Is Hashimoto Toru a ‘nationalist’?

The short answer to this is: probably.

Of course, in modern parlance the world ‘nationalist’ tends to mean nothing more than a person who talks about the nation/national interest, and things you don’t ideologically like very much, at the same time. Which is a shame really, because for those like myself who were brought up intellectually on Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities then this is rather a depressing view.1

And when it is Japan that is the focus of journalism, all bets are off – hell, you can even be a Japanese “nationalist” if you care about the recovery of your nation after a once in the lifetime catastrophic event.2

However, now that talk about Hashimoto is making its way into the English media, there will inevitably be people wondering what kind of foreign policy a Hashimoto-backed party might pursue.

There are two problems with this speculation so far.

First of all documentation on Hashimoto’s thoughts on foreign policy is woefully inadequate.  Some have pointed to previous statements on the acquisition of nuclear weapons and conscription as pointing to a conservative agenda lurking below the pleasant schoolboy exterior. His battles with Osaka school teachers over standing in observance of kimi ga yo when he came to power as governor also seemed to confirm this point of view. There have also been statements about immigrants, the emperor system and the North Korean kidnappings that have rubbed people up the wrong way.

However it is very doubtful that Hashimoto has anything resembling a structured world view about foreign policy, which is why we ultimately should care about “nationalism,” in any of political figure. He has backed away from his statements on conscription and nuclear weapons claiming that they were due to the pressure applied to him to “say something interesting on television” – knowing what we know about TV in the modern world this is something that is very likely. Hashimoto has since shied away from saying too much on foreign policy other than on the kidnapping issue (jp), and that Japan should pursue a stronger and more specific conception of its own national interest. Those accusing him of conservative nationalism and revisionism also need to explain why Hashimoto is also committed to a lot of causes, both inside Osaka and on the national level, which any liberal internationalist would fully endorse (jp).3

In terms of the second problem, even if we take at face value that Hashimoto is this thing called a “nationalist,” how important is this to him compared to his domestic policy goals? Will the latent nationalist anger take over when he approaches the seat of power, or will he keep his head down and bite his tongue to ensure his main domestic goals are implemented without rocking the boat? Perhaps he just needs a frank discussion with a modern version of Katsu Kaishu when making an entrance into national politics to calm him down.

That said stopping there would be a cop-out.

Clearly Hashimoto is not a dove, and as “The Point” argues here, he is a very different “nationalist” from Ishihara Shintaro – ie he is more populist. True. But despite his theatrical use of the word “fascism” when talking about war against entrenched political interests, he is not exactly a paid-up member of the Kodoha.

By his own account, Hashimoto’s own “model” for a politician is actually Koizumi Junichiro. He possibly has sprinklings of Nakasone Yasuhiro, and, as trite as it will sound, some Sakamoto Ryoma in him as well. All three were nationalists, although they varied in terms of where they sat on the appropriate mix of internationalism and national interest in foreign policy. And they also varied in terms of whether the domestic relations of power of the day were appropriate or not for the type of society that they envisioned was needed to deal with a changing international order. Like MTC my sense is that Hashimoto is more revolutionary – and much more so than Koizumi.4 But I also suspect he harbors some of the self-confidence that Japan can and should be an international power, and should be an active participate in the international  order, much like Nakasone expressed before his plans were undermined by the more conservative, and then much more powerful, bureaucrats in the 1980s.  As it is, Japan’s foreign policy seems to already be evolving that way over time anyhow.  Much like for the pre-Meiji shogunate, the question perhaps now is whether the slow plodding moves by the entrenched domestic political order to renew foreign policy and reform domestic political relations will be in time to head off more revolutionary and dramatic change.

So essentially I have spent a lot of time arguing that Hashimoto is probably, after all that, a nationalist of some kind, but we need to be careful. And if it was not for the following claim on a well read DC website I would probably not have bothered trying to describe the above nuances.

