History and nationalism

Territorial imperatives

By William Wetherall

Patriotism and nationalism are supposed to be different, but the distinction is subtle. In principle, patriots would defend their country from an invader but not invade another country. What happens, though, when self-defense necessitates military action in another country?

Imagine you have put a fire extinguisher in your own home, ready to put out a fire in your kitchen or wherever. Your neighbor's home catches on fire, and the fire threatens to spread to your home. Are you going to wait until it reaches your home? Or are you going to use your extinguisher to help put out your neighbor's fire?

The line between "defense" and "aggression" is often, though, a matter of what interests a state feels it needs to protect. Japan's "national interests" in East Asia motivated its actions in Korea and China during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The problem is to what extent Japan's actions on the peninsula and continent were aggressive and invasive rather than merely defensive and protective.

Nationalism -- the love of one's own country more than another -- is like an internal combustion engine. The right mixture of pride and prejudice in its cylinders combust when sparked under the right amount pressure, and the release of energy provides the state with the power it needs to drive the national vehicle. The engine must be well designed, and the explosions must be carefully controlled, or the engine will not run well and may itself explode. But even when the national vehicle is well powered, the state must drive it properly or it will crash.

The problem with nationalism in East Asia today is that states like Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), and the People's Republic of China (PRC) are not driving national engines that are fueled by incompatible histories. Like degraded or dirty gasoline, history contaminated by false information or lacking essential facts, or distorted by faulty analysis, can cause national engines to clog, overheat, even explode.


A nation is often felt to be a "natural" or "ethnic" demographic unit, while a state is thought of as a "legal" or "civil" entity. Accordingly, a nation-state" is supposed to be a nation that is also a state.

In the world of real people under the control of actual governments, however, no state today can be equated with an ethnic or otherwise natural nation. All nations are politically synthetic, and the "nationalities" or "national populations" of all states are multiracial and multiethnic.

Both nation and country are used as pronouns for "state" and for each other, but none of these three terms are true synonyms of the others. "Country" is a softer, more poetic and romantic expression, that can accommodate practically any contextual sentiment.

States and constituent entities

A state is a sovereign entity. Large states consist of constituent polities that are semi-sovereign entities. Such semi-sovereign constituents include the states, districts, and territories of the United States, the provinces and territories of Canada, the prefectures of Japan, and the provinces, autonomous regions, national municipalities (Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai, Tianjin), and Special Administrative Regions of the People's Republic of China.

Local polities within constituent parts of states -- such as cities, towns, and villages -- are also entities, to the extent that they are legally competent to enter into independent relationships with other entities. Examples would be a sister-city relationship between municipalities in different states, or a contractual relationship between a municipality and any corporate entity, including a foreign company.

Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and could, someday, become a state -- as did, at one time or another, all other states, including the original 13 colonies. England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland are parts of the United Kingdom but are not countries -- except in the eyes of Welsh, Scottish, and Irish nationalists. Bermuda is not a part of the United Kingdom, but is a British colony and part of the British Commonwealth. Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark.

Hong Kong and Macao SARs

Hong Kong has been a Special Administration Region (SAR) of the People's Republic of China (PRC) since 1997. English continues to an official language, along with Chinese. Hong Kong continues to issue its own passports to PRC nationals with rights of abode in Hong Kong, and to govern migration across its borders, as though it were a state.

Macao has been an SAR of PRC since 1999, and Portuguese continues to be an official language along with Chinese. Like Hong Kong, Macao continues to operate under a relatively independent body of laws enforced by its own judicial system. Macao SAR passports -- printed in traditional Chinese characters, Portuguese, and English -- are issued only in Macao to people of Chinese nationality with rights of abode in Macho.

Hong Kong and Macao passports are not recognized by PRC for purposes of entering or exiting PRC's interior from these SARs. Chinese nationals of Hong Kong and Macao require what is commonly and sentimentally known as a "Húi xiāng zhèng" (‰ñ‹œæš) or "Permit to return to native town" to travel, reside, or work in other parts of PRC. The permits are more formally called "Găng-Aò jūmín láiwăng nèidì tōngxíng zhèng" (`àS‹–¯˜Ò‰“à’n’ʍsæš) or "Transmit permit for residents of Hong Kong and Macao to come and go in the interior".

Republic of China

The Republic of China (ROC), though no longer a state in the eyes of the United Nations or of most UN member states, remains a sovereign entity. As such it is several decades older than the People's Republic of China (PRC), which claims the territory that ROC controls, including the province of Taiwan, which was part of Japan from 1895 to 1945.

The current standoff between ROC and PRC exemplifies what nationalism, and entity-recognition politics, is all about. PRC is offering ROC status as an SAR to join its statehood but ROC seems to prefer its independence. See The Republic of China as a state: The vicissitudes of recognition politics for a fuller account of the conflict.

Ethnic nations and civil states

An ethnic nation (minzoku) is a more-or-less natural population. It is larger than a clan or tribe, but is often as homogeneous in the sense that its members, as the result of a common historical experience, share a common language, customs (cultural practices), institutions (social conventions), and even biological (racial) traits.

A state, however, is a sovereign legal entity. It is not a population but a government that formally controls a territory and its affiliated population, both of which are recognized by other such entities.

