Political Promise

Japan’s Motionless Foreign Policy

In Stephen Wager on August 25, 2010 at 7:09 pm

Is Japan’s prospects on the international stage starting to rise again? Stephen Wager finds out.

On August the 6th 1945 the Allied Powers dropped two atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. An estimated quarter of a million people perished, forcing Japan to unconditionally surrender. Left humiliated and powerless, Japan, in 1947 was forced to rewrite its Constitution. For the next 60 years Japan would be denied normal statehood – it would, as envisaged by General MaCarthur “Become the Switzerland of Europe”. Why then does the prominent Japanese analyst, Thomas Berger, believe Japan may soonchoose to “Unsheathe its sword once more”?

There are two reasons to believe the Japanese Sun may indeed be rising again: 1) Last year’s overhaul of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), 2) A rapidly changing international security environment.

On August 30th 2009, the Japanese people, in a brutal verdict, voted out the LDP and replaced them with the inexperienced Democratic of Japan (DPJ). The vote marks a substantialchange, not just in terms of the final result but the scale of the result too. The LDP, the party that reinvigorated Japan’s pride and economic fortunes for over half a century, lost almost two-thirds of seats it held in the 480 seat lower house parliament, keeping just 119. The DPJ now has 308.

A hybrid of explanations converge to illustrate why the LDP has finally been ousted. Since the Asian crisis of 1997, Japan has struggled to resurrect the unprecedented growth it enjoyed during the 1960s. Economic stagnation, uninspired leadership, corruption scandals, mild social dislocation and stock market decline had taken its toll on the people: it was clear they wanted change.

By overthrowing the LDP, Japan’s voters seemingly turfed out not only a political dynasty but a political system too. Yukio Hatoyama, the man chosen to lead the world’s second richest economy promised the ‘redesign of government’ and tapped into national consciousness by calling for the return of their society, a society that the majority of people fear they are losing in the globalised world. The party also caused a stir by raising the issue of the continued and substantial American military presence (47000 US servicemen) on Japanese territory, particularly on the island of Okinawa.

American forces on Japanese territory have maintained their presence since 1945. After regaining its sovereignty in 1952, Japan had not officially made peace with Russia or China; thus found itself in a precarious situation with the emerging Cold War. Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru now revered and credited as the architect of Japan’s dramatic revival, calculated in sober realpolitik terms that an alliance with the United States would give Japan the military security it needed to concentrate on economic reconstruction and growth.

In 1952 the Mutual Security Assistance Pact was signed. Takashi best characterizes the strategy: “to place a light hand on Japan’s carotid artery, which, if the need arose, could increase its pressure and cause Japan to faint”. Despite the Alliance ensuring Japan’s protection from growing Communist forces, nationalists continue to pour scorn on the Pact, lamenting Japan has lost its ‘normality’ as a nation state since its foreign policy would now be a shadow of America’s. To compound the feeling of enslavement, Article 9 of the 1947 Constitution forbids Japan’s military forces to be anything more than a ‘defence force, to this day it is unthinkable for Japan to build nuclear weapons. Hence, Japan in effect, remains “in peace but as slaves”.

Many Nationalists believe Japan’s alignment with the USA prevents it from ever again being a ‘Great Power’ and therefore call for a change to the 1947 Constitution – specifically Article 9. However, according to a Mainichi Shimbun poll, 62 percent of the Japanese believe Japan’s foreign policy should remain deeply anchored within Article 9 and committed to the USA.

In a world undergoing rapid transition, power shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the emergence of ‘giant states’ namely China and India and the looming presence of the unpredictable beast that is North Korea – Japan can ill afford to break its Alliance with the USA. In fact, in contrast to the DPJs political tone towards America during the election, Foreign Minister Okada asserted recently, “The alliance with the USA is the cornerstone of Japan’s security”.

The fact the 1947 Constitution has remained unchanged for 60 years has been interpreted as a sign that the Japanese people willingly accept a perpetually peaceful Japan and that the post-war culture of anti-militarism and ‘nuclear allergy’ still prevails.

Mr Hatoyama had the chance to revolutionise Japan’s foreign policy and economy. He failed spectacularly to do either, resigning only two months ago. He has been succeeded by Naoto Kan: how he deals with the relocation of the Okinawa base and generally Japan’s commitment to the USA remainsambiguous. My guess, with the situation as it is in North Korea, American presence in Japan will increase rather than decrease. Watch this space.

  1. Excellent article, thought provoking and well researched. I agree that Japan does not seem likely to break away from the ‘cornerstone’ of their foreign policy (the US alliance) anytime soon. I also believe that China’s apparent rise and the DPRK’s nuclear programme have presented difficult choices for Japan on the question of normalisation. However, have you considered that a sudden destabilisation emerging as a result of a halt in China’s rise could perhaps present an even greater challenge than that of a stronger, yet stabile nation? A collapsing China, causing a political tsunami in the pacific, would surely demand that Japan consider where its real interests lie in Asia?

    Well done though!

  2. The United States divided the world into jurisdictions for its various Commands, because they can and they have plans. Japan is a part of their plans in the Asian theatre of operations. As far as Japanese foreign policy goes, it is heavily influenced by the US. The Japanese are framing their foreign policy along humanitarian and human security lines, but other than that I do not think Japan will be able to dish out anything dramatic or different. Same with South Korea.

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