In recent years, an obscure nationalist organization has regularly hit the news in Japan. Known as Nippon Kaigi or “Japan Conference”, this organization is accused of having a revisionist agenda by left-wing oriented newspapers and media. For its detractors, the hidden goal of Nippon Kaigi is to turn Japan into a pre-war like authoritarian country, ditching the Democratic principles enshrined in Japan’s post-war constitution and resorting to brute force to resolve domestic and international issues.
Established in 1997 through the merging of two existing organizations, Nippon Kaigi has three main purposes. First and foremost, the largest right-wing group in Japan wants to get rid of the 1947 Constitution. The post-war fundamental principles are seen as a symbol of foreign rule and humiliation for the Japanese State. Second, in a similar fashion to other nationalist formations in Japan, the Imperial House and the Emperor are revered as the cornerstone of the Japanese nation. From Nippon Kaigi’s perspective, Japan cannot exist as a nation without the Imperial institution. The organization is therefore uncompromising when it comes to the defense of the Imperial house and the role of the Emperor as Japan’s supreme political authority. Third, the political group wants to make Japan a strong country through defense and education reforms. The goal is to ramp up Japan’s overall capabilities to balance the rise of China which is perceived as a looming threat to Japanese strategic interests.
Nippon Kaigi and Japan’s strategic imperatives
Nippon Kaigi’s growing concern over the idea of making Japan a strong country is directly related to the mutating nature of the Asian regional order. The rise of China as a major military power has created a deep sense of urgency in Japan. Strategic thinkers in Tokyo fear that Beijing might displace the U.S. as the hegemonic superpower. In addition, Donald Trump’s presidency has left Japan wondering if it can count on U.S. military support in case of foreign aggression. The Japanese public opinion has reacted in a similar fashion. Numerous surveys show that Japanese people foresee the danger of a military confrontation with Beijing. Japan has therefore experienced unprecedented public support for increased defense spending.
Nippon Kaigi’s response to the rise of China offers a good insight into the deeper dynamics at play within Japanese right-wing organizations regarding the international arena. The action of any nationalist association is aimed at achieving defined political goals that benefit the nation. A successful program therefore requires the organization to identify its socio-political environment and, ultimately, adjust to local needs and realities. Going against mainstream social feelings and political realities can turn into a crushing blow for long-term political goals. In other words, success requires accepting political constraints. The goal of this article is therefore to demonstrate that current Japanese right-wing political organizations are shaped by strategic imperatives.
An unexpected approach to the international system and the American alliance
With all the aforesaid in mind, it is hardly surprising that Japan’s current international narrative based on democratic principles and the “rule of law” has not drawn open criticism from Nippon Kaigi’s leadership. As pointed out by Tatsuro Debroux, Doctor in Law at Pompeu Fabra University, the organization’s approach to foreign policy is driven by security concerns and a realist stance on international affairs. Such idea is echoed by Thierry Guthmann, Professor at Mie University, according to whom most Nippon Kaigi members are aware that pre-war Japanese ideals and politics are impossible to implement in the current international system. The lack of satisfaction over some of Abe’s unfulfilled commitment to key nationalists’ goals, such as the interruption of official visits at Yasukuni shrine during Abe’s second mandate as prime minister, has therefore not been openly challenged by the organization.
A realist stance requires having a good understanding of the country’s strategic interests. Japan is a maritime nation heavily dependent on natural resources imports to allow its export-oriented industry to thrive. Any durable interruption of such complex supply chain networks would cripple Japan’s economy and threaten its post-war sociopolitical order. Tokyo therefore needs to build consensus with the dominant maritime power which controls access to maritime chokepoints and open sea lanes. Since the end of World War II, it means aligning with the U.S. to deter any revisionist power from altering the status-quo in the Indo-Pacific region. The bilateral alliance is especially important since article 9 of the 1947 constitution puts a leash on Tokyo’s ability to autonomously pursue its national interests on the international stage.