"Japan" exists as a state because other state governments recognize the government of Japan, and they acknowledge the physical (land, sea, and air) and demographic (popular, national) territories that the state of Japan claims to control.

No state is an "ethnic nation"

An ethnic nation is usually affiliated with a territory by virtue of the fact that it inhabits and claims the territory, or it inhabits a territory claimed by another ethnic nation. An ethnic nation's territory may change with time as the nation migrates, or as it absorbs, or is absorbed into, the territory if not also the population of another nation.

Today, no ethnic nation exists as a truly natural entity. All such nations are now subsumed within the civil (non-ethnic) nationalities of state entities.

Vestiges of ethnic nations exist in all states, but very few states recognize the existence of such nations within their civil nationalities. China (both PRC and ROC), Russia other CIS states, and the United States and Canada are among the very few states in the world that that recognize "minority nationalities" (shosu minzoku) or indigenous "nations" within their national populations.

No state is a "nation-state"

Terms like "United Nations" and even "international" are actually misnomers. All members of the United Nations are states, not nations. With few exceptions, "international" signifies "interstate" trade, relations, and the like between the nearly 200 states in the world today.

Some writers use the term "nation-state" to mean a "state" that is also a "nation". Or, to put the horse before the cart, a "nation-state" is a linguistically and culturally if not also racially homogeneous people who have their own state.

However, no member state of the United Nations qualifies as a "nation-state" -- since all states are regarded as artificial entities whose nationalities -- affiliated populations of people qualified to bear the state's passport -- consist of individuals of different linguistic, cultural, and racial ancestries.

Even states that espouse ideologies of "one race, one language, one culture, one historical experience" consist of one or more "minority peoples" who, while possibly accepting the embrace of the "state" that claims their allegiance, do not consider themselves members of the "nation" that the "nation-state" putatively represents.

Some people call the United States and Japan "nation-states" because their nationals share a common language and culture. Whereas Canada and Belgium are not "nation-states" because they consist of two nations, each with a different official language.

Such simplistic classification glosses over the essentially synthetic composition of all state territories and nationalities today. No state today consists of a single "natural" territory, occupied by the descendants of a single "natural" population that has inhabited the same territory for centuries or millennia. All states today govern territories that have been fairly recently constructed and defined, mostly through territorial expansion associated with war and colonization.

State and ethnic nationalisms

The advent of the state, and the growth of state nationalism, has made the ethnic nation seem less real or significant. Ethnic nationalism continues to thrive, however, as the ethnic nation remains an object of personal and collective adoration and nostalgia.

State and ethnic nationalists are often rivals for power. State nationalists may view ethnic nationalism as a threat to state unity, especially if it advocates separatism. Most states are dominated by a nation that embrace less dominant nations with laws that to not encourage or tolerate attempts to leave the fold of the state.

On the other side of the divide, ethnic nationalists may view state nationalism as a threat to whatever ethnic autonomy may still exists. Or they may view the state as the legal bastion of the ethnic nation that deprived them of their autonomy in the past, and so regard the state as a barrier to a restoration of their autonomy.

As a result of such rivalries, many states are under increasing pressure to accommodate demands by ethnic (including language and religious) minorities, as represented by politically active advocacy organizations. Some states seriously risk being pulled apart by restless and divisive ethnic nationalisms within or across their borders. And all states are having to adapt to a world order in which regional, corporate, and global interests can override or otherwise alter the meaning of their sovereignty.

No "Ainu nation" within Japanese nationality

All states today are the result of "nation building" that has involved some degree of territorial synthesis, mostly through aggressive expansion that involves conquest and incorporation. Usually a more powerful population invades a weaker one, and annexes the territory of the weaker with the territory of the stronger. Sometimes a smaller population migrates into the territory of a larger population and then dominates it.

Japan, too, is synthetic nation, contrary to romantic arguments that it is one of the few truly "natural" states in the world. See the article on "Nationality in Japan" under Nationality in the Minorities section for a fuller account of the history of changes in the extent of Japan's territory and population. Here I wish merely to illustrate the "territorial imperative" as it figures in "state nationalism" with the example of the conflict between "Japan" and "Russia" as synthetic states whose border conflicts have determined the fate of "Ainu" as a potentially independent "nation-state".

Though Ainu populations were never consolidated under an Ainu "state" as such, the territories of various Ainu communities became objects of acquisition by Japan and Russia. The result of the territorial tug of war between these two expanding states was that the collectivity of Ainu communities -- unable to define and protect themselves as an Ainu state with an Ainu territory and Ainu nationality -- became divided between Japan and Russia. Japan partly justified its interest in Karafuto (Southern Sakhalin) and Chishima (Southern Kuriles), in addition to Ezo/Hokkaido, as "natural" owing to the fact that Ainu had been the dominant people in all three territories.

The People's Republic of China is a self-styled "multinational" state, in that it recognizes the 55 semi-autonomous "minority nations" in addition to the dominant Han people, within its general PRC nationality. Hence all PRC nationals, in addition to being "Chinese" in terms of their state (not racial) nationality, are also Han or Korean or Tibetan or Uighur or whatever nationality. CIS states also recognize a number of "minority nations" within their state nationalities.

