Nationalism in Modern Japan

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The existence of any state is inextricably linked with the concept of nation and nationalism. Despite the long-term use of the concept of nationalism, researchers still have not come to a consensus about the meaning of the term. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010) provides one of the most common definitions of nationalism: “(1) the attitude that the members of a nation have when they care about their national identity, and (2) the actions that the members of a nation take when seeking to achieve (or sustain) self-determination.”

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According to another popular definition, nationalism is “a feeling that people have of being loyal to and proud of their country often with the belief that it is better and more important than other countries” (Merriam Webster, 2013). Nationalism continues to be very important factor of the existence of any modern state. It is crucial at various levels: political, economic, military and others. Modern Japan is no exception. Moreover, it has showed itself even more nationalistic than other countries, in particular in the period of its modernization. The aim of this paper is to analyze the beginning of the development of nationalism in Japan as well as its status in contemporary Japanese society.

The Beginning of the Development of Nationalism in Japan

Nationalism and nationalist ideology in Japan have traditionally catered to the politically nation-state. They helped defend national territorial sovereignty and avoid Japan's colonization of the West. To this end, based on a nationalist ideology, the state used military force, mobilized the nation, increased taxation, and generally ensured the state control over society. The recovery of the imperial form of government after the Meiji Restoration in 1868 has led to the fact that nationalism has become a particular political force. It contributed to the success of the political practice in consolidating the society to meet the challenges of modernizing the country and the protection of national sovereignty.

Formation of Japanese nationalism fit into the definition given by Anthony Giddens in his famous work The Nation-State and Violence. Giddens stressed that the state was a geographically limited national formation, which relied on military force, and the nation and nationalism were its most distinctive feature (Giddens, 1985). Giddens defines nationalism as primarily a psychological phenomenon, as the commitment of individuals to a set of symbols and beliefs. They attach particular importance to the feelings of community among representatives of the political order (Giddens, 1985). The author stated that the nation-state and nationalism only appeared when the capital of the state began to perform its permanent management functions.

Nationalism in Japan, on the one hand, acted as a special susceptibility of the nation to the national sovereignty and independence. On the other, it was an expression of special reverence for the administrative authority that protected this sovereignty. Nationalism in Japan was doomed to develop as a "necessarily state and political," while "cultural nationalism" was not popular in Japan. The same as in the West, Japan was characterized by the development of the trajectory of political nationalism. It was based on the model "from the state to the nation" and not on the model "from the nation to the state," which was rather peculiar to "cultural nationalism." Nationalism in Japan has never developed as a result of the gap between the autonomous state and society. It has never been a reflection of the people’s dissatisfaction with the ruling elite of the state.

Nationalism and nation proved to be significant in the history of Japan only recently. The reason is that they have been associated with the state, namely, with the achievement and the maintenance of the state power. In Japan, the nation did not have any independent conceptual status out of its connection with the state. In Japan, the nation has always been incorporated into the concept of the state and never existed independently. The Japanese gave their lives not for abstract nation as a "community of strangers," but for a very specific nation-state, with which they felt a close psychological connection. They made sacrifices even if they were not familiar with the majority of its members, for the sake of whom they were ready for the real victims.

Japanese nationalism recognized the special significance of the nationalist ideology and national symbols. One considered them essential parts of the formation of the nation-state as a "political community." The development of nationalism in Japan shows that it did not only embrace the idea of a political community, or was one of the means used by the government. Moreover, it has always been closely linked to the cultural community, that is, with the "people" ("minzoku") living in their historical and spiritual homeland. Therefore, the desire for political autonomy on their territory has been an important part of Japanese nationalism (Smith, 1986).

The Japanese nation was formed by the state as a result of its economic and military activities. According to Tilly (1975), the government appears before the nation, while the latter is just a simple construction, which depends on the state, its power, and importance. Therefore, it can never be independent from the state (Tilly, 1975). Wars and conflicts were the motors of the process of state building in Japan and the formation of the Japanese nation. That is why Japanese nationalism subsequently broadened and deepened the role of the war. Japanese nationalists regarded the war as necessary factor for the survival of the nation and its values. From the end of nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, the growth of industrial production and technologies of mass destruction was achieved. This ideal contributed to the fact that Japan took part in a series of international conflicts.

