This week Prime Minister Abe Shinzō criticized right-wing demonstrations in Koreatowns in Tokyo and Osaka, stating, “The Japanese way of thinking is to behave politely and to be generous and modest at any time.” While it is, of course, good that Abe made a point of criticizing hate speech, it's important to recognize that Abe is pursuing a different program than some of the cruder conservative revisionists in his own party, the conservative media, or the right-wing demonstrators who terrorize the ears of Tokyoites with their sound trucks. The problem with the word "nationalist" is that it obscures more than it reveals.
In an astute article about Abe's program, the FT's David Pilling notes Abe's agenda can rightly be summarized using the Meiji slogan, Fukoku-kyohei (rich nation, strong army). What I wonder, though, is whether it is best to think of Abe as a nationalist or whether it is more appropriate to think of him as a statist, not unlike his Meiji forebears. The distinction is important. The right-wing demonstrators criticized by Abe are little more than chauvinistic ethnic nationalists, intent on showing the superiority of the Japanese people. Abe is interested in the survival of the Japanese nation in international competition, with the state as a kind of avatar of the Japanese people. His way of thinking is steeped in Hobbesian and social Darwinist conceptions of the state, in which the state and people exist in a sort of organic solidarity and in which the state is focused largely on protecting lives and property from enemies foreign and domestic. To compete with other nation-states, the state must be capable of organizing and drawing upon the country's resources and the people's energy in order to compete.
Accordingly, when Abe talks of breaking free of the postwar regime or creating a normal nation, it is with this idea in mind. Nationalism is a means to the end of strengthening the state. Encouraging national pride is useful to the extent that it makes Japanese citizens more amenable to constitution revision, more supportive of an assertive Japanese military, and more eager to stand up to provocation by China or North Korea, just as revitalizing Japan's economy is useful to the extent that it improves the state's fiscal position, swells its coffers, and bolsters national confidence.
The question is whether Abe's neo-statism poses risks to peace and security in East Asia. On the one hand, China arguably views the world along similarly social Darwinist lines, and one can therefore make the case that national survival for Japan depends on embracing a similar way of thinking, making Japan less vulnerable to bullying by China. However, the danger of Japan's embracing a social Darwinist conception of international competition is that it would make every problem between Japan and its neighbors harder to resolve, because every issue would become a question of status in the international hierarchy. When combined with fewer restraints on the use of force by Japan, the risk of outright war would surely increase.
There are still a number of hurdles Abe must overcome before he can remake Japan according to his neo-statist vision — and he must still convince the Japanese people of its wisdom, especially as far as constitution revision goes. But it is important to understand just what kind of nationalist Abe is, and to be aware that whatever short-term tactical concessions he makes, he has a long-term vision of where he wants to take his country.