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Thursday, July 18, 2002

Japan's strange brand of (non) nationalism

The World Cup showed that Japanese people can be as nationalistic as anyone. But don't expect them to admit it


The subject of 9/11 came up while I had dinner with a group of friends last autumn.

A Japanese woman said she had seen George W. Bush on the TV news at the site of Ground Zero with a group of rescue workers. She remarked about how peculiarly American it was for the crowd to break suddenly into the chant of "USA! USA! USA!"

"But hang on," I interjected. "Don't Japanese have their own jingoistic chants, something along the lines of "Nippon Gambare!" or "Banzai!" as frequently heard at the Olympics and other sporting events?"

Well, yes, she said, but when the Japanese chant such phrases, it has nothing to do with nationalism, much less patriotism as in the case with the Americans.

Fair enough, I thought. The sentiment expressed at Ground Zero and that at the Olympics were hardly comparable in this case.

Still, I added that as far as I could tell, the Japanese, the young included, have shown themselves to be just as nationalistic as people in many other countries.

At that point, another Japanese joined in the conversation, and both argued vehemently that it was absolutely absurd to describe their compatriots as nationalistic.

The World Cup came to town several months later. On the night Japan beat Russia, I happened to be in Roppongi.

As soon as the game ended, thousands of excited Japanese fans, nearly all dressed in the national team jerseys bearing Rising Sun emblems, poured out onto the streets, making a ruckus -- and chanting "Nip-pon! Nip-pon! Nip-pon!" all through the night. Massive squads of riot police in the area, who had been dispatched to deal with dangerous foreigners, found themselves having to contain their own countrymen instead.

When Shukan Asahi, a popular weekly magazine, came out around that time, its cover showed nothing but a huge crowd of Japanese soccer fans in the stands of a stadium. It was a patchwork of the national team's blue jersey interspersed with numerous rising-sun flags. The magazine's headline was short and to the point -- "Nippon!" it shouted.

The rising sun wasn't the only flag on display at the games in which Japan played. I spotted the Imperial Japanese Ensign, which shows the rays emanating from the rising sun and is most often associated with Japan's military forces before and during World War 2.

Yet, according to the Japanese I have spoken to since then, none of this indicates a tendency toward nationalism. The symbols and the fervor were merely a kind of fashion, I have been told.

Even so, I'd wager that if these people were ever to spot a cover of Time magazine showing U.S. sports fans waving the stars and stripes with the headline "USA!" they would roll their eyes at yet another arrogant sign of American patriotism.

To me, this smacks of double standard. When foreigners wave their country's flag, they are expressing nationalistic or patriotic sentiment. But when Japanese do the same, it is nothing more than fashion or perhaps mimicry, goes the thinking.

Recent events have shown that it doesn't take a sporting event for Japanese nationalistic feelings to arise.

In the aftermath of a shootout in December between the Japanese coast guard and a suspected North Korean spy boat, Japanese government offices were reportedly flooded with faxes from Japanese citizens. Most indicated support for the coast guard's stance, which resulted in the sinking of the foreign ship.

I whiffed another double standard. Public opinion polls have found that most Japanese believed the U.S. had no right to take military action in Afghanistan.

So it's OK for Japan to take a militaristic stance against threats to national security, but not for the Americans or others to do likewise?

But don't get me wrong; I believe in the concept of a healthy nationalism. My problem is the tendency to disavow the obvious nationalism that exists here, while playing up -- and sometimes even disparaging -- the nationalism of others.



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