Those around the region who fear that shadowy conservative forces are rearming a resurgent, neo-Imperialist Japan would have found no comfort in viewing the cover art of Tokyo’s 2021 defense white paper.

It’s a striking design: a black ink image of a grim warrior pulling on the reins of a charging steed drawn by an artist noted for his work in manga.

Given the military history of Japan, the rendering of a mounted samurai might be considered appropriate for the subject matter of the white paper, released on July 13. But a glance at the Japanese Defense Ministry’s archive of white papers makes clear how different this year’s martial cover illustration is from its more genteel successors.

The 2020 white paper featured a bucolic cover image: A white outline drawing of water lilies and Mount Fuji, all on a pink background. The 2019 white paper cover showed a satellite photo of the earth, with the rising sun casting its light over Japan.

Predictably, the new cover made news in both China and South Korea – two countries that have historically felt the points of Japanese swords, memories of which are kept alive in education and frequently stoked in media and popular culture.

Beijing’s fiery tabloid Global Times stormed, “Both the ‘warlike’ cover and the defense paper made analysts worried over the more and more explicit intentions of Tokyo to deregulate its military, and analysts question whether Japan would follow its commitment to pursue a pacifist path.”

In Korea, the Hankyoreh, a left-leaning daily, editorialized, “It’s debatable whether a belligerent samurai on horseback is appropriate given Japan’s ‘exclusively defense-oriented policy,’ under which military force can only be exercised in response to attack and must be kept to a minimum.”

Drawing further widespread comment around the region was the text within the covers – notably, the paper’s references to Taiwan.  

“The stability of the situation around Taiwan is important, not only for the security of our country but for the stability of the international community,” the white paper observed. “Our country must pay close attention to this, with an even greater sense of vigilance.”

The island, which become the outpost for Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists after Mao Zedong’s Communists won the Chinese Civil War on the mainland, is still considered by Beijing a renegade province. Today, most of the world recognizes Beijing’s “One China” policy – which foresees eventual reunification of the now democratically governed island with the relentlessly authoritarian-ruled mainland.

Taiwan’s proximity to Japan’s Ryukyu chain and the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, as well as its critical position at the center of the global semiconductor supply chain, make it strategically and economically vital for Japan at a time when China is increasingly flexing muscles.

Uniquely in the region, Taiwan harbors positive memories of Tokyo’s colonial rule from 1895 to 1945. That makes the island an emotive touchpoint for many Japanese, particularly those who hold a rosy view of their imperial past.

The publication of the white paper followed separate comments made by a pair of Japanese conservatives, Deputy Defense Minister Yashuhide Nakayama in June and by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso earlier this month, questioning prior Japanese policy on Taiwan and calling for stronger stances. 

Clearly, these are not isolated statements or sentiments. A voice within Japan’s body politic is agitating for an aggressive policy in the realm of national defense. But both foreign and local experts on Japan say that the conservatives who seek this and other policy changes are unlikely to succeed.

However, those same experts opine that Taiwan is going to come increasingly into focus in Japan’s strategic prism.

Deep-right lobby

The white paper cover image mirrors the combination of military ambition and historic-cultural revisionism that is at the heart of a nationalist, nationwide lobby group that is the force behind Japan’s right-wing. Albeit, in Japanese, rightists prefer to be labelled “conservatives,” given the negative linkage of the term “right-wing” with ultra-right street movements associated with gangsterism and racism.

Nippon Kaigi (“Japan Conference”) was founded in 1997 by combining Shinto-related organizations and another predecessor organization that included veterans of Japan’s wartime armed forces. It includes in its ranks not only politicians – notably many members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party – but also academics, media figures and businesspersons.

Among the current crop of senior politicians in the LDP, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is a member. So are Deputy Prime Minister Aso and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, both of whom are members of political dynasties and strong proponents of a more robust stance toward the defense of Taiwan.

Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso is the latest top-level politician to lend rhetorical support for Taiwan. Photo: Handout / AFP via Japan Exchange Group

Nippon Kaigi’s activities include symposia, gatherings and rallies; a number of its members are prolific authors. It seeks, via the creation of local branches, to expand its membership – currently standing at around 50,000 in a nation of 126 million, according to Hiroyuki Fujita, a member of the group’s Tokyo chapter who spoke with Asia Times.

The organization’s agenda items include revising Japan’s US-authored constitution, elevating the status of the emperor and promoting conservative gender and family values.

It also wants an educational system that will promote a distinctly Japanese national and cultural identity – an aim that has raised accusations of blatant revisionism regarding sensitive historical touchpoints including the Nanjing Massacre, the “comfort women” and politicians’ visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

Nippon Kaigi takes a strong stance on national security and is furiously anti-communist, but also says it seeks to cultivate friendships around the world. That latter ambition may explain some members’ views toward Taiwan – and its more vexed view toward the United States.

How to understand this group? It propounds a romantic, “lost-cause” narrative of Imperial Japan and its Pacific War defeat, said Shaun O’Dwyer, a Japan-based Australian academic.

