Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office on Sept 26th and less than 2 months later, on Friday November 17th, an education reform bill reforming the Fundamental Law of Education was cleared by the Lower House and has now progressed to the Upper House. This bill is backed by Shinzo’s government raising the fears of liberals that patriotism may become law in Japan’s schools. A move long awaited by the Mini-skirt Right Wing! (their promotional video pictured here)
Although the wording excludes the direct use of the word patriotism, the bill specifies the need for students to love the nation and homeland. The larger point, however, is that legislation to such an extent gives the central government the go-ahead for complete control over Japan’s education system. This appears to be a move towards fascism. No Mussolini-type figures are in sight at this stage but this is a move worth scrutinizing as, blind allegiance to any group, code or country, robs individuals of their intellectual capabilities to analyse the morality of the actions being asked of them. The worst actions can suddenly become justified if it demonstrates loyalty to the group.
The last time this happened in Japan, circa 1905, the education system was used for militarist radical ideologies, supporting the militarised state and preparing future soldiers. Patriotism was hijacked by a political group with its own agenda, and the lines between human morality and love for ones country were deliberately blurred beyond recognition. Nazi germany had the Hitler Youth, Chairman Mao used the Red Guards and modern Japans miniskirted right wing may yet have its day!
Even so, this bill brings little surprise considering the trends since at least the late 1990’s in Japanese politics have been increasingly nationalistic.
This first shift became obvious to me with the 1998 adoption of the national anthem and flag as state symbols. This almost escaped the radar but when Shintaro Ishihara was elected Mayor of Tokyo in 1999 I became more curious. I had read his book “The Japan That Can Say No” (co-written with Akio Morita, founder of Sony) in 1989 and actually admired his stance in encouraging his countrymen to be more vocal, but I have also kept an interested eye on his vote-winning nationalistic antics ever since.
Ishihara openly supports nationalistic pride and policies. It is also rumoured he is aligned with one of the many secretive ultra-nationalistic groups (groups such as the”Seiryuukai” and “Kokuryukai” have been around since the Meiji period). It is suspected however, that it was he who encouraged them to re-kindle territorial disputes with every Asian neighbour on the many small islands around Japan. Among other things he was also criticised for referring to China as “Shina”- a pre-war pejorative term. The most bold of these antics, and my personal favourite, was organizing a parade of 7000 military (Self-Defence Force) personnel and vehicles (including full size tanks!) through the streets of the Ginza shopping district on a national holiday. Much to the shock of the citizens in the area, who were taken by surprise by the unannounced party.
In 2001, the newly elected Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro was often found in the company of the long term statesman Ishihara. Koizumi caused uproar with his continual visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. It seemed the Mayor of Tokyo and the Prime Minister were on the same page. During Koizumi’s term in power Japan’s Self Defence force received an upgrade in its military capacity overseas as they took part in peace-keeping missions. They are not allowed to carry arms but if they had their way we may see the revival of the old favorite Nambu pistol – once side-arm of choice in the Pacific War. The Koizumi government even pushed in a bill to upgrade the Defence Agency to a fully fledged Ministry – meaning it can act almost independently. Fortunately,the bill is still in deliberation.
In the 1990’s I also noticed an upgrade in not only the noise levels and numbers of the Right Wing trucks that often haunt the Russian and Chinese Embassies – as well as interrupting democratic demonstrations by the people – with their loud speakers and Imperial flags flying, but also an upgrade in their vehicle paint jobs! Someone was funding these guys – the “U-yoku” (右翼, right-wing) – with fat envelopes of cash.
In this Post-War period we are now faced with a dichotomy where the rise of concepts such as the Global Village and borderless trade and communications has expanded rapidly but we also find the throwback to racial conflict and regional nationalism.
However, without even touching on the issues surrounding Article 9. of the Constitution, or the fact that Japan’s main international ambition is to get a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, there are other factors which may be influencing the revival of country worship.
Looking at world history we find that nationalism in any country rises in direct proportion to economic downturn. Japan is no exception to this, as its 10 year economic slide continues.
Why? The need to move the focus of the media and voting public away from poor economic policy by choosing an external enemy or threat and encouraging solidarity of the people to overcome the source of the “evil”.
It is also no secret that there is increasing economic competition from its Asian neighbours i.e. China and South Korea. As anyone who visits these places can soon tell you, these two countries are vehemently patriotic and dare anyone say a word against the country, even jokingly, and you’re likely to provoke a screaming match. The US itself sings it’s national anthem in schools and flies the flag ceremoniously in school grounds. Perhaps the conclusion is obvious; nationalism leads to economic success. Well, maybe?
On another angle, with the war on terrorism still in full swing, the U.S. increased its own shift towards central control and limitation of civil liberties with the passing of the 2001 Patriot Act. Japan is perhaps just on its way to following suit.
And it seems clear with the planned relocation of the U.S. 7th Fleet from Okinawa to a new H.Q. in Guam, the U.S. wishes Japan to take more responsibility in its own military defence and protection of international shipping lanes. The free protection service provided by the U.S. will be logistically more complex from a further distance of Guam hence requiring a stronger Japanese Self Defence Force. This needs appropriate justification to put ASEAN countries at ease who worry that the ex-colonial power may look to expand again.
The solution was found after ‘timely’ missile and nuclear tests raised fears of an attack by North Korea. The result was the sale and installation of the Russian made S-3 ballistic missile defence system. There’s nothing like the threat of invasion from an unstable neighbour to raise feelings of nationalism from your citizens! Demands rose for both self protection and the means to do so. It was the perfect con; the people were so scared they began to ask for their own re-militarisation! (However, as we all know, Japan is protected from any great threat, especially nuclear, by their old and trusty hero – Godzilla. I’m sure he is stirring in the depths getting ready to eat a few warheads as we speak)
Now, perhaps we can agree that a certain amount of national pride is a good thing to give citizens an identity, a sense of ‘self’, and help focus the country in a similar direction be that economic or social. However, making it law? Well that’s the crunch. Patriotism is voluntary! Any state will, of course, encourage it’s people to be patriotic as the only legitimacy it has for existence is this ‘concept of being’ which is granted by its inhabitants. However, making it compulsory through legislation is an encroachment of state power over the rights of the citizens.
Remembering that this is a country where in 1945 the Allied Powers (remember MacArthur, that Asian hero of Time magazine?) had to separate State from Religion, ensure the separation of powers and create a democratic government, in order to remove the myth of divine leadership and destroy the idea of Emperor worship. It was this belief which lead to unquestioning devotion to the state through self sacrifice.The so-called ‘Kamikaze’ pilots have become the most infamous symbol of this extremism.
There is a distinction between healthy patriotic feelings – in which a balance of morality and ethics is maintained and a concept of the universal brotherhood of man plays a central role, and ultra-nationalism – which encourages borders and barriers between people and lforces lines to be drawn in the sand (e.g. “those who are not with us are against us”) which then becomes a cover for violent behaviour and other extreme policies.
This difference needs to be clear and the boundries kept in check. However to now, in 2006, be reintroducing legislation with a core of patriotism is a concern for both foreign countries and Japanese citizens alike.