A British cheerleader for Chinese nationalism: Martin Jacques on “Japan’s resurgent nationalism”

Kenn Nakata Steffensen


This was originally written and never published on the day after Martin Jacques’ article appeared in The Guardian. Now that his book When China rules the world (London: Allen Lane, 2009) is out, I felt it was time to air my doubts about his analysis of East Asian international relations. I have not yet read the book, but it has received a lot of media attention – far more than books by serious East Asianist scholars ever get. I was surprised to see John Gray, whose discussions of Japan and China always seem balanced and intelligent, heap praise on When China rules the world in The New Statesman. Having read his ignorant and partisan journalism, I am sceptical of Jacques, at least when it comes to Sino-Japanese relations and East Asian international politics.

Martin Jacques’ comment on “Japan’s resurgent nationalism” in The Guardian on 27th September 2006 was based more on pro-Chinese and anti-Japanese prejudice than a serious understanding of East Asian history and politics.[1] Jacques seems to implicitly side with the – in name Marxist-Leninist, but in practice authoritarian nationalist – People’s Republic of China. It is doubtful that “the question that should really detain us is Japan’s growing nationalism.” There are other regional issues, and other nationalisms, that deserve attention, as does Jacques’ seeming obsession with one decontextualised aspect of contemporary Japanese politics.

His argument was that the election of Abe Shinzo as Japanese prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party is symptomatic of a resurgent Japanese nationalism, and that Abe’s election will exacerbate already tense relations between Japan and the PRC and destabilise East Asia. He rhetorically hints that this has “global ramifications”, but fails to be more precise about what those ominous ramifications might be. Jacques both overstates the importance of the individual office holder and the extent to which he differs from his predecessors. Mr. Abe is, after all, Koizumi´s chosen successor and likely to continue Koizumi’s line. His election will not lead to radical changes in Japan or in its foreign relations.

The author identifies himself as a visiting research fellow at the LSE’s Asia Research Centre. This gives the text an aura of academic credibility and suggests a certain expertise in Asian studies, but Martin Jacques is first and foremost a journalist. Visiting research fellows at the Asia Research Centre are provided with desk space and a library ticket to carry out a research project for a limited period. The affiliation with the LSE is unpaid and temporary. In fact, visiting research fellows at the LSE’s Asia Research Centre pay for the privilege of their affiliation.[2] He has a long career as a journalist, for many years as editor of the communist party monthly Marxism Today, later as a columnist and editor at several British newspapers. His track record as a social scientist is limited to co-editing three volumes on British politics and culture. His record in East Asian studies is even more limited, although his forthcoming book will redress that. This does not mean he is not entitled to write and publish about China and Japan or to hold strong opinions, but using the LSE’s name creates a misleading impression of social scientific expertise.

He claims that Japan has failed to apologise sufficiently for its wartime actions and that a “ritualised” apology was first issued in 1995.[3] This is factually wrong. There have been several apologies to China, Korea and other victims of Japanese aggression since 1972. Successive prime ministers, ministers of foreign affairs, ambassadors, the Diet and both emperors have apologised on many occasions.

Jacques also says that “Abe has carefully avoided expressing his opinions on Japan’s wartime record”. He has, in fact, written about the matter and spoken in the Diet and on television. It is strange that Jacques fails to mention this, especially since some of Abe’s public statements and his recent book Towards a beautiful nation (Utsukushii kuni he 美しい国へ) do contain nationalistic passages that are controversial, not only in China and Korea but also in Japan. As for his “casting doubt” on the validity of the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Far East, all that Abe has said is that the indicted did not break any Japanese laws of the time. This was also the opinion of the dissenting judge Pal at the tribunal.

Where Jacques’ pro-Chinese sympathies are most apparent is in his mention of the territorial dispute over the “Diaoyu (or, as Japan calls them, Senkaku) islands”, as he puts it. Textually representing the Pescadores/Diaoyu/Senkaku issue in this way shows that in Jacques’ mind, the Japanese position on this territorial dispute is illegitimate: Their “real” name is Diaoyu, but the nasty Japanese call them something else. A more balanced writer would not have defined the dispute in this one-sided way and a priori have sided with one party. Even scholars based in the PRC and employed by the Chinese government use the more neutral Diaoyu/Senkaku. [4]On this matter, Jacques’ support for the Chinese nationalist position is explicit and more partisan than mainstream Chinese academics.

