Fear of Japanese Nationalistic Revival Unfounded: public opinion and government prudence dictate otherwise

There is a fear, both in East Asia and the world at large, that rising Japanese nationalism will lead to an inexorable decline in relations and eventually conflict between that country and China.


These fears are, of course, predicated on the history of ultra-nationalism in Japan which gradually increased in the first part of the 20th century into a rabid racism and superiority complex. This laid the foundations for the aggressive expansionism of the Japanese Imperial Army into China in the 1930s and against USA and the rest of East Asia in the 1940s.

However this perception of a ‘shift to the right’ does not hold much ground. Firstly, the Japanese public remains firmly against Japan taking a more assertive military stance. In a recent poll, 64% of respondents were against revising Article 9 of the constitution, which prohibits Japan from taking any offensive military action. 82% of people wanted to maintain Japan’s three non-nuclear principles of refusing to manufacture, possess or store nuclear weapons. 77% were against exporting Japanese military technology abroad.

Anti-nuclear sentiment is strong in Japan
Anti-nuclear sentiment is strong in Japan

Perhaps, interestingly, 65% of respondents believed that the administration of Shinzo Abe would cause tensions in East Asia (particularly in relation to China) to rise. Related to this are the 63% who believed a territorial dispute was the most likely cause of conflict and 55% who saw China as the main state threat to Japanese security.

The territorial dispute between Japan and China in the East China Sea has intensified during Abe’s premiership and does seem a potential flashpoint for regional security. Yet despite respondents fearing the growing tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the majority still do not desire a revision of the military and constitutional status quo in Japan.

Aligned with public opinion are the ‘Big Business’ interests of Japanese corporations, who depend on a stable relationship with China to maintain the economic equilibrium. Abe is not stupid; he has staved off an ultra-nationalist revival by making symbolic gestures (such as visiting the Yasukuni Shrine and mobilising the Japanese coastguard in the East China Sea) whilst urging restraint and dialogue.

If anything, Chinese nationalism is the concern. Part of the CCP’s agenda is to stir up a hatred of the ‘other’; this is perpetuated by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has shown in its recent confrontation with Vietnam in the South China Sea that national interests will not be subordinated for any concession.

China, rather than Japan, threatens to escalate conflict in East Asia
China, rather than Japan, threatens to escalate conflict in East Asia

Ultimately, despite Japan’s history of destructive nationalism, there is cause for optimism. Whilst tensions may be rising in the East China Sea, there is no reason to believe that this will end in conflict. Firstly, China and Japan are too economically interdependent; second, Japan’s public are clearly against a resuscitation of military aggression; thirdly, despite his seemingly nationalist outlook, Shinzo Abe will not allow it. He has engineered a position of dominance for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which the interlude of Democratic Party (DPJ) rule threatened to render impossible.

Whatever the case, a repeat of the ’30s and ’40s is not on the cards.

Poll Data



Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

3 thoughts on “Fear of Japanese Nationalistic Revival Unfounded: public opinion and government prudence dictate otherwise”

  1. I’d like to see a poll with responses broken down by age- I suspect older people are more opposed to revisions to Article 9 than younger people, but that’s just a hunch.

    1. Yes I suspect that you are right and, given Japan’s ageing population, I guess that skews the figures somewhat. That said, I think the media (especially in China) has over-hyped the supposed resurgence of nationalism in Japan and that the economic interdependence between the two countries, coupled with the US-Japanese security pact, should stave off serious conflict in any event.

      1. I think you’re right. There’s no benefit to a war with China, same reason I don’t worry about one between China and the US. Great post BTW

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