Wednesday, November 28, 2012

On Joseph Nye's "Nationalist" Japan

Joseph Nye, a member of The Quartet, the four retired United States officials who skittered through Tokyo and Beijing last month on a mission without a plan (Link) has had an infuriating opinion piece published in the Financial Times. (Link)

One can overlook the misspelling of Hashimoto Toru's name -- who can keep the plethora of minor Japanese politicians straight, right? (And you are the last person to quibble about the spelling errors of others - Ed.)

One can overlook the incorrect characterization of Yasukuni as "a controversial second world war memorial." Building a controversial WWII memorial would represent an awesome bit of prescience on the party of the Meiji government, which presided over the formal establishment of the shrine in 1879. (Link)

One can overlook Nye's having plagiarized his own work, the FT opinion piece being merely an abbreviation of the essay he published with Project Syndicate on November 9. (Link)

What cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged, however, is Nye's uncritical use of the adjective "nationalist" to describe the policy prescriptions of Japan's political classes.

A more patriotic line, a more activist line, certainly -- but nationalist? The assessment seems unsound.

What is nationalism? In English we have come to use the term as the pejorative form of love of one's country or patriotism. However, we should feel shame at this act of intellectual sloppiness. A quick glance at the dictionary finds nationalism to be a both more open and circumscribed term. There is, first of all, no obvious implied value judgment. Nationalism is a positive force against colonialism and imperialism. For an uncritical adherent to multilateralism, a "doctrine that nations should act independently (rather than collectively) to attain their goals" would be bad. Many would argue that following an independent and autonomous path is a characteristic of a smarter and more responsible government.

As for a less salubrious definition of nationalism, "a belief that one's national way of life is better than any other," nobody but nobody believes this. Different, unique, worthy of preservation -- assuming one could even define "the Japanese way of life," of course -- fine. But intrinsically better? Ummmm, possibly not since the collapse of the Bubble, definitely not in the last decade.

Nye himself indirectly acknowledges opaque nature of nationalism in allowing a Japanese citizen, identified as a "friend" in the FT piece and "a young professional" in the Project Syndicate essay, to claim:
"We are interested in conservative nationalism, not militaristic nationalism. No one wants to return to the 1930's."
Laying aside for a moment the oxymoron -- nationalism demanding a change in the way the people are governed or live while conservatism arguing against changes in governance and way of life -- the speaker, and by extension Nye, are comfortable with the thought that nationalism comes in a variety of flavors, both palatable and unpalatable.

So what does Nye mean when he writes "Japanese public opinion is shifting to the right and in a more nationalistic direction"? How are we supposed to react when one of the wise men of U.S. Asia policy makes such a declaration?

A sanguine answer would be that Nye wrote both versions of this essay without thinking about what he was saying. His flaccid use of "nationalism" conflates at once the 1930s expansionist Japanese government with a modern desire to possess nuclear weapons or an incipient nuclear weapons capability -- two items he cannot possibly believe are equivalent or the same.

The less charitable answer would be that Nye is allowing the terminology of Chinese interlocutors to dominate and devalue the discussion of what is transpiring in Japanese politics and society. Chinese government figures and public commentators are aware of the negative connotations of nationalism. They would declare their own love of country coupled with a will to power to be patriotism, not nationalism. By labeling Japanese policy prescriptions nationalism, a speaker undermines the legitimacy of goals, even when they are the decidedly modest ones of maintaining the stability of existing borders and a national polity's autonomy.

Does Japan have a discussion of nationalism? Of course it does. The Japanese discussion is possibly more intelligent, with aikokushugi, literally "Love-Country-Belief System," set against kokkashugi, literally "National State-Belief System." One can have a coherent and partisan debate over whether Ishihara Shintaro or Hashimoto or Noda Yoshihiko are advocating aikokushugi or kokkashugi, with participants coming to a consensus on the inflection points where love of one's country contorts into either a poisonous obedience to the government or a program of international violence.

If nationalism does not presume submission to a tyranny or attacks on other nations, then using the word "nationalism" seems petty and lazy.

One should not bandy empty words about, lest one's friends lose confidence in one's intentions.

Later - The FT has fixed the misspelling of Hashimoto's name.


sigma1 said...

Very good. I would argue that Japan and Japanese intellectuals at least, both left and right, know, and think about nationalism in more sophisticated ways than most other nations. Eg. You can chuck in 国民主義 and 国粋主義 as important distinctions (and others) to the 国家主義 and 愛国主義 analogues we use in English. That said, Japanese discussion on nationalism has become all the poorer recently because of the imitation and importation of the unreflective Western discourse and use of "ナショナリズム"

Bryce said...

I hate to be the area studies snob, but I would take discussions of "nationalism" in Japan with a pinch of salt from someone who is not familiar with the discourse in Japan concerning the state and its interests, i.e. someone who does not read Japanese. A debate about the national interest between various types of nationalists has been a central feature of Japanese political discourse since well before even Perry, let alone MacArthur arrived.

"There is, first of all, no obvious implied value judgment. Nationalism is a positive force against colonialism and imperialism."

If I were a cynical Japanese nationalist, I would suspect this is what Nye's actual problem with it is.

Bryce said...

"Nationalism is a positive force against colonialism and imperialism."

Isn't this ultimately Nye's problem?

MTC said...

Bryce -

You write:

"There is, first of all, no obvious implied value judgment. Nationalism is a positive force against colonialism and imperialism."

If I were a cynical Japanese nationalist, I would suspect this is what Nye's actual problem with it is.

Reading Gavan McCormack, are we?

Greg said...

I think Nye revealed his own rather limited analytical skills when he wrote "Japanese public opinion is shifting to the right and in a more nationalistic direction". A quick glance at an opinion poll conducted by the Office of the Prime Minister (the results of which were published on November 26th) noted that 60.7% of respondents believed that Japan should make a positive contribution to the global community through the peaceful resolution of conflicts and provision of humanitarian assistance to other countries ( Given that this result comes in the wake of continuing regional territorial disputes with China and South Korea (92.8% of respondents to the poll thought that present relations with China were poor, 78.8% thought that relations with South Korea were poor), to claim that Japanese society is somehow embracing a more “nationalistic” (in the pejorative sense) narrative seems far-fetched.

That is, of course, unless Nye believes populist sloganeering is an accurate reflection of public opinion.