The United States recognizes several hundred Native American nations. And many US states recognize a few tribes that are not recognized by the federal government. Some Americans claim to be members of tribes that are not recognized as such by either the federal or a state government. Organizations representing some indigenous peoples, like Native Hawaiians, are pushing for increased recognition that would bring them some degree of formal "nationhood" within the larger "nation" of the United States.

In the late 1980s, Japan came around to officially recognizing "Ainu" as a "minority race/nation" (shosu minzoku). This was merely an admission that, in Japan, among the Japanese people (Nihon kokumin), are "Ainu people" (Ainu no hitobito) who are members of the "Ainu race/nation" (Ainu minzoku). It was not a recognition of "Ainu nationality" within Japanese nationality, which remains singular and non-specific with regard to "ethnicity" or "raciality".

In other words, Japan is a "mononational" state whose nationality is of a uniform quality, undifferentiated by race or ethnicity. Formally, then Japan is a mononational state, whose nationality is the same for all Japanese, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

The empty promise of "national self-determination"

Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) advocated "nationalism" in 1905 as a ideology with which to overthrow the Qing (Ching) dynasty, of Manchu origin, and create an independent Chinese nation that was free of the grip of foreign control and otherwise equal in the world of nations. The Republic of China, established in 1911, supported the United States during the Great War of 1914-1918 in hopes that German and Austrian footholds in China would revert to Chinese control.

However, after joining the war against Germany in 1914, Japan invaded Jiaozhou (Kiaochow) on Shandong (Shantung). In 1915, rejecting China's request to withdraw, Japan presented China with 21 demands, which insisted that Japan be allowed to take over Germany's lease on Jiaozhou, but also sought other territorial concessions and even the right to guide China's domestic affairs.

Partly as a result of pressure from the United States, Japan dropped its demands to control Chinese policy, but China wrangled concessions in Jiaozhou from China, and strengthened its footholds in Manchuria and on the Liaodong (Liaotung) peninsula. In 1919, China refused to sign the Versailles Treaty because the United States and Britain supported the rewarding of Shandong peninsula to Japan and otherwise refused to back China's demands for an end to foreign concessions and extraterritoriality. Protests broke out on May Fourth that year and spread across the nation, and by 1922 Japan had been forced to withdraw from Shangdong and otherwise recognize China's sovereignty.

The "self-determination of nations" implied by Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) in 1918 was with respect to "peoples" of "nations" regarded as "states". The United States, though it wanted to limit the expansion of colonialism in China, was not in the business of advocating separatist movements based on a notion of ethnicity. To do so would have jeopardized America's own colonial interests. It would also have given license to any self-styled nation within the United States to form its own government and break away from federal system.

Japan did not give up its designs on China, however. In 1931, it seized Manchuria, and in 1937 it invaded and began occupying as much of the country as it could. The effect of Japan's aggression in China was to unite divisive Nationalist and Communist forces, which had been engaged in a civil war, against Japan as a common enemy.

The civil war in China was itself territorial, as Nationalists defended parts of China they controlled from Communist incursions. The unified resistance against Japan was territorial in a more nationalistic sense -- the "nation" of China defending itself against incursions by the "Great Empire of Japan" -- who was living up to its name.

Japan's sovereign dominion then consisted of the prefectures plus Taiwan and Korea, and Karafuto and the Kuriles. Everyone affiliated with these territories had Japanese nationality (kokuseki). In addition, everyone had a "subnationality" (minseki) associated with their local territorial affiliation -- prefectural, Taiwan, Korea, and Karufuto.

Nations in search of states

Many states once forged from several ethnic nations have since broken up into smaller states that more closely represent the original ethnic nations. There are also ethnic nations within states, or divided between states, that would like to form states -- such as Kurds and Palestinians. Separatists within the ranks of a number of "minority nationalities" and "indigenous peoples" also harbor dreams of total independence.

Geographic and demographic territory

Nationalism -- though based on real and romantic sentiments about race, language, culture, and history -- is primarily "territorial" in both the terrestrial and demographic sense. People are as much an object of territorial possession and control as land, water, air. Their labor is just another resource to be exploited, mining coal, tilling fields, or manning armies.


Origins and history

Revising the past

History is supposed to be a science. As such its truths are tentative. It is a body of theories and hypotheses, really. All that historians claim to be true is subject to review, revision, even rejection, whenever skepticism leads to new evidence that alters conventional views of the past.

Like other sciences, history is vulnerable to the forces of ideology and dogma that can blind even the harder mathematical sciences, like physics and astronomy. If you believed that the earth was the center of the universe, and that the sun orbited around the earth, then the likes of Kepler, Copernicus, and Galileo had to be vilified as heretics. Ditto for Darwin and his theory of evolution in the eyes of Biblical creationists.

Historians who believe a priori that Japan's motives in building an empire were honorable, if not entirely pure, are bound to regard evidence to the contrary as flawed. They are ideologically compelled to reflexively question the integrity of evidence that something more than a victory parade took place at Nanjing, for example.


Migration and mixture

Peopling nationalism

The peopling of the world is one of greatest puzzles of anthropology. Most evolutionists endorse the view that humans migrated to other parts of the world out of Africa. From there, opinions divide as where and how racially distinct populations evolved and migrated.

