By Sandy Milne
As an island nation perched on the edge of the Pacific, Japan is no stranger to cultural isolation. Even with the flow of outside information and foreign influences permitted - albeit in a heavily restricted fashion - from the outset of the Edo dynasty in the early 1600s, commentators have pointed to the country’s geographic isolation as one primary factor which has spurred Japan to develop into one of the most homogenous, unified nation-states in the world today. In a world governed by international treaties and transnational courts; in a world where borders and ethnic delineations are increasingly blurred, Japan stands apart as one of the few states which can still be readily defined by an overwhelmingly homogenous ethnic composition, a unique language, and a strikingly distinct culture. Yet the nationalist ideologies which have swept across Europe, the Americas and parts of the Middle East in recent years have been echoed in the halls of the Japanese Diet - albeit for markedly different reasons than most. In late 2018, nationalist sentiment in Japan saw incumbent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe surge to yet another electoral victory; largely on the back of calls to seek revision of the infamous Article 9 of the US-drafted pacifist Constitution (couched, as many commentators would have it, amidst his decidedly moderate brand of ‘Abenomics’). A detailed examination of the key differences in the Japanese brand of nationalism provides insight not only into the geopolitical structure of the island nation-state, but also into the cultural drivers of the trend worldwide (and the overly simplistic nature of explanations offered by many establishment schools of thought).
There is no shortage of commentary on the rise of populist ideologues worldwide and the factors underpinning this trend. On both sides of the spectrum, the list of ingredients cited is well-trodden and monotonous; the recipe tends to call for a healthy dose of immigration, Euro-skepticism, acrimony towards a plutocratic or even corrupt system, or conditions of economic austerity. Some commentators have suggested the convergence of major political blocs to the point of overlapping creates a breeding ground for dissatisfaction on either extreme of the spectrum; though this claim holds merit in certain countries, it falls short of explaining the situation in critical examples such as the United States or Brazil.
Japan, for its part, does not fit comfortably within any of the above categories. Although her economy appears admittedly sluggish in the face of a recession, this observation must be coupled with an appreciation of age, population and fertility demographics. According to her own statistics, for example, 33% of the population is over the age of 60. With corruption and economic inequality strikingly low, the statistics (and Abe’s electoral rhetoric itself) do not substantiate the suggestion that support for populist policies in the country is rooted in dissatisfaction with the economic situation. In a country where inheritance tax stands at 55%, it is notoriously difficult for wealth to propagate down through generations - leading to a Gini coefficient (a commonly-used measure of economic inequality) noticeably more favorable than that of other OECD countries such as Switzerland and Canada.
However, there is much more to Japanese income equality than a high progressive tax system. Japanese work culture is closely tied to the notion of benefitting the group holistically, rather than prioritizing individual incentives. Group identification is a core component of the country’s unique identity, and it can be seen in the lack of ostentatious displays of wealth by CEOs such as Haruka Nishimatsu - the Japan Airlines executive who attracted attention from CBS in 2009 for, amongst other things, purchasing office-wear from a discount store, taking public transportation to work on a daily basis, and cutting his own salary alongside his workers.
When Japanese nationalism manifests itself on the world stage, one familiar with this shared sense of identity can often recognize cultural clues that tie into this model. For example, when Japan chose to flout the ICJ’s 2014 ruling which sought to uphold the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling, many commercial analysts in the West were left scratching their heads due to the significant drop in domestic whale-meat sales (an industry which, interestingly enough, was already heavily subsidized by the Japanese government). In propping up an unsustainable industry besieged by both international law and domestic market forces, many scholars point to the sense of nostalgia many older Japanese feel towards the meat - which was consumed widely in post-war Japan, due to the damage caused to agricultural infrastructure in the country, and often included in school lunches provided by the government. The Abe administration, then, could be viewed not as erring in alienating its strategic partners in the region, but as making a calculated choice to do so on the basis of being seen to uphold a distinctive trait of the Japanese group identity at considerable diplomatic cost.
Analysts across the globe would do well to view nationalist movements in tandem with a particular country’s social and moral fabric, before turning too quickly to the cookiecutter explanations offered by other pundits worldwide. This is true of nations as culturally diverse as Bolsanaro’s Brazil - while many dismiss the latter’s surge to power as driven by a population weary of violent crime and a messy bureaucratic system, a more accurate picture is painted when these motives are complimented with an appreciation of the influence of the teachings of Catholicism (a religion adhered to by almost three-quarters of the population) on Brazilian social norms. Perhaps then, international spectators wishing to draw attention to the cruder aspects of Bolsonaro’s campaign - such as his claim that he would “rather have a dead son than a gay son” - might be able to put forth arguments that actually gain traction with his electoral base in the country.
In Japan, recent weeks have seen a diplomatic spat with neighboring South Korea turn ugly. According to the official press statement released by the Ministry of Defense, a Japanese P-1 fighter plane conducting a low-flying passover over an ROK battleship in the East Sea was irradiated by STIR-180 fire-control tracking radar from the latter, an action which Tokyo ultimately condemned as tantamount to a threat of military action. After Seoul countered with the claim that the type of radar used was part of the ship’s general surveillance capabilities and that the passover was nevertheless threatening in nature, negotiations ultimately failed to find common ground on the technical details of the radar signature. The following week, however, saw a South Korean ship located near Socotra Rock would report a similar passover by a Japanese aircraft - yet another example of Abe’s Japan playing into nationalist sentiment at home. To international observers these actions may seem unnecessarily militaristic, but in order to understand not only Japan, but the world at large, it is necessary to look behind the veil to the complex sociocultural factors that drive an adversarial stance with her South Korean neighbor.
Sandy Milne is an LLB graduate of Curtin University (Western Australia) and published scholar currently teaching in Tokyo, Japan. The bulk of his circulated works focus on the role of various state and non-state actors in the context of international sovereignty disputes.
 Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication, Statistics Bureau. "Japan Statistical Yearbook, Chapter 2: Population and Households". Retrieved 13 January 2016.