It was accompanied by the globalization of the state system of Japan under the influence of nationalism and the growing penetration of the state in the daily lives of the Japanese on behalf of the nation. The role of permanent wars and conflicts in Japan was significant as they contributed to strengthening the Japanese nationalism. During these wars, the Japanese nation heightened the sense of collective identity by mobilizing men and expressing hostility towards other nations in order to develop a sense of national unity. Michael Mann wrote that wars were of paramount importance in the formation of nationalism (Mann, 1986). Like Tilly and Giddens, Mann argued that the military and political factors have played an important role in the development of nations and nationalism. One might find the confirmation of it in Japanese history.

According to the political theory of nationalism, the state in Japan has always hung over the lives of its subjects. It imposed taxes on them calling for military service, and trying to mobilize their enthusiasm to attain state goals. However, in contrast to the European nationalism, nationalism in Japan was not part of a movement for democracy. Nationalism in Japan has not developed as a reaction to the authoritarian and militarized actions of the state. It was formed by the Japanese authorities, who inspired people that their private interests and national interests are the same. As a result, the Japanese were accustomed to the fact that they are an integral part of the militarized community that protects their interests. However, in return, they were expected to perform their duty to the nation.

Nationalism in Modern Japan

Modern scholars, for example Robert Borgen (2000) and Bruce Stronach (1995), state the existence of nationalism in contemporary Japan, which is associated with the national interests of the country. Due to Andy Yee (2013), “in contemporary Japan, national memory is an ideological battleground.” Working in the public interest, the Japanese nationalists do not get tired to stress the uniqueness of the Japanese nation and its popular culture. It is important to note that an overwhelming majority of its members divides the nationalist theory of the exclusiveness of the Japanese nation. The Japanese are pleased to see and realize that foreigners pay tribute to the special nature of their culture and traditions. In this case, none of the Japanese nationalists says that Japanese nationalism had a form of aggressive nationalism and even fascism.

The historical experience of Japanese nationalism confirms that its main aim has always been to strengthen the state. In this case, the nationalist idea as a political doctrine consists of three main statements:

  1. The Japanese nation has a distinct uniqueness and special character.
  2. The interests and values of the Japanese nation take priority over all other interests and values.
  3. Japanese nation should be independent, as far as it is possible in a given moment.

With respect to the explanation of the causes of modern nationalism in Japan, it is useful to consider John Breuilly’s idea about the widening gap between the "state" and "society." The state focuses mainly on its own survival, while the society is left alone and must worry about its survival without relying on support from the state. Under these conditions, the demand for the ideology of nationalism greatly increases (Breuilly, 1993). Breuilly emphasizes that the emergence of problems that appears in the split between the state and society generates nationalism. Nationalism is a political attempt to solve this problem. The only concern of the nationalism is the restoration of harmonious relations between the state and society.

Nationalist ideology, on the one hand, satisfies the spiritual needs of the community, reminding about the "exclusiveness" of the nation. On the other hand, the ideology helps the ruling political elite consolidate the society of “equal citizens” (Breuilly, 1993). Nationalists return the Japan society to its natural state. They focus the attention of the citizens on the national culture and national uniqueness through the prism of the uniqueness of the state in which they live and to which they owe everything. In other words, the task of nationalists in modern conditions is to build bridges between cultural uniqueness of the nation and its political uniqueness. Moreover, the main purpose of the nationalist movements is upbringing of a sense of national identity among the ruling elites.

The nationalists in Japan cope with this task effectively. They reunite society and the state. They actively promote the idea of the "uniqueness" of the Japanese nation within their own state and compare it with other nations. Thus, Japanese nationalists, at least within Japan, strive to solve problems of the split between the state and society. They try to restore the glorious past of the nation. In this case, the cultural identity of the nation is the basis for its political mobilization. That is why the Japanese nationalists carefully guard its cultural identity and take care of the unique cultural heritage of the nation, and the "personality" of a Japanese. At the same time, they do not argue with the assertion, according to which nationalism should remain a form of state policy.