At The Point, which to be sure has many good and informative pieces, this was written in a recent post:

“Much of Hashimoto’s celebrity results from his revisionist historical views and social conservatism.”

Which was then followed up by a statement which seems to link Hashimoto with General Tamogami.

The first statement is, frankly, simply wrong. Hashimoto’s initial celebrity among everyday Japanese derives very clearly from his appearances on a famous Japanese television program where he discussed the application of law to everyday situations (行列のできる法律相談所). Aside from the celebrity that comes along with being simply on TV, many people enjoyed him for his straightforward, comical, and sometimes combative view on such situations. In fact I would go so far as to say that among the average Japanese citizen his celebrity in no way results from any knowledge about his views on history and conservative social mores, to the degree that they exist in the first place. Hashimoto’s transition from television to politics was not motivated by a conviction about the need for an explicitly conservative voice in Japan, and much more about domestic relations of power and the need to reform them. As a lawyer, that is ultimately what he understood best. In terms of his politics, the by far more overriding image in the Japanese media of Hashimoto is very simply what he is doing now – pursuing local autonomy for Japan’s regions and reform to governance and administration.

And this is where the almost seamless linking with General Tamogami agenda is quite problematic. The implication here is that if Hashimoto is thrust into any role of national importance then it will be due to populist “rightist” anger, in which case we should expect to see radical changes in Japan’s foreign policy.  The fact that Hashimoto has a very young support base only conveniently feeds into this narrative, because after all, we all know that younger Japanese are savagely militant nationalists (who just happen to not volunteer for the armed forces in any significant numbers). 5

Whatever the appropriate description of Hashimoto’s ideological beliefs on foreign policy, he won’t have electoral success because of them. He will surely get some votes from the “populist right” in Japan but he will get many many more votes from people who know him almost exclusively as “that young guy who talks out of place but takes it to the establishment.” Hashimoto may yet due to overeagerness crash and burn, so this may all be a moot point. But if he does go on to have success then a proper and calm understanding of what makes the man tick, and the reasons for why he is popular, is only going to be a positive.

1 Don’t get me started on the idea that “Patriotism” is “Nationalism’s” more gentle younger brother.

2 Not that everyone (including Dr Hornung) who uses the word nationalist necessarily means it in the old WWII sense. However in the case of Japan the narrative is so strong and reflexive, perhaps due to this history, that people seem to append it anything slightly ‘focused’-looking in Japan, which they would not do in other cases. China is also starting to become a victim of this in Western commentary. The problem with this is that we reserve the term nationalists for nasty people, like the BNP in the UK, Le Pen etc, but talk of those ‘nationalists’ we are familiar with as ‘patriots’.

The best academic version of this is Brian McVeigh’s book on Japanese nationalism. Actually there are parts of the book which I thoroughly agreed with, but the categorization of every aspect of Japanese life into an aspect of “nationalism” ultimately undermined its ability to explain anything.

3Also see support for TPP as only but one example. Regionally, Hashimoto has been behind some more innovative projects in the education sector based on his experiences overseas where he was very eager to learn from Korea and China in particular. As the link describes above, Hashimoto has very explicitly tried to encourage “friendly” relationships (友好関係) with China as Osaka governor/mayor. The irony is that a lot of Hashimoto’s policy program would probably ultimately undermine the power of the state, which is not something most nationalists promote.

4 MTC calls me out on describing Hashimoto as a pragmatist, claiming he is instead a revolutionary. I agree. I don’t necessarily think the two in opposition, but having a second bite at the cherry I think perhaps “Machiavellian” is a more appropriate description than pragmatist, if ones’ image of a pragmatist is reserved for calm, perhaps value-less operators.

5 Full disclosure – I had the pleasure of meeting with some of Hashimoto’s youth support group while I was there around election time. Very pleasant, thoughtful, and educated, and perhaps most importantly of all, energetic. Everything Japanese youth are not supposed to be.

8 thoughts on “Is Hashimoto Toru a ‘nationalist’?

