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The Voice of Nationalism Gets an Official Bully Pulpit

May 02, 1999|Richard J. Samuels | Richard J. Samuels, Ford International Professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is author of "Rich Nation, Strong Army: National Security and the Technological Transformation of Japan."

BOSTON — How times change--and change back. In the late 1980s, when Japan was at its economic peak, Sony Chairman Akio Morita teamed up with a suave novelist-cum-right-wing-politician, Shintaro Ishihara, to exhort Japanese to stand up to racist U.S. bullies. A rich and technologically advanced Japan could--indeed, should--deny shipments of capital and technology to the United States if Washington continued to boss Japan around. The prematurely triumphalist "The Japan That Can Say 'No,' " co-authored by Ishihara and Morita, became required reading in Washington.

But the tables soon turned. When Japan's economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, the U.S. economy began its dizzying assent toward the Dow 10,000, and the Japanese economy went into a tailspin. The Japanese suddenly began questioning all received wisdom about their system, and now the Americans were crowing triumphal: "Ha!" they proclaimed: The Japanese did not have capitalism figured out after all.

But there seems to be a catch, possibly a very big one. While most eyes in the West have been turned toward the shaky Nikkei index and Japan's inept national leadership, Japanese citizens began feeling betrayed. Bureaucrats have been indicted for corruption. Firms that did not go bankrupt laid off workers. Foreigners acquired control of Japanese companies. A cozy, stable, bordered Japanese economy and society suddenly were vulnerable to global forces.

Reenter Ishihara, at a time when the Japanese have not felt as uncertain about their leadership or about their future in generations.

In mid-April, residents of Tokyo went to the polls to elect a new governor. They chose between Ishihara and 17 others, including a former foreign minister who was kicked out of the ruling party, a carpet-bagging former U.N. official, and a center-left politician with a pale green environmental platform.

Ishihara took nearly one-third of the vote, a resounding victory in a field of 18. Exploiting the public's disaffection with politics-as-usual--and especially with its resentment of elite betrayal of its social contract--Ishihara peddled a straightforward nationalist message. He was first in the polls from the day he declared his candidacy.

The novelist blamed both the Japanese financial bubble of the 1980s and its subsequent collapse on scheming U.S. financiers and Treasury officials. He declared that the Japanese national government has been too docile in the face of U.S. hegemony. He wants Japan to take responsibility for its own defense and promises to restrict U.S. use of the U.S. Navy's Atsugi air base. He speaks of neighboring China in provocative language and denies that the "rape of Nanking" before World War II ever took place. Since his election, Ishihara has called China "imperialist" and has hinted at the possibility of inviting his "good friend," Taiwanese leader Lee Teng-hui, to visit Tokyo. The first public demonstrations against Ishihara's election in China erupted last week in Hong Kong.

When the chief Cabinet secretary, a senior politician of the Liberal Democratic Party, called Ishihara "brazen" and "reckless," he may have provided the candidate just the sort of endorsement Tokyo's electorate was looking to reward. They found his straight talk refreshing.

As governor of Tokyo, Ishihara will not control Japanese security policy. But, like governors before him who shifted national policy in very important ways, he will have a bully pulpit--and the eyes and ears of every Japanese citizen.

Equally important, Ishihara is by no means the only right-wing politician in Japan. Others surely will emerge. Americans need to understand that these politicians' nationalist message has considerable appeal across the political spectrum. Japan has been struggling for years to become more "normal." Here, Ishihara invokes the example of the United States. Suggesting that Americans are the most nationalist people in the world, he asks: "What's wrong with nationalism?" The election results indicate clearly that many Japanese are not satisfied with the status quo, and that, left and right alike, many are ready to stick a finger in the eye of the U.S. "rogue superpower."

Japan has been here before. The last time the Japanese economy went south, in the 1930s, nationalist leaders made hay by blaming foreigners. Their "independent" foreign policy drove China and the United States into each other's arms. Today, the region lives with a different, constrained Japan, and there is no indication that President Bill Clinton and Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji addressed this during their recent talks in Washington. But they should have. Clinton ought to raise the issue with Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi when he visits Washington this month. Even if it is a distant prospect, renascent Japanese nationalism is at least as important a topic as trade balances. The world needs a prosperous and stable Japanese economy that provides more fertile ground for democrats than for demagogues.

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