Japanese nationalists base their advocacy on religious, racial, and linguistic nationalist ideologies, but they never deny the primary role of the state. Nationalism is a form of politics. However, at the same time, it is a form of culture based on the unique historical experience of the development of the nation. It supports the spirit, inner energy, and the dynamics of development. Nationalists in Japan attach particular importance to including the educated intellectuals in their ranks. Nationalists believe that latter are able to contribute to the development and consolidation of the political movement.

First of all, they pay attention to the involvement of school teachers and university professors in the nationalist movement. It is their imagination and reason, which give the nation its basic shape and emotional content. With the help of their images and symbols, such as "people," "Motherland," "destiny," and others, they describe and represent to their audience a special and unique character of the nation. These images give to nationalism its mobilizing attractiveness and direction. Without them, nationalism would be deprived of its unusual power. Moreover, without these images, the political movement would be simply an anti-state. The ideology and the symbols of nationalism are significant as political institutions and movements (Anderson, 1991).

In contemporary processes of globalization, the territory for Japanese nationalists is important as it is a necessary arena of the government and the nationalist aspirations. The desire to control "their ancestral territories" is very typical for Japanese nationalism, since it is "the land of our ancestors," the historic land. That is why it is so desirable because of its symbolic value, political significance or economic resources belonging to the Japanese nation. The role of the state as a central element of the nationalist ideology in Japan is particularly prominent. The Japanese believe that the state protects the nation and its culture.

Even in the most adverse historic conditions of the post-war American occupation (1945-1951) the government of Japan was capable to maintain the cultural identity of the nation, its collective memory, and the fatherland as well as its ethnic history and national unity. The Japanese government did it in spite of the American policy of destruction of the Japanese traditional public and cultural nationalism after the Second World War. The Japanese authorities have defended the national and state independence. They effectively resisted the U.S. policy of dismantling the entire national in Japan, from the eradication of Japanese nationalism, its spiritual basis Shintoism, the reforms in education and ending with the military and industrial corporations of zaibatsu.

Americans after World War Two failed to destroy the foundation of Japanese nationalism. They were not able to do this for one simple reason - the state in Japan has always been serious about the ethnic origins of the nation. They traditionally served as an integral component of nationalist ideology in Japan. The cultural history of Japan was a solid foundation of the attractiveness and the success of Japanese nationalism in the past and the present.

The policy of nationalization in Japan is not conceivable without fostering a sense of patriotism. For example, at a very early age, Japanese children are aware that they belong to a certain ethnic group. In addition, they are inculcated the social norms of behavior of this group as well as the characteristic of the construction of interpersonal contacts in the certain ethnic community. They are taught the signs of national identity (for example, the ability to distinguish the representative of another ethnic group). A number of features characterize the formation of Japanese mentality. They are as follows:

  • The insular position of the country provides the relative isolation from other cultures.
  • The ability to borrow and quickly adapt different ideas and trends to a Japanese environment.
  • The absence in the history of the country long periods of foreign rule (except the occupation between 1945-1952).
  • A special attitude to religion.

However, the main factors in the formation of modern Japanese worldview might be considered the following: social and behavioral characteristics as well as cultural and religious complex. For the majority of Japanese people their love of country is a social norm.


To sum up, the feature of Japanese nationalism is that it has originally served primarily as a political way of consolidation of Japanese society in terms of military clashes and conflicts. As for the modern nationalism in Japan, it is associated with the desire to resist the unifying role of the processes of globalization. Globalization can erase not only the territorial boundaries between states, but also the cultural differences between them. The Japanese have an idea that human’s individuality, originality, and uniqueness are the only foothold in the fast-changing world, the world of globalization. The same applies to the society as a whole. The uniqueness and the originality of the nation are the engine of its success. The Japanese government has taken measures to strengthen national identity fostering respect for the history, roots and traditions of the people. It educates in young people the qualities that are necessary for the formation of a new type of personality, proud of own country and its history, and ready to meet the challenges of the time. The emphasis is placed on the moral and patriotic education.