Nationalism in East Asia is often portrayed as a phenomenon unto its own; something that waxes and wanes in isolation of top-down political manipulation. While there is some truth to this, for history is littered with examples of nationalist forces that spontaneously spin out of control, this oversimplification misses an important point in the East Asian context: outward displays of nationalist rage are often the direct result of domestic politics in China, South Korea, and Japan.
Nationalist angst in East Asia didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s the historical legacy of a long and bloody period that began with the Qing dynasty’s fall as regional hegemon and ended with the horrible atrocities perpetrated by Japanese troops during World War II. And as recent events from anti-Japan protests in China to the sudden rift between Seoul and Tokyo have shown: it’s not just that these countries haven’t buried the hatchet; they’re parading it through the streets in an open-top Cadillac.
This of course begs the question of why East Asia remains so divided when the next best example, that of France and Germany, has produced the opposite result. The disparity stems from two critical differences. First, Japanese contrition over atrocities perpetrated during World War II has paled in comparison to that of Germany. From vague history textbooks and official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, to the more recent refusal of compensation for Korean comfort women, the Japanese government has missed out on several chances to step up to the plate and perform a highly symbolic act of contrition.
Japanese reluctance to accept its terrible past and make amends is the oft-cited reason for the political and historical fault lines that divide East Asia. But there is another force behind the enduring importance of ethnic nationalism. Unlike in the case of Franco-German reconciliation, a process that was helped along by the economic and political integration of the European Coal and Steel Community, WWII-era grudges are still politically relevant in modern day East Asia, so much so that they still make or break domestic political fortunes to this day.
There is no better example of this than the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Japan has always figured prominently in the CCP’s historical narrative of its rise to power. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, the CCP and Kuomintang (KMT) were fighting the Japanese and each other in a slow-burn civil war. When the CCP eventually won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, it also won the power to write history. The resulting narrative told of a heroic CCP’s fight against Japanese brutality while a corrupt KMT watched from the sidelines. Over time, Japan’s invasion of China came to symbolize the entirety of China’s ‘century of humiliation’, a period of sustained imperialist encroachment that began with the Opium War in 1839.
This narrative became even more important after the death of Mao Zedong, when second generation leaders like Deng Xiaoping had to come up with a rationale for one-party rule that was divorced from the Cult of Mao and Socialism. The ‘CCP-as-national-savior’ interpretation thus became even more important as a rationale for ongoing CCP rule. As such, it became prominently featured throughout the entire Chinese education system, and historical themes from WWII began to appear in generally ahistorical subjects such as language classes.
This explains why the CCP will play the ‘Japan card’ during times of perceived threat, and the past few months are no exception given the fact that the Bo Xilai scandal and lacklustre economic growth are casting a long shadow over the upcoming leadership transition. However, it should also be noted that the Chinese government is very aware of the danger posed by the virulent nationalism that it has helped to create. Thus, anti-Japan protests in China will always be quickly reigned in out of fear that they could quickly spiral out of control.
This is a dangerous game to play on two counts. First of all, it nurtures the memory of Japanese militarism by brandishing it as a political tool, thus ensuring the relevance of nationalist enmity for future generations. And then there’s the issue of nationalism’s historic volatility. Each one of these ‘controlled’ displays of anti-Japanese sentiment risks the movement gathering enough momentum to produce serious violence in either the domestic or international context.
As the recent crisis in Japanese-Korean relations has shown, these political dynamics are also alive and well in South Korea, another former victim of Japanese militarism. The origins of this crisis can be traced back to a decision by the scandal-ridden Lee government to sign a military logistic sharing agreement with Japan in secret. Amidst the widespread furor that resulted when the deal became public, the Lee administration decided to ride the wave of anti-Japan sentiment all the way into presidential elections in December. The issue of Japan’s stunted contrition, something that most South Koreans can agree on, serves as a handy distraction for an administration that has otherwise been plagued by corruption scandals. This is why President Lee took the unprecedented step of actually landing on the disputed Dokdo islands, an extreme move given the measured approach to Japanese relations that has characterized the Lee presidency up until now.
Nationalism always needs a dance partner, so chest-thumping in one state will inevitably produce a reaction in-kind on the other side of the border. So far, Japanese nationalism has been stunted by the memory of its own militaristic past, but it remains to be seen whether this will be the case forever. Post-Fukushima Japan has already experienced a spike in far-right nationalist sentiment, and the longer Japan is treated like the leper of East Asia (regardless of whether it’s deserved), the more likely that there will be a nationalist renaissance in the land of the rising sun. There are already signs that the ruling Democratic Party of Japan is digging in its heels in the various bilateral spats it’s faced with. One such example is Japanese Finance Minister Jun Azumi’s suggestion that Japan won’t be extending a currency swap deal with South Korea and is considering a cessation of South Korean government debt purchases. This is a far cry from the usual Japanese government line that there should be a firewall between politics and economics.
Former Japanese PM Yukio Hatoyama, fresh off of a historical electoral victory in 2009, once declared that Japan’s destiny lay with East Asia. A mere three years later, his sentiment comes off as quixotic to a fault. Nationalist enmity is here to stay in East Asia. Let’s just hope it can be controlled.
Zachary Fillingham is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com