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Asia's taste for nationalism

Perhaps encouraging economic interdependence in Asia would stem rising nationalistic feeling in Japan, Andrew Hunter writes.

Nationalism is once again on the march, not only in Europe but also in critical centres of influence in East Asia. Attention in Australia is focused on the rise of nationalism in China because it is consistent with our concerns over the future role it may play in the region. When asked to comment about the controversy surrounding the Senkaku Islands, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami warned politicians of the dangers of drinking the ''cheap liquor'' of nationalism. He was not thinking of China alone.

During the period that extended from the Opium Wars through to the second Sino-Japanese War, Chinese people suffered almost unparalleled torment at the hands of Western powers and Japan. The residual feeling of humiliation manifest in recent public expressions of nationalistic fervour has been encouraged in the post-1989 generation through the national school curriculum's focus on patriotic education.

While it is unlikely that any of its various territorial quarrels will bring about direct conflict, an unfortunate confluence of circumstances has increased this possibility in the long term. Since the mid-1990s, the re-emergence of right-wing nationalism in Japan, rarely mentioned by commentators in Australia, has formed a symbiotic circle with its Chinese equivalent. In China, the Communist Party for many years has consciously encouraged nationalistic fervour to protect the party's legitimacy.

However, the state is not the wellspring of re-emergent nationalism in Japan. Its genesis is more difficult to identify.

The gradual return of nationalism to the political and social mainstream has scarred the Cold War period, both in Europe and increasingly in East Asia. This era is well suited to nationalistic, xenophobic narratives. The rise in individualism, a superficial media that encourages simple messages, and the increased movement of people, synonymous with globalisation, are tendencies as evident in the traditionally collectivist east Asian societies as they are in the West.

Nationalism in Japan has been further encouraged by a group of revisionist historians steadily growing in influence, school textbooks that do little to further understanding of Japan's role in the Pacific War, and a proliferation of wildly popular and intellectually dishonest novels and manga comics that focus on Japan's relationships with China and Korea. As a result, a peculiarly anti-Asian, xenophobic nationalism has emerged in Japan.

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The Liberal Democratic Party, currently in opposition but the traditional ruling party of post-war Japan, has been dominated by its nationalist right wing for over a decade. During this period, Japan's defence policy has been adjusted in a way that has antagonised her neighbours but suited the geo-strategic goals of the United States, its principal ally. This highlights the anti-Asian (yet pro-American) sentiment that currently controls the LDP.

Gradual re-interpretation of the constitution took place following the first Gulf War, when Japan's lack of meaningful military contribution raised American ire. During the prime ministership of Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006), gradual revision turned into radical revision. Nationalists strongly supported such changes, which solidified Japan's alliance with the United States and paved the way for Japanese military forces to be employed in theatres of conflict outside Japan.

Shinzo Abe recently won the LDP presidential election and returned as leader of the party. Like Koizumi, Abe is a member of the right-wing of the LDP and is supported by the faction led by Yoshiro Mori and centred on the linear descendants of the old faction founded by Abe's grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi. An understanding of Kishi's past informs Abe's world view.

Kishi, one of the top few leaders of Japan's Manchurian empire, a proponent of continental expansion and a member of the Tojo cabinet during the Second World War, was held in Sugamo Prison as a ''Class A'' war criminal suspect until his almost incomprehensible release. Kishi, with strong American support, went on to help form the LDP and become Japan's 56th prime minister. A taste for the cheap liquor of nationalism is well developed in the political dynasty that may soon recapture the highest public office in Japan.

Nationalism has also taken hold of other important positions of power in Japan. Arguably Ishihara Shintaro the most powerful man in Japan after the Prime Minister.

The current Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro has for many decades been an exponent of belligerent, revisionist nationalism and so enthusiastically promotes its cheap liquor that he could easily run the distillery. The popular novelist-turned-politician's latest book is entitled The Poison of Peace. It was Shintaro's decision, as governor of Tokyo, to purchase the Senkaku Islands from their Japanese private owner that forced the Japanese central government to nationalise them, which it did this year on July 7 - the 75th anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge incident which triggered the second Sino-Japanese War in which tens of millions lost their lives.

While the right-wing revisionist nationalists are currently in the ascendant, there exists a range of contradictory impulses in the Japanese establishment, and many influential actors are philosophically inclined to a ''return to Asia'' sentiment. Such impulses do not only spring from the business community (which would obviously benefit from closer ties with China, and to a lesser extent South Korea and the Association of South-East Asian Nations), but from across the entire political spectrum.

However, given the seemingly insurmountable problems faced by the party currently in government, the Democratic Party of Japan, it appears likely that Abe will once again become the prime minister of Japan. This will do little to ease the tensions in the region. It is difficult to see how Australia can contribute to easing tensions built on the domestic social, cultural and political contexts of our neighbours. We have conceded much independent diplomatic resonance due to our now absolute and unquestioning commitment to the ANZUS alliance. What indirect influence we have can be exercised through our contribution to the ongoing process of economic interdependence in Asia.

The emergence of an inclusive Asian community may mitigate the potentially catastrophic consequences of the simultaneous and continuing re-emergence of Chinese and Japanese nationalism. Over half a century ago, the United States supported the construction of a European political community and economic integration partly because it would diminish popular attraction to nationalism within individual states. Would it encourage a similar enterprise in Asia if it risked diluting its own influence in the long term?

A series of sensible and fair trade agreements that respect the signatories' respective stages of development and do not ''kick away the ladder'' that developed nations have climbed to prosperity (as German economist Friedrich List accused the British in 1841) may reduce the attraction to nationalism in Asian nations.

A proliferation of such trade agreements would further accelerate economic interdependence in Asia and may eventually lead to other forms of organised integration. Economic interdependence between Japan and China already provides a counterpoint to the nationalist tendencies in each and is one reason territorial disputes have not yet led to direct conflict.

No rational argument can be made that would justify aggression to protect territorial claims on the basis of national interest. Resource security and territorial integrity are issues that can be resolved through negotiation to achieve mutual benefit at an appropriate moment. Only when intoxicated by the cheap liquor of nationalism is conflict a realistic possibility. Parties or politicians who use nationalism to establish or preserve their legitimacy flirt with the lessons of history's more odious moments.

Andrew Hunter is chairman of the Australian Fabians.