The climax was to have been a single blow from a seventeenth-century sword, delivered by his lover, performing the role of the kaishakunin—the man who ends the agony of the samurai who has chosen ritual suicide. This last performance by the famous writer Yukio Mishima hadn’t gone to script. The soldiers in Ichigaya military base jeered at his call to stage a coup. The noise of helicopters drowned out the rest of the oration, which Mishima had hoped would be broadcast live. Even the denouement was botched: It took three clumsy slashes before the blade cut through the author’s spine.
For many in Japan, philosopher Hide Ishiguro wrote, Mishima’s 1970 suicide seemed to be an act of attention-seeking exhibitionist, not the sublime patriotism of a warrior who chose death over dishonour.
A few days ago, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida returned to office after the assassination of his precursor Shinzo Abe, promising to amend Japan’s pacifist constitution and grow its military power. The constitution, nationalists like Mishima have long claimed, was a charter for humiliation, forced on it after its defeat in the Second World War.
Like many democracies across Asia, Japan is embracing a muscular new nationalism to take on the challenges of the dangerous new times. The problem is that nationalism is enmeshed with an exceptionally ugly history, which has scarred not just Japan’s enemies but also its allies.
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The new nationalism
Last year—on the anniversary of the 1941 December morning when Imperial Japanese forces struck across the Pacific against the United States, Great Britain and Holland—almost a hundred Members of Parliament gathered at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo to honour the war dead. The lawmakers came from the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), but also their opponents on the ideological Right, the Japan Innovation Party and Japan’s National Democratic Party.
The gathering represented, what scholar Naoto Higuchi called, the “mainstream of the far-Right.” For decades, the Japanese far-Right—figures like Mishima, who sought a renewed Imperialism, fascists with links to organised crimes, and xenophobes hostile to Korean immigrants—existed on the fringes of society.
Former PM Abe—assassinated earlier this month by a man with an apparent personal grudge—had helped bring some of these ideas to the centre stage. Following his resignation in 2020, Abe stood in Yasukuni, bowing his head to honour the souls of men, including 1,600 war criminals convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity.
The gesture draw angry protests from China, where Japanese forces had butchered civilians in tens of thousands in cities like Nanjing, and conducted biological warfare experiments that rivalled Auschwitz in their horrors. There was rage in Korea, where Japan’s army had forced thousands of women into sexual slavery.
Alexis Dudden, a historian of modern Japan, has noted that Abe played a key role in efforts to wash away Japan’s historical war guilt. Abe lent credence to revisionist efforts to gloss over the sexual slavery of women and valorised the Russo-Japan war, which reduced Korea to a colony. The shedding of war guilt was, Abe suggested in his book, Towards a Beautiful Country, a critical element in enabling the reemergence of Japan as a genuine power.
The Yasukuni shrine’s museum describes the 1937 massacre at Nanjing—where 2,00,000 civilians were massacred and 20,000 women raped— as “an incident.” It claims Japan’s wars spurred national liberation movements across Asia. Abe was among a generation of Japanese politicians who gave this language public legitimacy.
India might have chosen to forget the horrors of Imperial Japanese conquest, as it sanctified the memory of Subhash Chandra Bose. But in countries from Taiwan to Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia, though, the memory of those years hasn’t been extinguished.
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The crisis of patriotism
Little imagination is needed to see why many in Japan have come to embrace a nationalism that, five decades ago, was seen as little more than an aesthetic affectation—a dark fringe-kitsch of no political significance. The dragon rising across the East China Sea has belched fire, threatening the Senkaku islands. North Korea’s nuclear-missile programme has revived the fear of annihilation that confronted Japan in 1945. There is cultural anxiety, engendered by a rapidly ageing population, and low birth rates. To some, Japan seems on the edge of national annihilation.
Abe’s maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi—deemed a war criminal in the early years of the United States post-war occupation, but pardoned along with thousands of others—was elected prime minister in 1957, at the head of an LDP government. He helped embed Japan more deeply in the United States-led Cold War strategic partnership, signing a security treaty which allowed Washington to set up military bases on the island nation.
To Abe, it seemed that Japan now needed to grow from a state of de-facto subjugation to genuine equality with the United States. His stated constitutional aim was limited. Article 9 of the constitution mandates that Japan’s people must “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation.” Abe sought an amendment that explicitly acknowledged Japan’s right maintain its military, the Self-Defence Forces.
A constitutional amendment would have required not just a two-thirds majority in Parliament, but also a 51 per cent majority in a referendum. In a society profoundly divided on the issue, the amendment remained out of Abe’s reach. Prime Minister Kishida is closer to having the legislative muscle needed to fulfil his promise to amend the constitution—but public opinion remains hostile.
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An uncertain future
Exactly what a constitutional amendment will change in the short term, even if Kishida was able to rustle up the numbers, isn’t entirely clear. The existing constitution has not stopped Japan from investing in long-range missile development or retaliating against attacks from North Korea and China. Though the country’s spending has remained low, as a percentage of its Gross Domestic Product, it has made significant investments in equipment with offensive capabilities.
The constitutional debate clearly isn’t about military modernisation, but something more profound: What kind of cultural norms does Japan need to survive in a period of dramatic new challenges?
Inside Japan’s military, the ultra-nationalism of Yukio Mishima clearly has some appeal. In 2008, General Toshio Tamogami, the country’s top soldier, was sacked after he wrote an essay defending Japanese colonialism as ethically-justified, humane and beneficial to Asia. In South Korea and China there is fear—well founded or otherwise—that these seeds will flower into a new Japanese militarism. These fears might well be overblown, but experience inexorably shapes historical perceptions.
The strategic landscape in Asia, almost certainly, will force fateful choices on Japan. Even though it allows the stationing of United States troops on its soil, there is one red line Japan has proved unwilling to cross. Japan considers itself protected against nuclear attack by the United States’ extended-deterrence umbrella, but unlike Germany, it has not countenanced the stationing of strategic weapons on its soil.
For decades, though, Japan’s strategic community has quietly discussed what it ought to do if the worst does come about—and the United States proves unwilling to sacrifice its cities to protect the islands. Japan has a plutonium stockpile of nine tons at home, and another 35 are housed in the United Kingdom and Germany—a resource with no use other than in a nuclear-weapons arsenal.
In 1970, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs secretly committed the country to “keep the economic and technical potential for the production of nuclear weapons.” Ever since then, a string of influential voices have asked Japan to consider if the moment might be coming where it has to make this choice.
Like other democracies in the Indo-Pacific, India believes that the best prospect of containing the threat from China lies in building alliances, and growing their military power. The debate in Japan shows just how fraught the process will be.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)