But if silence speaks louder than words, what is more important is his failure to discuss Chinese and Korean nationalism. Unlike the People’s Daily, which has covered it, he is also silent on Abe’s reiteration after becoming prime minister that he sees good relations with China and a summit meeting as a priority.[5] Abe told a plenary session of both houses of the Diet that “relations are now unprecedentedly close in economic and so many other areas. I believe that strengthening bonds of trust with both countries is extremely important for the Asian region and the entire international community, and it is essential to make mutual efforts so that we can have future-oriented, frank discussions with each other.”[6] These are hardly the words of a hardline nationalist bent on provoking conflict with China. We are still only a few days into Abe’s premiership, but indications are that he will seek to repair damaged relations with China and South Korea, take a hardline stance on North Korea and strengthen the US-Japan security relationship while generally developing a more independent and assertive Japanese foreign policy.

To the extent that nationalism causes frictions in relations between Japan and its neighbours, the main sources are Chinese and Korean nationalisms. In China, the party state exercises strong political control over a rapidly changing and increasingly ungovernable society. The Chinese government has manipulated anti-Japanese nationalism and allowed its public manifestation as one of the few permitted forms of popular protest. There are many and complex reasons for this, not least domestic considerations, where nationalism plays an important role in legitimating the government.While Japan is enjoying a “Korea boom” and integrating with the region on more equal terms than in the past, there are anti-Japanese riots in China. If growing nationalist sentiment is posing a threat to bilateral relations, this is not only or primarily on the Japanese side. To claim so in the face of massive evidence to the contrary is to risk straying beyond journalistic opinion into the realm of propaganda. It is certainly not balanced scholarship.

Jacques also writes that “it would appear that Japan is determined to continue with the mindset that has dominated its attitude ever since the Meiji restoration in 1868, namely one of superiority and detachment.” The claim that a single “mindset” has dominated Japanese attitudes to East Asia since 1868 is hard to believe and a gross simplification. Like in all other countries, there is and always has been a broad spectrum of opinion about the state’s external relations and foreign policy. There have been many competing ideas about Japan’s place in the world and East Asia since before the Meiji era. At times particular perspectives have prevailed among foreign policy elites, but there has always been competition between different conceptions of Japan’s international position, both within the foreign policy elite and in society at large.

To claim that Japan is “Far from being persuaded by the growing power and prosperity of East Asia – and in particular China – to turn over a new leaf in its relationship with the region” is quite bizarre when that power and prosperity is to a large extent the intended outcome of long-term Japanese policies. Chalmers Johson and many other specialists on East Asian international relations have argued this for years.[7] These policies are constantly evolving in response to, most of all, the rise of China. Without Japanese foreign aid, investment, technology and diplomacy, East Asia would not be as powerful and prosperous as it has now become. Japan has been the driving force in East Asian economic development, regionalisation and regionalism, but as the volume edited by Katzenstein and Shiraishi argues, the region has now moved beyond national models and a “flying geese” pattern with Japan in an undisputed economic and technological leadership position.[8] Japanese policies, at times in collaboration and at times in competition with other powers like the US and PRC, have unleashed forces, which neither Japan nor any other great power can easily control. Japan is certainly not detaching itself from East Asia, and particularly not from China. The importance of the relationship with China was underlined by Prime Minister Abe in his first press conference and speech to the Diet after his election. The history of Japan’s foreign relations after 1945 is the history of gradual re-attachment to East Asia. The post-war detachment from China until 1972 was imposed by the US, very much against the wishes of most Japanese politicians and diplomats, including Mr. Abe’s grandfather Kishi Nobosuke. The Japanese superiority complex is increasingly a thing of the past and was always only a partial truth, because it coexisted with strong currents of Sinophile and Asianist sentiment both on the political right and left. Recent developments in Japanese popular culture also testify to this.