Anthropologists were once comfortable with racial typologies based entirely on surface features. No credible anthropologist today would base racial classifications on only on traits like skin color and cranial index. The shapes of certain teeth and other physical features also have to be taken into account.

But most of the light being shed on the racial diversification of Homo sapiens is coming from the beacon of DNA and other biochemical analyses of human tissue, including blood and its increasingly long list of types. Similar analyses are being carried out on other species, such as mice and dogs, which often migrate with human populations.

Biological anthropology, or the marriage of evolutionary biology with physical anthropology, has taken anthropology far beyond the days when it focused only on skin and bone, so to speak. Students of hominid evolution now have to take human population genetics into consideration in ways that could not have been imagined just a couple of decades ago.

What a person is has mostly to with where, and how, one was born and raised. Genetics may suggest the complexity of one's biological tree. And students of migration and mixture may help explain how one's genes came to be where and how they are today. However, a person's genes, much less how they came to be pooled the way they are through migration and mixture, have little to do with what ultimately makes the person an individual human.



Digging nationalism

The archaeology of Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas, meaning lands within and around the Pacific Rim, makes for exciting reading. However, one has to read the excavated and otherwise revealed evidence with an eye for patterns that have nothing to do with present-day political boundaries and flags.

This is not to say that present-day populations, and the states that claim them as nationals, are not somehow related to archaeological findings. It simply means that one has to prove, and not assume, associations between what remains of earlier societies within the territories of present-day societies.

For people move, displace, replace, and mix with other people. And their descendants are apt to shape explanations for their present circumstances out of myths and legends about their pasts, and their descendants are apt to regard such explanations history.

One of the greatest obstacles to understanding the past, especially after the advent of writing, when history as such begins, is how rulers and states are wont to interpret the past in ways that expedite the justification or legitimation of their claim to power or their right to govern in the present. Virtually all major states, and most minor states, engage in the practice of nationalizing archaeology for the sake of maintaining the sort of social order that would facilitate their future continuation.

Political forces in Israel, China, Japan, Russia, the United States, and other countries conspire toward nationalistic views of the past that can seriously affect the way archaeologists, with nationalist sympathies, interpret their findings. Findings that find favor with state-controlled funding institutions have to be regarded with caution.

This does not mean that the findings of excavations sponsored by states or other interest groups (including religious and ethnic organizations) are wrong. It simply means that readers should never take for granted the veracity of conclusions that seem to extrapolate too far beyond a purely internal analysis of the field data.

I say this because, today, it is fashionable to impute meanings to artifacts and relics that cannot speak for themselves, in concert with one or another anthropological theory. The raw data is often little more than inkblots on which investigators impose, or project, their pet theories of social organization.

Fine, so long as the interpretations are understood to be highly creative, if not purely imaginary. Not so fine should they be pressed into the service of a romantic ideology and its nationalist or territorialist gods.


Japan in the world



Japan and Asia

Undigested past

Japan is often accused of having yet to fully digest its expansionist past, of still arrogant and self-righteous in its views of Korea and China in Japanese history. Japanese are often accused of being ignorant and even apathetic about what their ancestors are supposed to have done in Korea and China during the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.

As states, both ROK and DPRK, and PRC more than ROC, continue to act as victims of past Japanese aggression. As individuals, many Chinese and Koreans expect Japan as a state, and Japanese as individuals, to be more contrite about alleged Japanese crimes against Korean and Chinese humanity.

Yet Korean and Chinese states have adopted victimhood vantage points from which they are unable to see all their own trees, much less all the forests, of Asian and world history. They, too, are guilty of failing to fully comprehend the significance of their past relations with Japan.

Revision essential

People who attempt to partly vindicate Japan's colonial and military adventures in East and Southeast Asia, or otherwise dispute the claims of historians (including many Japanese) who view Korea and China as victims of Japanese imperialism, are castigated as "revisionists" if not "denialists". Yet orthodox victimhood histories need to accommodate a number of truths, no matter how unpleasant their ring to some Korean, Chinese, and even Japanese ears.

Pride is a delicate emotion. False pride is pride not based on truth. Truth is not a matter of pleasure or convenience. Facts are simply facts, to be accepted, unconditionally.

Freedom of expression

Nothing is more essential to a healthy pursuit of historical truth than freedom of expression. Like it not in the eyes of people who would censor instances of what might be instances of extreme bad taste, Japan has become a freer society than any of its East Asian neighbors.

In recent decades, it has always been more possible to publish unorthodox and even radically extremist critiques of Japan, China, and Korea. The recent spate of comics and books that appear to be bashing China and Korea, and beautifying Japan, are new only in the sense that, today, they are likely to be inspired by Chinese and Korean critics of their own countries.


War and espionage

War as ritualized conflict

Wars have been a vital part of the human condition. This is not to say that a state of war is ever good. It is simply an acknowledgment that human populations are essentially territorial entities which inevitably clash over their boundaries and included resources.

Wars are not, however, limited to resolving conflicts violently. War is a form of collective human behavior, and as such it has been conventionalized to the point that wars are fought with rules. Like other forms of human behavior, war can also be ritualized to the extent that a war may be motivated more by politicocultura necessity than by actual need for collective defense.

