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Northeast Asia Peace Initiative

H. Kumagai: Rising Nationalism in Northeast Asia

The Northeastern Asian region has seen dramatic changes during the past decade.  Understanding this fact is crucial to thinking about how the parties involved in this region can construct peace and security.

There is a great difference between the last five years of the 20th century and the first five years of the 21st century. You can understand this point by looking at the economic situation.

The countries located in this region are the Koreas, China, Russia and Japan. Those four countries have changed greatly.

After the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, China became isolated internationally; economically it was in a very severe situation. But under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, they adopted the open-door reform policy. Under that banner, China has reconciled with other nations and achieved great economic development.  In the latter part of the 1990's it progressed economically, and since the turn of the century it has become a locomotive in the world economy. Thus, it is said that during the first half of the 21st century, China will play a very important role as an economic great power.

In 1997-98 there was a financial crisis in East Asia, not only South Korea. During the Clinton administration, the countries in this region underwent a great economic crisis that could have brought nations to a collapse.  But Korea has been able to overcome that crisis beautifully and in the beginning years of the 21st century, it revived, or resurrected, and has become one of the great economic powers in the world. In the area of electronics and sport vehicles, its industries are leaders. For example, Samsung produces more semiconductors than all Japanese companies combined.

As for Russia, I was in Moscow on the day when the Soviet system collapsed in 1991. After that, the confusion in Russia was overwhelming.  During the following years of confusion and decline, Russia’s economy was reduced to the level of the Netherlands.  But now, Russia under the Putin administration has restored political stability, and as a result the price of its natural resources has been rising. Russia is now regarded as a very good business partner, one of the most promising and attractive to deal with.

Japan as well went through economic stagnation starting in 1980. Paul Krugman, an American economist, wrote in the Financial Times that in the 1980’s the military enemy of the United States was Russia, its economic enemy was Japan, and these two countries had to be defeated militarily and economically respectively.  I was surprised to read that. Japan went through a very difficult situation economically, but it has been able to recover economically. After resolving the difficulties with bad loans, Japan is now on a stable track toward economic development.  

The United States has had an important role as a balancer and player.  But other countries in the area have very important positions economically and even politically. Those countries can no longer be neglected.  

This region has become a critically important region in the world. Its prosperity is indispensable for the whole world. Having become very important politically, its stability, peace and security are indispensable for the whole world.  

However, peace and prosperity issues in Northeast Asia have some unstable elements as well.

First is the North Korean nuclear issue. I was a cabinet member in the Japanese government when North Korea started its nuclear development program. I was shocked when we heard the news. This nuclear issue in North Korea was expected to be solved as a result of the 1994 Agreed Framework. It was dealt with as an energy issue so the problem could be solved peacefully, without a military confrontation.

If a nuclear bomb is detonated on the Korean Peninsula, the basic order of Northeast Asia would collapse; that is why we are so worried.  Japan is the only country which suffered from atomic bombs. If nuclear weapons are deployed on the Korean Peninsula, Japan would be threatened by them. As you may know, Japan sometimes changes dramatically. Dramatic changes would take place as a result of developing nuclear weapons in this region. I hope all the countries will make even more efforts to solve this problem peacefully.

For Japan, the North Korean nuclear issue and abduction of Japanese citizens are very troublesome. Thus, we need to keep a cool head when dealing with North Korean issues. But in any case, North Korea should not have nuclear weapons. I sincerely hope that all countries involved will make great efforts to solve the issue peacefully. Such efforts are indispensable.

Second is the Taiwan issue. It is said that the recent joint military exercises by, Russia and China took place with Taiwan in mind. In 1972, President Richard Nixon reached out to China. The Taiwan issue should be dealt with and solved peacefully. I think this problem is very delicate, but peaceful solutions should be pursued. The issue requires great care and delicacy. The emotions about Taiwan reveal the national interests of each country: China, the U.S. and Japan. Interests may differ, but what is common to both sides is a desire for peace.

Third is rising nationalism. There is great concern about rising nationalism in countries experiencing economic recovery. China and Russia are examples of countries where rising nationalism is driven by their economic recovery and development. Economic recovery restores people’s self-confidence and pride and they no longer suppress their nationalism.

I am worried about Japanese nationalism, which triggered World War II and caused much damage in many parts of the world. Because of such experiences, we Japanese decided to take a humble attitude towards other countries after World War II. Yet recently, nationalism is rising in Japan, and I see some similarity between the rise of nationalism in Japan and the rise of ultra-rightist sentiments in Europe in the 1970's and '80s.

Both Japan and Europe have emphasized economic equality, which is not capitalism but socialism.  Equality has been cherished in Japan to the degree that its economy is socialism, Japanese-style. But in the market economy that developed as a result of the information age, money has become globalized and the winner takes all. Winners and losers have been appearing in Japan, just as in Europe.

In a recent survey about workers’ loyalty to their companies, Japanese employees currently have the least loyalty. Ten years ago, when America and Japan were competing economically, Japan was called “Japan Inc,” and Japanese employees reported the highest loyalty.  But this survey shows that Japanese employees no longer have much loyalty to their own company.

Another result of the polarization of the economy and society is a decline in the proportion of middle-income people, which were the largest component of Japanese society. In Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, the decline in the middle class produced a hotbed of ultra-nationalism. In such circumstances, people tend to follow the stronger ones. In some European countries, people have a very aggressive, arrogant attitude towards immigrants, and in Japan, people tend to become arrogant toward people of other Asian countries.

Ultra-rightist movements are based upon populism. What distinguishes right wing and left wing is not rational persuasion but an emotional basis for attacking people. That is one of the characteristics of populism. So with the polarization of the Japanese economy and the growth of authoritarianism, populism has appeared. When those three elements are combined, narrow-minded nationalism can become mainstream. I am not saying that Japan has become like that, but there is some possibility, and that worries me very much.

So when the nationalisms of each country conflict and neither the United Nations nor regional organizations can solve the problems, excellent leadership is needed to provide people the big picture, a grand vision and bring better results.

Source: Excerpts from a presentation given at the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace Convocation on “Challenge and a Change for Global Governance and Civil Society: From Peace Councils to Peace Nations.” New York City, September 10-17, 2005. Hon. Hiroshi Kumagai was elected to the House of Councillors of the National Diet of Japan in 1977. In 1983, he was elected as a member of the House of Representatives and was re-elected five times. He became Minister of International Trade and Industry in the Hosokawa Cabinet (1993), and Chief Cabinet Secretary in the Hata Cabinet (1994). He became the President of the New Conservative Party in 2002.

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