Japan watchers cannot point to organizations that are directly analogous to Nippon Kaigi in other countries, but some consider it comparable to movements in the Southern US which, to this day, glorify the Confederacy. However, Nippon Kaigi is not noted for violence.

The organization generates fear and loathing in English-language media who overlook the more traditionalist and cultural elements of its agenda to focus on its revisionism. ABC News has called it “the ultra-nationalistic group trying to restore the might of the Japanese Empire.” “Japan reverts to fascism,” thundered the National Review.

Yet a number of high-profile members are also members of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan – about as internationalist a bunch as can be found in the country – and experts say Nippon Kaigi is not as dangerous as it is painted to be.

The group’s “sinisterness and secrecy and unity,” Kyushyu University’s O’Dwyer said, are “overrated.”

“It’s an adult boys’ club to build up client relations with senior or junior politicians,” O’Dwyer added. “On paper, they are really reactionary, but in practice they are more like a networking, relationship-type organization.”

‘You can’t really not be part of [Nippon Kaigi] if you are a bona fide conservative figure – most of the cabinet belong to it,” said John Nilsson-Wright, a senior lecturer in Modern Japanese Politics and International Relations at Cambridge University. “It is a political association that, in terms of domestic politics, is an opportunity for people to reinforce and consolidate their own belief systems.”

However, he adds, those belief systems “are not very vigorously pursued” – a reference to the group’s often less-than-dynamic modus operandi.

Sharpening Japan’s sword

Even some who would not consider themselves conservative see some justice in the right’s desire for more independence over defense policy – notably Nippon Kaigi’s and the LDP’s long-held desire to ditch Article 9 of the national constitution, which restricts the role of Japan’s military, the Self Defense Forces (SDF).

“It is about booting Article 9 and becoming more independent in the Boris Johnson Brexit sense, so we can have a bit more spine in our foreign policy,” said Haruko Satoh, a professor at the Osaka School of International Public Policy. “But my sympathies end there.”

Facing the extraordinary difficulty of actually revising the constitution – any revision requires, first, a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet, then a public referendum – the LDP, under then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, pioneered a “reinterpretation” of the document in 2014.

That allows Japan to exercise the right to “collective self-defense,” – i.e., to defend an ally under attack, even if Japan is not directly being assaulted. 

Japanese Special Defense Forces in a file photo. Image: AFP/EPA

“That loophole has enabled conservative governments to build up the Japanese military to where it is in the top five or six in military spending globally,” said Nilsson-Wright. “And the interpretive change means that with ‘collective self-defense,’ the SDF can work with the US and other countries to defend Japan’s territorial integrity and national interests.”

Under this rubric, the concept of defense has stretched outward, from Japan’s national islands to include citizens overseas and strategic materials. This means the SDF, “can now be deployed effectively anywhere in the world, if used for self-defense,” said Nilsson-Wright. “The conservative governments have achieved the long-term, post-war goal to ensure Japan can be an effective, de facto military actor.”

Still, this LDP achievement does not satisfy Nippon Kaigi.

“The Japanese SDF is not, according to the constitution, a military force – they are police,” insisted Nippon Kaigi member Fujita, who in addition to his work as a journalist is president of the Research Institute for International Issues. “The personnel are under civil, not martial, law: if they fire, they are subject to a civil court and they cannot act outside Japanese jurisdiction.”

More moderate Japanese consider this irrelevant. “Anything can be done within the reinterpretations of collective self-defense,” Satoh said.

Contradictions and restraints

Nippon Kaigi, and the broader Japanese right, is not entirely united. Take the contradictions apparent in the personality and policies of one of its most prominent members: Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, who stood down in 2020.

Some people abroad – notably in South Korea – painted Abe as an ultra-nationalist on account of his revisionist views toward Japan’s Imperial/Pacific War past and his ambitions for young Japanese to cease learning “masochistic” history – meaning history that paints Japanese atrocities in their full hue.

But in terms of his policy record, Abe was a globalist, pursuing enhanced trade ties with China, the European Union and the United States, summiting with world leaders, opening Japan’s economy to immigration and tourism and bringing home such global events as the Rugby World Cup and the Summer Olympics. 

“Nippon Kaigi’s agenda is at odds with Abe’s agenda to present Japan as internationalist, as a liberal democracy,” said Nilsson-Wright. “It opens legitimate questions: How does a state maintain its cultural identify and embrace universal values and tolerance?”

In some ways, Nippon Kaigi’s posture on history and culture reflects moves seen under the Trump and Johnson administrations in the US and UK.

“It is not that different from voices who want to avoid a narrow leftist agenda,” Nilsson-Wright said. “It is not entirely dissimilar to the conservative resilience in the UK and North America – this idea that national identity and pride matter.”

Harking back to historical glories infuriates neighbors China and Korea. But intense focus on Japan’s colonial and Pacific War atrocities may be too simplistic.

“Elements of national pride predate Japan’s imperial experience,” Nilsson-Wright said, with reference to the “rising sun” flag – which Koreans insist is comparable to the Nazi swastika. “That is hard – how to keep those traditions alive without irking neighbors abroad?”