  1. Dr. Hornung’s “disaster nationalism” represents an error in word choice. What he seems to be chary of is better described as “disaster isolationism.”

    • MTC, certainly I think Dr. Hornung doesn’t really believe that nationalists are going to take over, but I guess that is precisely the point…in the case of Japan it seems so much easier for people to make such errors because of the prevailing narrative.

  2. Nationalism is a nice hook you can lay things on, because people assume they know what you are talking about, and therefore you don’t have to define the phenomenon, and therefore you can make it apply to whatever you want. Of course Hashimoto is a nationalist. Except for those post-modernists and terrorists among us who deny either the validity or existence of the nation state, we all are. Even Hatoyama’s internationalism is a type of nationalism that posits Japan as uniquely posited to become an architypical member of a European-like Asian community. Saying that Hashimoto is a nationalist is simply banal, as the term has no meaning anymore. Nice, though, that you’ve actually tried to figure out what type of nationalism Hashimoto might adhere to. That’s a far more worthy project.

    In that light, Hornung’s concern about “nationalism,” even isolationist nationalism, was misplaced. 3/11 is likely to intensify feelings of nationalism, yes, but it will serve to accentuate the different types of nationalism that varied groups in Japan already believe. For example, the Hatoyama supporter I’ve met (yes, they exist) tend to emphasize the international response to the tsunami as an indication that postwar liberalism in Japanese foreign affairs has allowed Japan to fulfill its “desire”, stated in the preamble of the Japanese constitution “to occupy an honored place in an international society striving for the preservation of peace.” All nationalist views will have been reinforced by 3/11. Not just isolationism.

    Anyway, now the snark.

    “Last month I was in Tokyo meeting with officials in Japan’s Foreign Ministry”

    Statements like that make me wonder if Hornung is trying to set himself up as the new Mike Green (that is, the Emperor of Japan in Washington). If so, it might pay to be nice to him so that one day you can be part of the “in” crowd too.

    • ChrisSniff- I agree 100%…it’s amazing how many insightful people fall victim to this trap when it comes to Japan.

      As for your advice- you are right of course. I guess I never know who reads this blog. I’ve managed to annoy someone in Abe’s office before apparently!

  3. Nationalist or not is not an issue for US interests, it is rather foreign policy of figureheads what matters. Forget about racists like ChrisSniff over here with strong anti-Japanese tone. Abe is a conservative and pro-US. While called leftists, the true nationalists are figures like Hatoyama, claiming an East Asia union based on skin color and culture, which is typical in the Japan Democratic Party, identical to Nazis. Modern Conservatives in Japan like former PM Abe Shinzo tend to promote good US-Japan relationship, while figures like Ishihara Shintaro are to be categorized as pre-war Nationalists with anti-America tone. Americans should be careful and aware about the difference between pro-US modern conservatives and pre-war anti-US East Asia Union promoting nationalists. The position of Hashimoto Toru is unknown, but is more likely a neo-liberal. However, there are other policies that is more towards communism of Hashimoto Toru, especially his tax policies.

    • A curious comment. I absolutely agree with your point that we need to be careful about differentiating the kinds of “nationalist” and that Left wing parochialism is also a feature of Japanese nationalist discourse. Hashimoto is probably as you say closer to a neo-liberal point of view. But I suspect he differs from them where it really matters – Hashimoto is a big believer in funding excellence in education, even if it has to come from the government. I suspect he is not doctrinaire about his reform worldview, which is a plus. However I can’t agree with your characterization of Abe, Hatoyama et al. In reality the likes of Abe and Ishihara have much in common in terms of cultural chauvinism, and while Hatoyama is his own odd case, from first hand experience most people in the DPJ outside of senior leadership have far more in common with the West and it’s worldview than do the likes of Abe, Aso and Ibuki Bunmei etc. Maybe even more than Koizumi and son. Also if ChrisSniff is anti-Japanese – well from personal experience then so am I 😉

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