For case study of nationalism in Trump's America, look to Japan
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Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden on Trump's refusal to commit to peaceful transfer of power: 'What country are we in?' Romney: 'Unthinkable and unacceptable' to not commit to peaceful transition of power Two Louisville police officers shot amid Breonna Taylor grand jury protests MORE’s meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week might have been more symbolic than the president-elect knew. Because if we want to know what happens with far-right movements after a nationalist leader is swept to power, Abe’s Japan may provide a hint.

 Trump’s election victory has raised serious questions about the prominence of America’s nationalist movement and its ability to leave a lasting mark on American society.

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Trump’s rhetoric on immigrants, from his calls for “extreme vetting” to his promise to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, resonated strongly with a fringe far-right movement that felt its views were finally validated. Where is this movement headed? Well, look no further than Japan.

 

In 2012, the Japanese people elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a staunch nationalist who advocated a more proactive defense posture for Japan. He promoted a revisionist narrative of his country’s history, unnerving South Korea and China — two victims of Japan’s past military adventurism.

Abe’s victory energized far-right groups that were previously confined to the margins of Japanese society and politics. Some of these organizations have explicitly xenophobic aims, often targeting Korean or Chinese minorities, while others advocate a return to militarism. 

Although Japan’s far-right groups remain relatively marginal, after Abe’s election they became increasingly active and vocal. A xenophobic group opposed to what it calls the “privileges” of ethnic Koreans in Japan staged several demonstrations in Korean neighborhoods in 2013 and 2014. Journalists and academics deemed hostile to the views of the far-right became the targets of threats and harassment.

In one case, Hokusei University faced intense pressure to fire a lecturer because he had published in 1991 an article casting Japan’s history in a negative light. Only two weeks after the presidential election, one cannot help but observe similar incidents in the US, with reports of harassment against minorities and opponents of Donald Trump. 

Like Trump, Abe drew some of his support from disaffected citizens who believed their country had lost its way and needed to be jolted back to an ill-defined greatness of the past.

While Abe and Trump are very different in terms of character and policies, it is important to recognize the strengthening effect that political leaders can have on specific social groups. Far-right nationalist groups — even those whose views Trump does not openly advocate — are likely to feel validated and be empowered by the businessman’s election. 

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Unlike Trump, Abe himself has never expressed apparently xenophobic sentiments. But his revisionist views and association with individuals belittling the grievances of Korean and Chinese people have led right-wing organizations to see him as a legitimizing force.

Herein lies the danger for the United States: Although the American far-right is perhaps aware that Trump does not fully support its aims, it believes his presidency legitimizes its cause and provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make inroads into mainstream society.

Political leaders have the power to legitimize radical ideas and provide incentives for marginalized movements to come out of the shadows. Consequently, the U.S. should brace for even more manifestations of open prejudice from disparate groups and individuals, which will further poison an already toxic social climate.

If there is a silver lining to this story, it is that far-right groups in Japan have lost steam in the last two years, after being initially galvanized by the election of Shinzo Abe.

Opposition to these organizations has grown, and in May, the Japanese parliament adopted the country’s first anti-hate speech law.

The same could happen in the United States if the xenophobic fringe that supports Trump sees that the president doesn’t follow through with some of his most controversial campaign promises.

Looking ahead, the 2018 mid-term elections will reveal whether Trump’s appeal with this fringe has any staying power. But in the meantime, there may be trying times ahead. 

Chartrand is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) who specializes on security in the Asia-Pacific. He is also a lecturer in international relations at the University of Montreal. Prior to joining CIGI, Chartrand was an associate researcher at the Raoul Dandurand Chair of Strategic and Diplomatic Studies and a junior fellow at United Nations University (UNU) in Tokyo.


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