Neo-Nationalism in the Far East: A Cause for Concern?

Yasukuni Shrine (camknows via Flickr)

Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Japan (camknows via Flickr)

Neo-nationalism seeks to define new ways to advocate and preserve a national ethos. Unfortunately, in some instances, neo-nationalism seems rooted on an unfounded sense of righteous purity and authenticity. In the Far East, the latest debacle surrounding the Yasukuni Shrine – and Mao Zedong’s 120th birthday – seems to embody this perfectly.

Built as a tribute to deceased war veterans in the service of the Meiji Empire (the modern Empire of Japan), the shrine’s “awkward moment” is its disingenuous portrayal of Japan’s legacy. Fourteen of those whom the shrine and its accompanying museum pays respect to have since been classified as war criminals for helping to orchestrate events such as the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 and the exploitation of Korea and other Asian states. Additionally, the museum offers a take on events that can best be described as “interesting,” including such gems as:

  1. Japan peacefully occupied Nanjing, no civilians were killed, just military personnel dressed as civilians.
  2. Their heroic efforts were not in vain. Even though Japan had been defeated in WW2, they proved the power of the Far East, contending against the West, leading a wave of independence movements from colonial powers.
  3. World War II had a positive legacy on the whole of East Asia.

However, the real slap in the face was when Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, seemed to think it was appropriate to visit the Yasukuni Shrine on December 26th, 2013 – the 120th birthday of Mao Zedong. With such a timely visit, it would not be farfetched for Chinese people to see this as a personal attack. Unfortunately, Abe’s visit, perhaps as a retaliatory stunt over the China’s Air Defense Identification Zone  (ADIZ) or an appeal to his ultranationalist base, makes the Far East resemble a club of preening and posturing egos. This is especially absurd as the tensions over the ADIZ are really about the disputed possession of uninhabitable islands known as the Diaoyu Islands to the Chinese, and the Senkaku Islands to the Japanese. The political blustering in the Far East has finally incited a statement from the US embassy in Tokyo, expressing that it “was disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions.” Animosity runs deeply going into 2014; the disgust the Chinese feel is not only that Abe seems unrepentant, but also disrespectful and revisionist.

Interestingly, international and Chinese press alike have focused on what Abe’s visit to the shrine represents for the international standard. Condemnation from Chinese government officials, such as Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, asserts that it was “a flagrant provocation against international justice.” Likewise, South Korea’s Minister of Culture, Yoo Jin-ryong expressed indignation: “Our government cannot repress lamentation and rage over Abe’s paying of respects at the Yasukuni shrine, which glorifies its colonial aggression and enshrines war criminals.” Indeed, according to the Shinto religion, enshrinement entails the absolution of one’s earthly deeds. Protestors in Seoul have since lined up outside of the Japanese embassy, shouting slogans against the Japanese Prime Minister.

Japan and China’s national policies-in-the-making suggest two different attitudes towards constructing their respective national ethos. Abe claims to have had a dignified reason for visiting the shrine, “I am aware that, because of misunderstandings, some people criticize a visit to Yasukuni Shrine as an act of worshipping war criminals, but I made my visit to pledge to create an era where people will never suffer from catastrophe in war… I have no intention at all to hurt the feelings of Chinese or South Korean people.” Abe, who has long sought to remove constitutional restrictions on military action, is currently pushing to do just that. Shinichi Kitaoka, former Japanese ambassador to the United Nations and key security advisor to Abe, stressing the “right to collective self-defense.” If Japan is seeking to become a garrison state over blatant revisionism though, the definition of what it means to be “Japanese” may be a cause for concern.

That said, what it means to be “Chinese” may be equally worrisome; Gao Wenqian, a senior policy advisor at Human Rights in China, alludes to Chinese blind civil obedience to Mao’s legacy as a tool for neo-nationalist rhetoric:

“In the decades following the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, Mao’s cult of personality formed the cornerstone of the one-party system. Under the next paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, the cult of Mao moderated, and limited criticism of his worst disasters was permitted. Chinese rule became more consensus-based: by no means democratic, but guided by the Politburo Standing Committee rather than a single person’s whims. But now, as the economy has slowed, China’s leaders have found it necessary to defend the Community Party’s monopoly on power by invoking the nation’s “glorious” history — with Mao’s legacy its most potent tool.”

Mao’s greatest flaw in his “glorious” legacy lies in his attempt to industrialize China during the Great Leap Forward of 1958-61, during which an estimated 36 to 45 million people died from famine and purges. Unfortunately, this statistic is not taught in Chinese textbooks to this day. However, preemptively demonizing Mao may not be giving him enough credit; one of the leading causes of death were communes lying about yields to impress Mao and be the best Communists, ushering the country to widespread starvation. Indeed, a senior official from the Communist Party of China has recently called on experts and researchers to “advance with the times” and “embrace innovation in carrying out the research on Mao Zedong Thought.”

Mao's Masoleum in Beijing, China (tomis b via Flickr)

Mao’s Mausoleum in Beijing, China (tomis b via Flickr)

At the close of 2013, the celebration for Mao’s birthday amounted to Chinese leaders bowing three times before his statue at an understated ceremony, which included a visit to his embalmed body. On one hand, leaders “revered” Mao’s body in the mausoleum, recalling his “glorious achievements.” On the other hand, the People’s Daily did not mention Mao’s birthday on its front page. Additionally, various reforms suggest a government trying to strike the delicate balance between market-style reforms in the wake of a slowing economy, upholding global standards of human rights, and maintaining the one-party system.

Viewed in this light, Japanese and Chinese nationalism may be reduced to pointless political stunts for the same reason: an adamant attitude towards the integrity of their legacy. Certainly, neither a governmental system nor a government’s military policy defines its people; nationalism is an ideology that involves the individual identifying, or becoming attached to, a nation. However, stunts like the ADIZ maneuver, Prime Minister Abe’s retaliatory shrine visit and subsequent “self-protective” mindset, and President Xi’s latest bun-eating charade is certainly a formative force in creating public opinion. Public opinion will prove to be just as important as egoistic governments in neo-nationalist rhetoric in the year to come.