One long punctuated war

The spread of colonialism and industrialization around the world was essentially a state of war that was sometimes active and sometimes dormant. All the wars over the past few centuries -- the Revolutionary War, Indian Wars, and Civil War in the United States -- all the wars that have involved Japan, Korea, China, and Russia in East Asia -- the World Wars that embroiled the entire globe -- the Korean and Vietnam wars -- and the more recent wars in the Middle East -- all these wars can be viewed as a single (though complex) war with singular (though complex) causes -- stemming from imperatives of national conflict in the human condition.

That creation of the League of Nations in 1919 after World War I, and of the United Nations in 1945 after World War II, are recent signs of a growing collective awareness that territorial aggression and conflict have to be avoided and mediated.

In the meantime, most nations of any size invest substantial amounts of their wealth in the maintenance of defensive military units that could be pressed into the service of territorial aggression -- though always , as ritual requires, as a police action, or in the name of peace or prevention. And these nations resort to all manner of means, including the deployment of spies and other agents, to gather information about their real and imaginary enemies.


Viva nationalism

Counter nationalisms

Here you will find critiques of various lengths of books related to Chinese and Korean issues in Japan. Most of the books are halls of mirrors in the sense that the writers are defending Japan against charges of nationalism by Chinese and Korean nationalists. Most of the writers are Japanese, including a few who were naturalized from Chinese or Korean nationality. Others are Chinese or Koreans who were born in Japan or who immigrated to Japan, and a few are Chinese or Koreans who whose books have been translated into Japanese.

What all these books have in common is their opposition to conventional victimhood views of Sino-Japanese and Korean-Japanese relations, concerning Japan's actions in East Asia during the roughly seventy years before the end of World War II in 1945. Many are considered "anti-Chinese" or "anti-Korean" by people who are comfortable with conventional victimhood views of history and regard efforts to rewrite this history as an effort to vindicate if not rekindle the sort of nationalism that spawned it.

However, such books need to be seen as products of a free society that is searching for truth, and hence they need to be read as efforts to improve the quality of historical understanding. Some of the books include verbal or graphic material that may not serve the cause of truth, or may not be in the best of taste even when truthful. However, all are contributions to a much needed and long-overdue examination of what actually happened during the period of Japanese expansion into China, Korea, and other parts of Asia, and discussion of what meanings should be imputed to what happened.

Intolerance of freedom to voice views that go against the grain of convention is the surest way to encourage preference for myth and falsehood over truth.


Domestic politics

Influence and power

Some people talk about "political influence" but politics is about power.

Influence can affect the outcome of events whether or not the source of influence desires and intends the outcome. Influence, though felt, can be ignored. Trade offs in interests are the result of free choice, not coercion. You can use a cell phone or a competitive non-mobile phone. You don't have to go with the flow.

Power is something that a person or an organization wields and applies to cause events to transpire as desired. Power cannot be ignored without unfavorable consequences. You pay your taxes or go to jail. Don't like cellular phones? Tough. You must now pay many times more for a conventional phone -- or do without.

True, there is a lot of "influence peddling" in the world of politics. And all manner of trading of favors and other forms of give and take. But "power" figures only in compromises that one does not really wish to make.

International politics

States joggle for position in world of limited territory and resources. Their relationships are typically based on some combination of economic, technological, and military power. An oil-rich state has the power to shut down an oil-hungry state by refusing to supply petroleum. The oil-hungry state might have the military power to secure a continuous supply of oil. Or it might have the technological power to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, and leave the oil-rich state without a market to sustain its economy.

Identity politics

Metaphorically, "identity" politics are about power that originates in perceptions and uses of attributes like gender, race, ethnicity, sexual persuasion, and religious belief. Since politics is about "empowerment" -- an ethnic organization, say, empowers itself by manipulating the means of acquiring and exercising power to achieve specific goals -- laws and social policies, say -- that favor its members.


Imperial family

Sovereigns and symbols

Japan's "imperial" family is not today imperial. Nor in its history, spanning about two millennia, has it ever been notably "imperial".

Translating tenno as "emperor" was possibly justified during the Meiji, Taisho, and early Showa periods when Mutsuhito, Yoshihito, and Hirohito were constitutionally empowered as sovereign monarchs. Ironically, the movement in Japan to replace "emperor" with "tenno" in the English translation of the 1889 Constitution was came in the late 1930s, when the Great Empire of Japan was rapidly nearing its imperialist peak.

Given the misunderstandings that continue to be engendered by calling Japan's figurative head of state "emperor" in English -- you would think that government wordsmiths and propagandists would get smart and just call him, or her if it comes to that, "tenno". Then explain, to anyone who puzzles over this mysterious word, that it is just an old politicoreligious title with little meaning today.



Nationalism is never really new. No country can survive without a healthy nationalism, and all countries risk destabilization by morbid nationalism.

At best, nationalism is the emotional wellspring of a nation's vitality. No family, community, or country can survive without considerable solidarity among its members. And solidarity requires a sense of belonging and a willingness to get along. Love, pride, respect, and confidence in one's relatives, neighbors, and countrymen are as essential to personal health as they are to collective well-being.

