The expansion of Japan's populist nationalism is a result of the social malaise that has existed in various forms and that has driven social change throughout the country's history. This malaise is rooted in Japan's mountainous geography, which has long generated struggle for space and resources, leading to the country's traditional rivalry between the center and the periphery. As a result, Japanese leaders have faced endemic obstacles to consensus building among parties with competing interests. The outcome has almost always been political inertia, often degenerating into parties evading responsibility when solutions are needed.
A History of Political Inertia
The absence of solid national leadership has engendered nationwide frustration and a desire for reform and given regional leaders the opportunity to challenge the status quo. Even the rise of militarism in Imperial Japan in the 1930s largely fit within this historical pattern: The economic woes of the impoverished rural regions, inadequately addressed by national leaders, were exploited by radical junior officers attempting to install a militarist regime in Tokyo. Japan has thus vacillated between long periods of political stability (if not inertia) and rapid, radical transformations in policy — a feat achievable largely because of the country's cultural homogeneity. However, the urgent need to address national crises has almost invariably forced the reformists to preserve and rely on Japan's center of gravity, the bureaucracy, in order to rapidly implement their policies, and this only contributes to another cycle of inertia.
While Japan during the Cold War enjoyed decades of stability and economic prosperity thanks to the U.S. forward deployment and preferential policies, a number of social maladies manifested themselves in the subsequent era, shaking the post-WWII political order. The first wave of reformist clamors came from an assortment of defectors from major parties as well as regionalists who successfully exploited the reformist undercurrents to challenge the single-party rule of the Liberal Democratic Party, which had led the country since 1955. The result of this challenge was the short-lived administration, from 1993 to 1994, of Morihiro Hosokawa, who defied traditional policies but failed to resolve his coalition's internal differences.
Nearly a decade of political upheaval followed the collapse of Hosokawa's Cabinet, lasting until the emergence of Liberal Democratic Party member Junichiro Koizumi, who sought reform from within the party in the early 2000s. Despite the longevity of his Cabinet, Koizumi's sweeping structural reforms, such as his signature neo-liberal economic policies, were soon met with overwhelming opposition, fracturing the foundation of the party.
With the Liberal Democratic Party internally divided after Koizumi, reformist elements from various parties joined forces to capitalize on the public's weariness of political inertia. They led the opposition Democratic Party of Japan to a landslide victory in 2009. However, internal division soon stifled the rise of the Democratic Party of Japan, forcing Noda to declare snap elections in 2012. The difference this time, though, was the added pressure from Japan's deteriorating position in Asia, a result of the country's sluggish economic growth compared to that of China. The culmination of internal and external pressure exacerbated Japan's decadeslong inertia, giving rise to popular nationalism that aims to implement radical reform directed particularly at the entrenched bureaucracy. The recent surge of regionalists, including Hashimoto and Ishihara, is a manifestation of this political undercurrent in Japan.
Japan's Potential for Radical Change
Political inconstancy notwithstanding, Japan has succeeded in implementing radical changes in a remarkably rapid yet orderly fashion throughout its history. Japan's insular geography has always protected the country from foreign manipulation in times of national change. Moreover, despite its mountainous geography, the country has harnessed its bureaucratic machinery and effected social changes equally nationwide. For example, the government-led economic miracle in postwar Japan was due largely to the extension of lines of communications connecting impoverished rural areas to the thriving industrial hubs in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, giving rise to several gross regional products surpassing the gross domestic products of some countries, including South Korea. By imposing strict self-discipline and effectively utilizing the bureaucracy, Japanese leaders have proved themselves capable of implementing an almost overnight transformation of Japan's grand strategy in the face of national crises.
