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Thursday, December 03, 2020
Uncontrolled Nationalism – The Case of Japan before the WWII
Tony Yu Pan, Chan Kung

Throughout the modern history of the world, Japan is undoubtedly an interesting country: it went from the edge of becoming a colony to one of few independent countries in Asia before World War II, and after the Great War, Japan even became a great power. From a broader level, Japan's success at that time showed that Asians were not inherently inferior to Westerners. Unfortunately, Japan which was supposed to be the leader of Asia to a bright future, chose the path fascism and imperialism. Eventually, Japan became the source of the Pacific War.

It is undeniable that from the Meiji Restoration until the early Showa period (the end of World War II), Japan adapted an expansionary policy, which brought deep suffering to its neighboring countries and ultimately dragged itself into the abyss of destruction. When World War II ended, nearly 70 years of development achievements were utterly wiped out by the war.

In this context, an important question we need to ponder is: What led Japan to embark on an expansionary and self-destructive path? At what point in time did Japan's policymakers start to lose its mind? What can future generations of nations learn from Japan's tragic experience to prevent the same fate from happening again? As a country that has been entangled with Japan for generations and has a complicated relationship with Japan, these issues are of even greater relevance to Chinese researchers today.

Fortunately, there is actually a fair amount of scholarly research on the subject, and there exist four main explanations. The first is the "international structure theory" most commonly used by IR scholars (especially the realists), and the second, more common among Western scholars, is the "weak democratic government theory. The third is the "Pan-Asianism," which focuses on the constructivist perspective. Finally, there is the political economy explanation of expansionary policies.

At the first glance, it seems that each of these explanations has its own rationale. Of the four, the view that the navy and the military were increasingly extreme in their struggle for policy dominance is the most possible explanation. However, it seems that each of the four existing explanations can, in fact, be incorporated into a new one, namely, that Japan's self-destructive expansionary policies prior to World War II were the material manifestation of an uncontrolled nationalism. More specifically, these four explanations answer why the Showa government was unable to control the nationalist forces in the country. On the other hand, however, the question of whether nationalism would necessarily expand without outside interference and lead to expansionist policies was left unexplained.

Because of the natural characteristics of nationalism, it seems to us that there is a natural tendency for nationalism to expand in the course of its development. The main reasons for this phenomenon are not complicated. First of all, nationalism is a group ideology, which means that nationalists have a common goal at the macro level, but the boundaries of national interest are not consistently defined by different individuals. On this basis, because of the unreliability of group rationality, nationalism as a groupthink is prone to overstretch in the course of its development. Moreover, when such currents are not rationally controlled and end up holding state policy hostage, the state tends to follow a self-destructive path of expansionism. Pre-World War II Japan is a classic case in point.

It should be noted that the positive effects of nationalism is not being denied here, but it is crucial that a country's policymaking process should not be ultimately being a hostage to nationalist forces. The question then, is how to prevent nationalism from spiraling out of control. From an empirical point of view, there are two different directions to prevent nationalism from getting out of control at the macro level: first, to eliminate "group irrationality" in nationalism; Second, to establish a corresponding gatekeeper between nationalism and state policymaking.

The first direction is essential to improve the thinking capacity and cultural literacy of society as a whole. This is a radical way to solve the above problems, and the improvement of the education system is the most crucial part of it. However, for reasons that are easy to understand, this approach often takes too long to implement, and the process is not really controllable. As a result, this approach, while very important, is often insufficient for policymakers.

The second approach, on the other hand, is a short-term solution (relatively speaking). To use the common metaphor of treating a bodily disease, a gatekeeper-kind-of-approach is not to eradicate the disease but rather to prevent it from damaging health amid acceptance of its existence. There are two other ways to establish gatekeepers: one is to establish a mature political system that uses institutional factors to insulate people from the negative effects of nationalism. This is also the more popular approach in developed Western countries. It should be noted that this approach has proven itself to be effective, most notably in the case of the United States, which also has two populist leaders, as opposed to Brazil, where institutional constraints and the resulting establishment have been significantly more effective in containing the negative effects of nationalism on the policy.

The alternative is to rely on a small number of political authorities within society to isolate the scourge of nationalism through the elite's prestige and quality. Again, this is also an approach that has worked before. The best example is the significant role played by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the "reform and opening-up" process.

So, which is more effective, institutions or authority? This is not a question that can be easily answered. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, and because every country and society is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

First of all, the main advantage of institutional gatekeepers is that once established, the containment is apparent and fairly solid; however, the disadvantage is that institutions may take a long time to develop and may come at a cost (e.g., the French Revolution). An authoritative gatekeeper's advantage is its high degree of operability, while the disadvantage is the unsustainability and instability of the individual factor. On this basis, the realization of either approach needs to be linked to local realities; in other words, neither is necessarily successful. However, despite the different possibilities of approaches and paths, one issue is certain: in this day and age, uncontrolled nationalism is still a problem that threatens national interests, and this issue must be given sufficient attention and focus by policymakers.

Lastly, for contemporary China, the case of Showa Japan has another area of critical research value: how to deal with the current international order? History has shown that almost every attempt to challenge the existing international order independently has often ended in self-destruction. Successful transformations of the international structure tend to be incremental. In the case of pre-World War II Japan, the immediate effect of nationalism was to push the Japanese government to place itself on the opposite side of the prevailing international order. Today's China has certainly not come that far. In fact, as Professor Wang Jisi says: "In those days, Japan was an 'institution' in the international order, while China was rejected and discriminated against by the West as an 'other.' Today, Japan is still 'within the system' of the international order, while China has risen to become the world's second-largest economy and its military power is not what it used to be, but there is still the question of how China views the existing international order and how to deal with its relationship with the existing international order. " In dealing with this problem, preventing the negative effects of nationalism on state policy is undoubtedly an important aspect.

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