Nippon Kaigi has proven to be aware of such constraints and has acted accordingly. The nationalist group is committed to the U.S.-Japanese alliance and has expressed vocal support for the U.S. military presence in the archipelago. For example, the organization supports the relocation of the U.S. Marines Corps Air Station of Futenma to the city of Henoko, both located in the Okinawan Prefecture.
Public statements made by top political figures with Nippon Kaigi connections, such as Abe Shinzo or Taro Aso, also support Debroux’s observation. Politicians affiliated with the organization understand that Japan’s grand strategy imperatives are dependent on the country’s commitment to an open international order. In other words, they understand both the need for Japan to adhere to the U.S. military alliance system and the usefulness of a persuasive foreign policy rhetoric that echoes Western principles. The inclusion of human rights and liberal values allows Japan to bolster its influence amongst audiences of “like-minded” regional countries, such as the U.S. and Australia. Similar values also reach European States with potential anti-Chinese interests in the Indo-Pacific, such as the United Kingdom and France. Liberal values are therefore an instrument of political power in Tokyo’s strategy to balance China.
Liberal values seem in deep contrast with Nippon Kaigi’s views only if unrelated to current international politics. For Nippon Kaigi, stronger commitment to the American order can even lead to the amendment of the 1947 constitution. According to the nationalist organization, Japan’s post-war constitution is even behind the risk of losing U.S. support in case of a crisis with China. Constitutional amendments are therefore considered the best option to convince the U.S. to reconsider its growing inward-looking international posture. In other words, turning Japan into a country with a conventional military projection of power would strengthen Washington’s commitment to deter China’s ambitions in the region.
Unlike pre-war imperial Japan, current decision makers in Tokyo want to preserve the international order. Modern “nationalist figures” understand that Japan has historically reached its strategic goals when its claims were backed by status-quo dominant powers, such as Britain during the 1904-1905 war with Russia and the U.S. in the post-war period. With the threat of war looming large over the Taiwanese strait, Tokyo is increasingly committed to multilateral initiatives such as the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), and the rhetoric of a “liberal order” which are backed by its closest ally and “champion of democracy”, the United States.
With strategic interests in mind, Nippon Kaigi is backing such initiatives. Despite the strong presence of the organization in Abe’s second government with 80% of the 2014 government ministers being affiliated with the Nippon Kaigi Diet Members League, the rationalist approach to Japanese interests on the global stage has always been a priority for current Japanese policymakers. In other words, ideological endeavors alone are unlikely to shape political decisions when security issues, such as the rise of China, are highly salient. A more extremist stance would probably lead the organization to lose political support in the Japanese parliament. Such a loss would be a decisive blow to both the organization’s image and political goals of constitutional amendments.
In addition, other factors could potentially temper the alleged radical Nippon Kaigi revisionist behaviors from altering the current Japanese international setting. First, Nippon Kaigi has no alternative but to consider the evolution of mainstream feelings if it wants to achieve its goals. It is safe to say that the current Japanese public opinion doesn’t want pre-war militarist and nationalist values to define its way of life. In other words, opposition to undemocratic behaviors in Japan will remain one of the linchpins of local politics in the foreseeable future. Second, Nippon Kaigi is not a single-minded organization. The “Japan Conference” is composed of several religious and political groups with their own defined goals. As pointed out by Thierry Guthmann, it is their reverence to the Emperor that bonds together the members of Nippon Kaigi. The organization’s official strategy is therefore the result of internal political bargains that limit its most radical members’ room for maneuvers.
The takeaway from this article is therefore that the right-wing organization is unlikely to resort to illiberal authoritarianism when Japan has adopted an international rhetoric based on the “rule of law” and “democratic principles” to promote the nation’s strategic interests. The twentieth-first century international order is not the same as the twentieth century. Such values as radical ethnic nationalism or militarist endeavors today have not the same importance as during the Meiji and pre-war Showa Era. A realistic stance therefore implies putting strategic thinking before ideological utopianism to further the nation’s long-term interests. As geopolitical analyst Jacob L. Shapiro has put it “understanding geopolitics is about understanding power”, a statement that well defines Nippon Kaigi’s pragmatic approach to the international system.
Picture credits: Gary Dorning / The Trumpet