Nationalism becomes a problem only when it encourages the members of one nation to feel superior toward the members of another nation, or to covet the territory or population of another nation, or to discriminate against the nationals of another nation.

Corrective and unhealthy nationalism

In some cases, a resurgence of nationalism reflects an attempt to correction a condition in which a nation lacks the social cohesion it needs to survive in whatever arena its existence appears to be threatened -- economic, demographic, environmental, even territorial.

In other cases, sentiments about history, territory, and population overshoot the limits of healthy nationality as they suffer amnesia about past realities or denial of present realities that need to be acknowledged and accounted for. Or they become infested with a romantic ideology that views the nation as a singular racioethnic rather than complex civil entity.

Such virulent forms of nationalism are never entirely eradicated. At times, likes bears in winter, they are driven into caves. At the first sign of spring, they come out lethargic and hungry, and invigorate themselves, feeding mainly on the politically innocent -- which, thanks to most education systems, are never in short supply.


Ibuki Bunmei

This guy is no slouch. He lacks Nakasone Yasuhiro's charisma but is smart enough to recognize that Nakasone's brand of soft-spoken romantic nationalism has a very strong appeal with practically no objection from the masses -- who, like masses everywhere, are vulnerable to logic of racioethnic pride.


Miyazawa Kiichi

Miyazawa Kiichi will be remembered more his service on the cabinets of other prime ministers, than what he didn't achieve during his own brief incumbency from November 1991 and August 1993. He was known for his ability to express his thoughts about the economy and other issues in English -- but his thoughts in neither Japanese nor English reached the velocity to escape the run-of-the-mill views of Japanese history and society.

Miyazawa harped a lot about Japan being a country of "teamwork" -- and he himself was, if nothing else, a good team player within the Liberal Democratic Party -- where arguably he took "liberal" and "democratic" a bit more to heart than certain other party members, like Nakasone Yasuhiro.

While Miyazawa's age and softer conservatism may disqualify him as a true neocon, his public characterizations of Japan as a practically monoethnic entity makes him at least an accomplice.


Ishihara Shintaro

Ishihara Shintaro has said a lot of things that have offended some people and earned him the reputation of being anti-foreign, anti-female, anti-French, anti-Chinese, anti-black, anti-you-name-it. His name pops up in practically every article about Japan -- written by foreign correspondents who need to drop the name of a reputed rightist.

Fortunately, Ishihara is not interested in living up to the labels pinned on him by his detractors. Nor is he the sort to waste his time worrying about what foreign hacks write about him, much less pursuing the more irresponsible writers in libel court.

Ishihara is a good example of the sort of leader Japan needs by the hundreds -- not because of what he has sometimes said and brought him negative attention -- but because he is not easily intimidated and therefore speaks his mind.


Nakasone Yasuhiro

Nakasone Yasuhiro ran a fairly good ship as prime minister, all things considered. He will be remembered as the chief architect of the undoing of some of the changes imposed on Japan after World War II. He has, in fact, been objecting to certain things imposed on Japan by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) during the occupation of Japan between 1945 and 1952 -- since he become a politician during the late 1940s.

Representation to General MacArthur

In January 1951, as a Member of the House of Representatives, he made a "Representation to General MacArthur" in English. An article in Japan News dated 24 January 1951 said this.

Japanese Submit Report To SCAP

Democratic Representative Yasuhiro Nakasone submitted to SCAP on Monday a report on "what the Japanese are thinking" about various issues confronting this country, reports Kyodo.

The 28-page report was presented through Dr. Justin Williams, Chief of the Parliamentary and Political Division, Government Section, GHQ.

Mr. Nakasone was formerly vice-chairman of the Political Affairs Research Committee of the People's Democratic Party.

The copy I have is a facsimile of the copy apparently kept by Dr. Justin Williams, for it has his notes on the cover, and some of the underlining may well be his. One of two notes on the cover says this.

Original taken to the SCAP by C.W.: "Torn to pieces by the SCAP and hurled into wastebasket."

It is, however, a remarkably passionate report, coming as it did four years into Nakasone's career in the National Diet. The report reflects the ethnic pride that sustained him over into the 21st century.

The report also reflects the soul of a conservative politician who, throughout his career, has recognized that "Surely old Japan, being impatient for gaining upon Europe and America, has committed many sins and errors since the Meiji era, consciously and unconsciously, internationally and internally" (page 13). And -- speaking of the difficulties of postwar life for the families of deceased and demobilized Japanese soldiers -- "It was a wrong war, but it is not their faults" (sic, page 17).

Social intelligence and bushy brows

Nakasone will also be remembered as the Defense Agency chief who lent his support to Mishima Yukio and shared Mishima's feelings that Japan would not be a truly sovereign state until it was entirely responsible for its own defense.

But some people will remember Nakasone mainly for his boasting in 1986 that Japan's social intelligence was higher than that of the United States, because certain US minorities scored lower on achievement tests. This was not exactly what he said, but this was why he said it.

He will also be remembered for claiming -- when defending his social intelligence quip -- that Japan was a "monoethnic state" (tan'itsu minzoku kokka). He responded to his Ainu Japanese critics by drawing attention to his bushy eyebrows and suggesting, seriously, that some of his own ancestors might have been Ainu. Who is to know.