Nippon Kaigi has a rosy view of Japan’s imperialist past. Image: Facebook

And Japan’s right-wing covers a broad spectrum.

“There are defense autonomists within the LDP, and those who embrace a UN-centered, multilateral strategy and those who have an affinity with the US,” the Cambridge academic continued. He noted that some of the rising generation of LDP politicians are “pragmatic internationalists,” while other party members favor “working with China out of economic necessity.”

Nationalism, not internationalism, is at the core of Nippon Kaigi. But when it comes to domestic affairs, the old-school cultural, familial and gender values that Nippon Kaigi promotes hamper its outreach to more liberally minded, young Japanese, one member candidly admits.

“We have a limited number of members and, unfortunately, most of our active members are men over 60 – retired old men,” said Fujita. “We have respect for traditional ceremonies and following the rules and following traditional norms, but young people are less attracted.”

Moreover, when it comes to the political leeway the LDP has to play with, restraints are in place.

The party – Nippon’s Kaigi’s most obvious partner in the parliament – rules in a coalition with the Buddhist party Komeito, which is hardly in favor of the more aggressive defense stance promoted by Aso, Kishi and their ilk.

“Komeito, I think, is going to remain silent as they have this pacifist, Buddhist backing: For the longest time, they have been an anchor on the LDP, [keeping it from] going too far right,” said Satoh, the Osaka academic. “If they go with this sort of right-leaning, hawkish side, they might lose their own voter base.”

Meanwhile, the wider, traditionally pacifistic post-war Japanese public is not – not yet, at least – enamored of the stance taken by hardline conservatives in the defense area.

“Japanese civil society just won’t stand for it,” said O’Dwyer. “There is too much robust opposition to the lost-cause ideology that Nippon Kaigi is supposed to represent and there is also strong public support for the constitutional status quo.”

Shifting strategic imperatives

The often emotive Nippon Kaigi also may not have the ear of more cool-headed military pros.

“I think they don’t really have an impact on how the SDF professionals are thinking – I think [SDF members] are loyal to the constitution, they are a lot more strategic and reasonable,” said Satoh. “They know what their limits are.”

Those limits are closely related to the US alliance. Yet while, Abe, Suga, Kishi and other power players in Tokyo have gone to considerable lengths to strengthen their country’s alliance with Washington, there are blips in the relationship.

The intrusive presence of US troops on Okinawa consistently raises local hackles, and members of the US political and (especially) academic establishments have criticized Japan’s propensity to whitewash its wartime history. And in a surprise move in 2020, canceled the Aegis Ashore missile defense program, greatly irking Washington.

“One thing about the LDP and the right wing is that they are for the alliance, but they are quite anti-US,” said Satoh.

Some Nippon Kaigi members are even less enamored of their national protector than are LDP policymakers. Fujita explained some of the contentious issues – dating back to the postwar US occupation period.

“The occupation army drafted the constitution in English first, and the emperor is the symbol of Japan,” Fujita said, “but nobody can answer my question clearly, including Diet members and professors: ‘Who is the head of Japan now?’ Some say the emperor, some say the prime minister, some say the public.

US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the White House. Photo: AFP

What is unwritten is that the head of state of Japan – behind the scenes – is the US president.”

Japanese have especially fond feelings for Taiwan. Unsurprisingly, Fujita took issue with what he sees as a two-faced US attitude toward the island.

“I never considered that Taiwan belonged to Beijing or to Communist China, so Taiwan does not have to declare independence – it is independent!” he said. “But it is not regarded as independent by the US, Japan or the UN – that is the ‘One China Policy,’ and that is the beginning of the curse we are facing right now.”

Strong words. And as Beijing casts its long shadow over the flashpoint island, the issue of it defense looks set to increasingly become a central talking point in Japanese politics, experts say. 

“Taiwan can be a matter beyond right-wing ideology,” said Ken Jimbo, a security expert at Keio University and a former advisor to Japan’s Defense Ministry. “It is a matter of defense and security and also involves protecting democratic values.”

“It is important that the Japanese discuss this a little more openly, as there is a moral dimension to this,” added Satoh. “It is not us sending troops to Taiwan, but if something does happen, we can allow the US to use Okinawa and other bases and we can do the rear end, the logistics.”

Fujita hopes that such concerns, driven by the muscle-flexing indulged in by Chinese President Xi Jinping, are bringing younger Japanese more into synch with Nippon Kaigi.

“Young people are not joining Nippon Kaigi, but are more alert and realistic and think we need to prepare for emergencies,” he said.  “Xi is very dictatorial, expanding China’s sphere of influence to the East China Sea and the South China Sea. So young people may not be interested in traditional values, but are more realistic about their future –  that is a change of circumstance.” 

But given regional realities, even this apparent shift in attitudes creates its own strategic problem – as Sato, the academic who made clear her limited sympathies for Nippon Kaigi, made clear.

“We can have a more independent SDF, but if we want to defend Japan, why aggravate relations with China?” she asked. “As a national security policy, it is counter-intuitive to not have a historical reconciliation with China.”