Such innate potential will allow Japan to maximize the economic and military assets it already possesses for a radical transformation of its foreign policy. In spite of two decades of stagnation, Japan's economy ranks third with a GDP of $5.87 trillion in 2011. Moreover, Japan maintains a far more balanced economy than China, and its per capita GDP of $45,903 is almost nine times China's. In fact, with the low birthrate of 1.39 percent, Japan's decreasing population will be able to benefit further from the country's per capita GDP, which has been steadily increasing despite slowing growth rates even after the 2008 financial crisis. Furthermore, economic disparities among regions in Japan are marginal compared to those in China, where popular unrest remains a major destabilizer in times of crisis.
Since the end of the Cold War, Japan has also been steadily expanding its military capabilities with backing from the United States by exploiting perceived threats, including North Korea and China. Although its military is constitutionally limited, Japan ranked sixth in the world in defense spending in 2012 and possesses some of the most sophisticated weapons systems, such as the Aegis Combat System. Additionally, it has been regularly updating its military doctrines, including "dynamic defense," which was introduced in 2010 to allow Japan Self-Defense Forces to develop flexible, yet sustainable deterrence by harnessing their quasi power-projection capabilities. Moreover, the Japanese military already has sophisticated naval, air and space capabilities to extend its influence and protect its interests within a 500-kilometer (310-mile) radius of Japan, encompassing Vladivostok and Sakhalin, Russia, and the Chinese coast north of Shanghai. These capabilities enable Japan not only to make a rapid transformation but ultimately to become a dominant regional power, a scenario that could bring about a major shift in East Asian geopolitics.
The Coming Political Transformation
The prevalence of popular nationalism in Japan today means that the time for fundamental changes in foreign policy — especially concerning the use of its military — is approaching. Indeed, the rise of China has instilled a genuine sense of insecurity, if not humiliation, among many Japanese, who are becoming increasingly concerned about the country's future.
Nevertheless, Japanese politics will remain stagnant as national leaders struggle for power. The established parties' preoccupation with politicking for personal gains will only exacerbate the growing social dissatisfaction. Likewise, there are many obstacles in the way of a developing third pole in domestic politics, one that comprises regionalist, nationalist and neoliberal reformers as well as tax protesters. The formation of the third pole has been met with both applause and suspicion: Though its individual members represent widely shared grievances or views of Japan, the differences in their views make reaching a consensus on policy difficult. Thus, many doubt that the third pole will change Japanese politics, given that it will be subject to the same factionalism that plagues most other national movements. Nevertheless, the Hashimoto-Ishihara alliance reflects the sort of changing attitudes and dissatisfaction with the status quo that could portend an eventual shift in Japan's political discourse.
Historically, the interference of an ultimate impersonal force has been necessary for Japan's national leader to justify his cause while bringing the struggle for political power to a halt. Considered the unifier of the national will, the emperor has almost always represented this force. This is why the imperial family has been kept alive throughout Japan's history by whoever controlled the country, even after years of civil war and following its defeat in World War II. As recently as the allied occupation of Japan, Gen. Douglas MacArthur used this imperial institution for his smooth implementation of postwar reform. As Japan's popular nationalism intensifies, the emperor could theoretically be used again by anyone seeking to effect fundamental change in the country, though this is not likely to happen.
While it is not known how Japan's recent political undercurrent will form into a substantial force for change, these undercurrents will continue to undermine Japan's postwar establishment as they gather momentum. A new Japan could seek to transform itself by eliminating postwar taboos, such as remilitarization, while remaining a loyal ally of the United States to derive the fruits of the bilateral alliance. There will be a convergence of interests between the two countries as the United States pursues its emerging doctrine of leaving local players to rebalance their regions.
As Japan's economic focus increasingly shifts to Southeast Asia, its maritime competition with China will intensify, further stoking the country's popular nationalism, which will demand an assertive foreign policy to protect the country's overseas interests. A militarily assertive Japan will harness its naval prowess and be a significant contributor to the U.S. efforts to address China's growing maritime ambitions in the Asia-Pacific. Ultimately, however, such a remilitarization process may paradoxically lead to the end of U.S. control of postwar Japan.