Umehara Takeshi

Umehara was not satisfied with being just a scholar-philosopher. He cranked out numerous books for a cult following of neo-animists who took to heart his praise of the spiritual purity of Jomon people. It was Umehara, who found remnants of the Jomon spirit in present-day Ainu culture, who got Nakasone to thinking he might have Ainu blood in his veins.

Umehara's writings, and his public and television appearances, inspired Jomon theme parks at Jomon archaeological sites. They also motivated attempts to recreate Jomon life -- Jomon dwellings, Jomon pots, Jomon clothing, Jomon food.

Nakasone's cultural brain

Umehara shared Nakasone's concern that the world correctly understand Japan's spiritual history. Toward this end, he allowed himself to be courted by Nakasone and became in effect his cultural brain.

During Nakasone's incumbency in the 1980s, Umehara was instrumental in helping the Ministry of Education set up the National Japanese Cultural Center in Kyoto, and Nakasone appointed him its first director.

So though Umehara may not be a dyed-in-the-silk Yamatoist, he has been an unabashed Jomonist. And one can see traces of his romantic naturalism in Nakasone's nativism.



Education is the the singularly most powerful tool at the disposal of a government to mold young minds to accept the government's goals and do the government's bidding. It does not matter that the government is secular or religious, democratic or dictatorial. All governments view what is taught in schools as the foundation of the nation's future.

When governments radically change, schools and curricula also radically change, to reflect the goals of the old order. This holds for Japan today as much as it did during the Meiji period and after World War II.

The 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education and the 1947 Fundamental Law of Education were promulgated at times when Japan underwent huge changes in direction socially and politically. The 2006 Fundamental Law of Education comes at a time when, again, there is a perception that national survival requires future generations to think differently about the nation and themselves as its constituents.



Nationalism comes in all the colors of "nation", which can refer to entities as different as "state" and "volk" or "race". In Japanese, too, the kanji expression ‘‰ÆŽå‹` (kokka shugi, statism), –¯‘°Žå‹` (minzoku shugi, ethnonationalism), and ˆ€‘Žå‹` (aikoku shugi, patriotism) are sometimes equated by furigana with the katakana expression ƒiƒVƒ‡ƒiƒŠƒYƒ€ (nashonarizumu).

Ethnonationalism -- love of a nation as a racioethnic entity -- often includes statism -- differs depending on the status of the ethnic nation within a state. Since states are likely to be controlled by majority ethnic nations within the state's nationality, minority ethnic nations are likely to be anti-statist. The majority ethnic nation, however, is likely to be statist, in the sense that it views the state as its ally in controlling or assimilating minority ethnic nations.

In Japan, ethnonationalism typically takes the form of Yamatoism -- a romantic association of Japan's civic nationality with "Yamato minzoku" -- the Yamato race or ethnic nation. Nakasone Yasuhiro is a good example of a Yamatoist who is also a statist -- a Yamatoist who, in his case, views Japan's state as a natural (spontaneous) geopolitical development, rather than as an artificial (legally or ideologically contrived) entity.


Yasukuni Shrine

Yasukuni shrine is there to stay. Should incumbent prime ministers pay their respects at the shrine?

Some people in Japan avoid discussing Yasukuni. Their silence is not bizarre. Atheism is a touchy issue in the United States. In some localities, admitting that one is an atheist is a life-threatening behavior.

Domestic issue

I view Yasukuni as a purely domestic issue. The People's Republic of China and the Republic of Korea should let the people of Japan decide the significance of the shrine, a private entity, in national life.

It makes no sense for PRC and ROK to reflexively view visits to Yasukuni by incumbent prime ministers as efforts to divest Japan of its responsibility for past acts in China or Korea. If all people should be free to express their spiritual sentiments, then no public official, even an incumbent head of state, should be obliged to explain why he or she prays in church, pages the gods at Yasukuni, or offers a mikan to a roadside jizo.

Koizumi's Yasukuni visits

This was Koizumi Jun'ichiro's position when he was prime minister (incumbent 2001-2006). Koizumi repeatedly said that his visits were not efforts to deny the past or exonerate war crime convictees. Nor did he consider his visits endorsements of the exhibits at the war museum adjacent to the shrine.

Koizumi prayed for all the souls at rest in the shrine, including those of the war crime convictees. After all, he said, they have paid the price. Death by hanging deprived them of their lives as individuals held responsible for the war, but not of their souls as human beings.

Yasukuni war museum

The Yasukuni is a war museum adjacent to Yasukuni shrine. It is not part of the shrine itself but some visitors to the shrine pay the price of admission to see its extensive exhibits of weaponry and patriotic bric-a-brac, read its views of why Japan got embroiled in the war in China and the Pacific, and drop a few yen at the museum shop.

The Japan Times carried an article called "Telling the truth at Yasukuni" by Hisahiko Okazaki, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Thailand, who summarized his work in a project to modify some of the exhibitions in order to improve what he called "the intellectual integrity of Yasukuni Shrine" (Japan Times, 24 February 2007).

Here is my take on the shrine and the museum, as published in Readers in Council in The Japan Times on 7 March 2007.

