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The Abe Administration and Japanese National Identity: An Update
Region: Asia
Location: Japan
Published October 6, 2016
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It is tempting to see in developments in contemporary Japanese politics indications of a fundamental shift in Japanese national identity. Resist that temptation. There are changes afoot in Tokyo, but these are not radical moves, nor do they signal a fundamental transformation in how the Japanese see themselves or their place in their world. In fact, what is most notable in policy debates is the way that advocates of change play down the novelty of these positions and ground them in traditional conceptions of national identity. This chapter examines several of the Abe administration’s decisions related to foreign and security policy and explains the impact of national identity concerns on them. It demonstrates the enduring importance of national identity for core components of Japanese foreign policy and how those conceptions have limited or shaped the resulting policies.

The portrait of Japan that emerged from The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash1 was that of a nation that is fundamentally conservative, reluctant to change, and concerned more with internal developments than those of the world around it. Inhabiting an island nation has had profound implications for Japanese identity. It has meant that a sense of vulnerability colors Japanese thinking about their place in the world. This manifests itself in fatalism and resignation, even though the Japanese are applauded for their readiness to struggle on (gambaru) or endure (taeru). The island mentality has also promoted a sense of egalitarianism and equality. The limited resources of an island nation have obliged Japan to engage the world, which has reinforced its identity as a trading nation, one with a deep connection to the maritime domains.

This identity creates internal tensions: on the one hand, it forces the Japanese to look to the world beyond their shores, while reinforcing, on the other, differences between Japan and “others.” An abiding concern about entrapment in foreign affairs is another consequence of this orientation, a fear that has been stoked by the disastrous results of Japan’s outward expansion in the first half of the 20th century. As a result of that sad history and the enduring internal orientation, Japanese are “reluctant realists,” who have adopted an antimilitarist security mindset and are deeply suspicious of the utility of military force as a tool of state policy. Finally, the Japanese take great pride in their successes, and like many nations are very conscious of status, but they fear (or are resigned to) being buffeted by forces beyond their control (another form of vulnerability).

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