restoration: Monarchism, Mass Communication and Conservative Revolution. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009: 1.
[9] Swale, The Meiji Restoration: Monarchism, Mass Communication and Conservative Revolution, 85-86.
[10] Makito Saya and David Noble. The Sino-Japanese War and the Birth of Japanese Nationalism. 1st English ed. Tokyo: International House of Japan, 2011: xxiii.
[11] Mari Yamamoto, “Japan’s Grassroots Pacifism.” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus Volume 2, Issue 2. (2005): 4-5.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Taizo Motonishi, and Hiroshi Yoshikawa. “Causes of the Long Stagnation of Japan during the 1990s: Financial or Real?” Journal of the Japanese and International Economies 13, (1999): 182.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Karol Zakowski, Beata Bochorodycz, and Marcin Socha. Japan’s Foreign Policy Making: Central Government Reforms, Decision-Making Processes, and Diplomacy. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2018: 33-34.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Daiki Shibuichi, “The Yasukuni Shrine Dispute and the Politics of Identity in Japan: Why All the Fuss?.” Asian Survey 45, no. 2 (2005): 198.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Masaru Tamamoto, “A land without patriots: the Yasukuni controversy and Japanese nationalism.” World Policy Journal 18, no. 3 (2001): 33-34.
[21] Tamamoto,”A land without patriots: the Yasukuni controversy and Japanese nationalism”, 33.
[22] Catherine Wallace, “Japanese Nationalism Today – Risky Resurgence, Necessary Evil or New Normal?.” Mejiro Journal of Humanities 12 (2016): 69.
[23] Wallace, “Japanese Nationalism Today”, 68.
[24] Zhengxu Wang, Democratization In Confucian East Asia: Citizen Politics In China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Youngstown, N.Y.: Cambria Press, 2008: 1.
[25] Ray Christensen, Ending the LDP Hegemony: Party Cooperation in Japan. University of Hawaii Press, 2000: 232.
[26] Gary W. Cox, and Frances Rosenbluth. “Factional competition for the party endorsement: The case of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party.” British Journal of Political Science 26, no. 2 (1996): 260.
[27] Patricia G. Steinhoff, “Student Protest in the 1960s.” Social Science Japan 15, no. 3 (1999): 4.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Rumi Sakamoto, “‘Koreans, go home!’Internet nationalism in contemporary Japan as a digitally mediated subculture.” The Asia-Pacific Journal 9, no. 10, 2, (2011): 1.
[30] Hironori Sasada, “Youth and nationalism in Japan.” SAIS Review of International Affairs 26, no. 2 (2006): 119.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Sakamoto, “‘Koreans, go home!’Internet nationalism in contemporary Japan as a digitally mediated subculture.”, 1-2.
[33] Sasada, “Youth and nationalism in Japan”, 115.
[34] Sachie Mizohata, “Nippon Kaigi: Empire, contradiction, and Japan’s future.” The Asia-Pacific Journal 14, no. 2 (2016): 1.
[35] Ibid.
[36] David McNeill, “Nippon Kaigi and the Radical Conservative Project to Take Back Japan.” The Asia-Pacific Journal 13, no. 48 (2015): 2.
[37] Daiki Shibuichi, “The Japan Conference (Nippon Kaigi): an Elusive Conglomerate.” East Asia 34, no. 3 (2017): 192.
[38] Shibuichi, “The Japan Conference (Nippon Kaigi): an Elusive Conglomerate”, 185.
[39] Shibuichi, “The Japan Conference (Nippon Kaigi): an Elusive Conglomerate”, 182-183.

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