Yasukuni's spiritual integrity

By William Wetherall

Illuminate new facts and reinterpret old facts to develop a more accurate and truthful understanding of what happened in East Asia between, say, the middle of the 19th century and the end of World War II? Fine. With a focus on Japan, China and the United States during the 1930s and 1940s? Fine. This is what historians and curators do. And there isn't a book or museum today that tells the story of those troubled times well.

But I would think that a shrine like Yasukuni is about spiritual, not intellectual, integrity. That Yasukuni has a museum at all -- no matter what story its exhibits presume to narrate -- would seem to compromise its integrity as a place where one might go to impartially pray for the repose of the souls of all war dead, including the vanquished the victors hanged as war criminals.



The idea that Japan is an unusual country and its people an unusual nation -- neither easily explained if understood, especially to or by outsiders -- is not new. "Nihonjinron" (discourse on [theories/views of] Japanese people) -- more broadly just "Nihonron" (discourse on Japan) -- became extremely popular after World War II, and especially from the early 1970s. But the roots of such discourse go back to the Meiji period and even earlier.

Prewar Nihonron

Two sentiments -- uniqueness and superiority -- characterize many of the thousands of books and articles that have been written, mostly in Japanese but also in English and other languages, about "Japan" and "the Japanese" as objects in need of explanation. Many prewar writers embraced the idea that Japan was superior as a moral entity and destined by providence to lead if not rule Asia. The expansion of the Great Empire of Japan was emotionally fueled by romantic sentiments of racioethnic supremacist.

Prewar Nihonron writers had to account for the ethnic diversity of the expanding empire. They did so by arguing that, as Japan extended its nationality beyond the prefectures, imperial subjects in external territories would naturally aspire toward superior Yamato standards.

Postwar Nihonjinron

After the collapse of the empire, Nihonron writers turned inward. They now had to consider only the prefectures and their predominately Yamato populations. Supremacy as a metaphor for imperial spread was replaced by uniqueness as a metaphor for containment against American influence. What had been a culture outsiders were expected to respect if not covet, was now a culture they were thought unable to appreciate and not subject to "internationalization".

The sense of superiority which had filled the air before the war became a sense of inferiority as Nihonron and Nihonjinron writers struggled to explain the defeat and salvage what they could of national pride for the sake of reconstruction. As Japan rebuilt itself into an industrial power and acquired wealth through global trade, the country attracted more attention, and more foreigners took an interest in things Japanese. As it became clear that foreigners could master the Japanese language and Japanese arts, earlier preoccupations with Japanese culture as not meant for consumption abroad, gave way to a new pride that now exports culture as confidently as cars.

Nihonjinron today

Some Nihonron today has the sort of nationalistic starch it had before the war, in that the old supremicism has come back -- though in a non-imperialist form. Whereas once the more nationalistic writers endorsed the taking of Japan's superior way of life to others in Asia whether or not it was welcome, today they are calling for the regeneration of traditions and social norms they feel Japan has lost in the wake of postwar materialism and narcissistic individualism.

Some Nihonron writers are concerned about the increase in the population of foreigners as the Japanese population levels off, ages, and drops because of lower fertility rates. From a xenophobic viewpoint not possible in the heyday of the empire -- when relatively large numbers of subjects from external territories migrated to the prefectures -- some writers now warn that Japan not only needs to protect its indigenous fish and plants from exotic species, but also has to safeguard the Yamato ethnic nation from new varieties of people and their less orderly ways of life.



Misunderstandings are failures to understand something which is understandable -- something that could be understand, given knowledge of facts. Disagreements that originate in failure to understand something can be resolved simply by understanding. True disagreements, though, persist even when there is mutual understanding.

Assuming that something can be understood, understanding becomes a matter of having information -- in the form of knowledge and experience -- that permits understanding. However, understanding does not in and of itself engender an obligation to agree or to accept.

International good will

One problem in international relations is the tendency to link "understanding" with "acceptance". In other words, acceptance is taken as evidence of understanding.

Friendly relations between nations are typically predicated on the notion that "understanding" is a matter of "good will" -- and "good will" is best shown by uncritical "acceptance". With the increase in "culture" as a metaphor of national character and value, "mutual understanding" between nations is increasing defined as "cultural understanding" as measured by "cultural acceptance".

Cultural understanding

"Cultural acceptance" as a measure of "cultural understanding" is linked with "cultural relativism" -- the belief that cultural practices are of equal value to their respective practitioners. In other words, "culture" is viewed as something beyond the scope of analysis with an intention to evaluate or criticize.

Criticism of a cultural practice by outsiders seen as tantamount to interference in domestic affairs. Attempts by outsiders to change a cultural practice amounts to aggression.

Cultural politics

The emergence of "culture" as a sacred territory now motivates people and states to shield their behaviors from criticism by describing them as elements of their culture. The invoking of "culture" as license to do what one pleases has political consequences.

Japan is awash with examples of how "culture" has been politicized. Some Japanese see the refusal of some Americans to accept the practice of "dango" -- "consultations" between bidders in order to insure that the lowest bidder will make out well, and that other bidders will get some of the action -- as a failure to understand "Japanese culture". Visitations by Japanese prime ministers to Yasukuni shrine, too, may be seen as expressions of "Japanese culture" that outsiders are expected to accept as a token of understanding.