Martin Jacques is not alone in repeating what David Williams calls “the Allied orthodoxy”. This is the ideological notion that Shôwa Japan before August 1945 had the same kind of state and society configuration as Hitler’s Third Reich and that the two therefore had identical ideologies and policies. This argument is used to justify Allied conduct, including firebombing of civilians and nuclear war, against Japan as absolutely virtuous and Japan’s war as absolutely evil. But history is grey rather than black and white. Germany and Japan were allied and both lost wars against the Allied Powers. Pre-1945 Japan was militaristic and tendentially authoritarian, but never made the transition to fascism that Germany and Italy did. Germany under National Socialism had more in common with its enemy, the USSR, while Japan’s political structures and imperialistic foreign policy more closely resembled the Western Allies. There was therefore not one Second World War fought between an alliance of liberal democracies and Stalinism against fascism. There was one war in Europe and two wars in East Asia and the Pacific: One between Japan and China from 1931, and another between Japan and the US, Britain, China and the Netherlands from 1941. In August 1945 the USSR joined the Allied war on Japan. Japan’s regional ambitions in Asia were a complex mix of Asianist emancipation and Japanese imperial domination. The imperialism, however, was not substantially different from Western imperialisms at the same time. It had its particular Japanese features, but it was not genocidal or millenarian like German National Socialism. This does not mean that atrocities were not committed on the Japanese side or that they should be trivialised or denied, like Abe has done about the “comfort women”. Japanese aggression in Asia has certainly brought suffering, but this should not blind us to Allied, specifically US, barbarity in the conduct of war against the Japanese Empire.

It is odd that The Guardian chooses to publish Martin Jacques’ ill-informed and biased opinions on East Asia. By doing so, the newspaper makes itself a mouthpiece for a biased view of East Asian history and contemporary politics. He has valuable contributions to make in areas where he is more knowledgeable, but Japanese politics and foreign relations is not one of them. The Guardian and its readers would be better served by inviting contributions from historians and social scientists with expertise in modern East Asia. There is no shortage of them at the LSE and other British universities. Scholars like Chris Hughes, Chris Goto-Jones, Sue Townsend, Hugo Dobson, David Williams, Glenn Hook, Reinhardt Drifte, Arthur Stockwin, to name just a few, would have something more informed to say on the important topic of Japan’s relations with its continental neighbours.


[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/sep/27/comment.secondworldwar

[2] The Centre says this about the scheme:

This scheme is available for individuals outside the School wishing to undertake research on a full-time basis on a project which spans more than one social science. The goal is to develop early stage career researchers (pre-major review) working in an interdisciplinary fashion in the social sciences. The duration of an ARC visiting fellowship can be from one month to one year and can be renewed up to three years in total. The position of ARC Visiting Fellowship is normally open to those who have obtained a PhD degree. Resident Visitors are required to pay bench fees of £2500 per academic year (pro-rated for shorter periods). Exemptions to this are allowed only on an exceptional basis. Fellowship applications received by the ARC are recommended once per term on a competitive basis. These are without remuneration however the ARC is able to provide limited desk space. Applicants should be nominated by their home department together with an LSE academic who will act as research mentor.


[3] The Murayama Statement of 1995 may have gone further than previous apologies, but it is by no means the first official apology. http://www.mofa.go.jp/announce/press/pm/murayama/9508.html

[4] For one of many examples, see Zhongqi Pan “Sino-Japanese Dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands: The Pending Controversy from the Chinese Perspective”. Journal of Chinese Political Science Volume 12, Number 1 / April, 2007, pp. 71-92

[5] People’s Daily Online 18th September 2006. “Abe’s attitude key to ties, expert says”.

[6] “Policy Speech by PM Shinzo Abe to the 165th Session of the Diet”.

[7] See Johnson, Chalmers Japan: Who governs? The rise of the developmental state. New York: Norton, 1996

[8] Katzenstein, Peter J. & Shiraishi, Takashi (eds.) Beyond Japan: The dynamics of East Asian regionalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006


2 thoughts on “A British cheerleader for Chinese nationalism: Martin Jacques on “Japan’s resurgent nationalism”

  1. Oh, I like this article! 2 thumbs up!

    I read some of Martin Jacques new book. I have been living in China for over a decade and when I read on page 136 that he ‘interviewed’ some person who only lived in China for 1 year and then quoted them about how they perceive Chinese think. This is an expert opinion? Hardly. Just favorable for what he is saying.

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