Japan’s Exclusionary Nationalism: A Striking Essay


There is a striking long essay on Japan in the current (Fall 2017) issue of American Affairs by Asia scholar Michael Auslin.

It opens with some lines from an eighth-century Japanese poem:

Eight clouds arise. The eightfold fence of Idzumo makes an eightfold fence for the spouses to retire [within]. Oh! that eightfold fence.

Auslin then proceeds via a historical account of Japan’s sense of nationhood to some remarks comparing present-day Japan’s “exclusionary nationalism” with the rising ethnic chaos of the West.

Unlike in modern Europe—where ethnic groups compete not only for geographic, but also for political space—in Japan, a powerful sense of group identity serves to unify politics and society, particularly after World War II. Resistance against the state has come largely from workers’ unions and leftist parties during the first half of the twentieth century, along with a brief spasm of student-led rebellion in the 1960s, but there has been little after that. Instead, most Japanese appear to welcome both a stable political system and the physical security brought about by Japan’s exclusionary nationalism, even as they choose how and when to integrate with the surrounding world.

. . . . .

It is an almost heretical thought, but maybe Japan has made better national choices since the 1990s than we have given it credit for. It has succeeded in providing a stable and secure life for its people, despite significant economic challenges and statistical stagnation. It has done so in part by maintaining cohesion at home and certain barriers against the world. By comparison, America and Europe appear increasingly confounded by their failures to ensure sociocultural integration, keep their economies growing equally for all, and provide security in the heart of their great cities. When historians look back on global history from the 1990s into the first decades of the twenty-first century, how will they judge which nations were successful, and which failed to provide a good life for their people?

Some negatives are duly noted:

Socially, Japanese youth are widely reported to be dissatisfied with their future prospects, and the scope for individualism in the workplace remains tightly constricted. Foreigners are tolerated but not particularly welcomed, and Japanese of Korean descent still face discrimination. Immigration is all but absent. Moreover, Japan has faced its own homegrown terrorists, like the millennial Aum Shinrikyo cult back in the 1990s. Above all, the country faces a debilitating demographic collapse, one that no modern democracy has ever encountered and that poses the single greatest threat to Japan’s future.

Still:

Compared with the problems that both the West and many of its neighbors face, Japan’s relative strength and stability should at least cause us to rethink our assumptions about social and economic policy.

And reports of Japan’s economic demise have been greatly exaggerated:

Japan remains a high-income country by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) standards. Its GDP per capita at purchasing power parity rates increased from $35,779 in 2011 to $40,763 in 2015, while the cost of living in Tokyo and other major cities declined, due in part to moderate deflationary trends. Japan’s Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, stood at 0.32 in 2008 (the latest year available), according to the World Bank. Though higher than many European nations, it likely remains lower than America’s 2013 measure of 0.41.

Whether Japan might have done better for itself economically by embracing globalism, there can’t be much doubt that “exclusionary nationalism” has proved a winner socially.

Economic data tell only part of the national story. Other measures show a picture of social strength. To give just a few examples, Americans are five times as likely to be murdered as their Japanese counterparts, according to the United Nations. Japan, with approximately 40 percent of the population of the United States, recorded just 442 cases of intentional homicide in 2011, a rate of 0.3 per 100,000 inhabitants. Meanwhile, in America, 14,661 persons were murdered intentionally, a rate of 4.7 per 100,000. While gun control advocates point out that Japan has far more stringent gun laws than the United States, crimes of all kinds, especially violent crimes, occur far less frequently in Japan than in America. Japan is a more peaceful society because of factors other than regulation of guns. There are few debates over what it means to be “Japanese,” and different segments of society rarely seem to be at one another’s throats.

Not much worry about Islamist terrorism, either.

Unlike the West, consumed by the threat of terrorism for half a generation, Japan is a modernized and liberal society not directly at risk from the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and homegrown Islamist radicals. Like any nation, it offers a plethora of soft targets, but the reality is that Japan is in comparatively little danger. Its people live in a reality entirely different from that of the West, spared from a seemingly endless fight against an implacable enemy who now lives among them.

L’envoi:

A still-strong sense of being a country apart, a desire to maintain domestic social and political stability, and a wariness of draining national wealth on overseas interventions will continue to demarcate the limits of Japan’s engagement with the world. As it has from time immemorial, the eightfold fence continues to ring, and to protect, the islands of Japan.

Long may it continue to do so, to preserve at least one of the world’s nations (“the wealth of mankind; its collective personalities”—Solzhenitsyn) from the evils of totalitarian globalism.

Footnote:  Concerning that “debilitating demographic collapse” that “poses the single greatest threat to Japan’s future,” I said the following thing in Chapter 11 of We Are Doomed:

It is a plausible general principle that, when the human race in its overall development comes to some kind of bridge, the first nation to cross the bridge successfully has a great advantage over other nations. Britain was the first nation to industrialize, and dominated world affairs for a century afterwards. If demographic decline is inevitable—which of course it is: the Earth must have some maximum carrying capacity—the first nation to get through the transition intact, and conquer the associated problems, will be at a huge advantage. On current showing, that will be Japan.