Welcome to 2018. The North Korean nuclear and missile crisis is unresolved. The superpower egoism of U.S. President Donald Trump's administration shows no signs of waning. Countries, rather than functioning as simple organized communities, are creating international friction through the expression of particularistic national will.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the 1868 Meiji Restoration, which ended rule by the Tokugawa shoguns that had persisted since 1603. The history of Japan since the Meiji Restoration is marked by a clash between this country's will and the international community.
This year is a milestone when Japan should seriously consider what kind of country it should strive to be.
The Meiji Era (1868-1912) was characterized by Japan's abolition of its hierarchic social class system introduced during the Edo period and efforts to transform itself into a nation-state. However, the public did not rush to get onboard with the national project. The Meiji government needed to unify people.
"Kokugo Gannen" (Year 1 of the Japanese-language), a TV drama series written by novelist Hisashi Inoue, depicts the emergence of our nation. The story is set in Tokyo sometime around the seventh year of the Meiji era, or 1874. The protagonist, an Education Ministry employee from Choshu (present day western Yamaguchi Prefecture), says, "Unless there is a standard spoken language in Japan, the military and the country can't achieve unity."
Hirobumi Ito, who drafted the Meiji Constitution, sought to recognize the Emperor as the linchpin of the modern Japanese state because he thought that only the Imperial Family had a binding power equivalent to Christianity in Europe. The Imperial Rescript on Education, issued shortly before the Meiji Constitution came into force, recognized the Emperor as Japan's spiritual ruler.
University of Tokyo professor emeritus Taichiro Mitani points out that "it is not the Constitution but the Imperial Rescript on Education that had overwhelming influence on the general public." Military leaders during the Showa era took advantage of the rescript's influence on the people to wage war, eventually bringing Japan to ruin.
The "nation-state" is the idea that people who share the same language and folkways should form a country. To prevent the emergence of fascism, Japan and Germany started over as democratic nation-states after the end of World War II.
The purpose of democracy is for residents of a given area to decide their own rules. In this sense, a democratic nation-state is an effective model of governance.
However, what we see now in many places across the world is the swaying and fraying of nation-states. The United States is a typical example. The Trump government's restrictions on immigrants and policies favoring white people have shaken America's founding philosophies. The administration has disregarded multilateral agreements under the name of "America First," splitting public opinion.
It has been pointed out that modern countries have no choice but to sacrifice one of national sovereignty, democracy or globalization to prevent internal contradictions. This is a trilemma of international politics.
The U.S. under the Trump administration, which sticks to national sovereignty at the expense of globalization, appears to be damaging its own democracy. Catalonia's declaration of independence from Spain has raised questions about the theory of the nation. There are moves in Scotland to secede from Britain, while Belgium is plagued by Flemish separatist movements.
These moves reflect a feeling of discomfort among ethnic groups and regions that have been forced into the framework of nation-states in the process of modernization.
Japan is not an exception. Okinawa, the onetime Ryukyu Kingdom, was annexed by Japan at the beginning of the Meiji era. The trend of pressuring Okinawa, heavily burdened by the concentration of U.S. bases there, can only threaten the unity between the southernmost prefecture and mainland Japan.
There are reportedly between 2,000 and 3,000 ethnic groups in the world, and fewer than 200 countries. Thus, countries cannot be comprised of a single ethnic group, and making them so is thoroughly unrealistic.
It is certain that the widening income gap as a result economic globalization and the influx of immigrants to Europe have adversely affected the framework for nation-states.
However, attention should be focused on democracy's integrative capacity. People have a wide diversity of ideas. Individuals' opinions differ depending on their social statuses, backgrounds, regions, age and gender, and democracy is needed all the more for these differences. The process of respecting opposing opinions and accepting a final decision made by society as a whole is valuable. If excessive homogeneity were required of the citizens of a democratic country -- like what Trump is doing in the U.S. -- it would shake the country's foundations.
The countdown to the end of the Heisei era will begin in earnest this year, as Emperor Akihito is to abdicate on April 30, 2019. The abdication date was set after the Emperor seriously considered seeking to remain the symbol of the state and of the unity of the Japanese people.
No country has ever been launched as a homogeneous state. Therefore, both the government and the public need to try to overcome differences. The current international situation points to the need for people to join hands as fellow members of their community.