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Japan’s Decades-long Diplomatic Transformation

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Japan’s Decades-long Diplomatic Transformation

Japan’s post Cold War foreign policy evolution stems from emerging threats abroad and political reforms at home. 

Japan’s Decades-long Diplomatic Transformation

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio (front) delivers remarks to a joint session of Congress as Vice President Kamala Harris (back left) and House Speaker Mike Johnson (back right) look on, Apr. 11, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/ Speaker Mike Johnson

On April 11, 2024, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio took the podium at a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress and encouraged the American people to continue playing a pivotal role toward a better world. “[T]he leadership of the United States is indispensable,” he said. 

In the same address, however, he referred to “those Americans who feel the loneliness and exhaustion of being the country that has upheld the international order almost singlehandedly.” Notably, he stated, “Although the world looks to your leadership, the U.S. should not be expected to do it all, unaided and on your own.” Because “[t]he defense of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law is the national interest of Japan,” Japan does and will stand shoulder to shoulder with the American people as their global partner for these values. With a raised voice, Kishida declared, “You are not alone. We are with you.”

Jeffrey W. Hornung, a senior political scientist at RAND Corporation, appropriately pointed out that Kishida’s address showed a historical reversal in the roles of the United States and Japan concerning global affairs. “For much of the Cold War,” Hornung explained, “the United States pushed Japan to get more involved in global affairs beyond just economic issues. During the waning days of the Cold War, and particularly after it ended, Washington applied tremendous pressure on Tokyo to act in ways commensurate with its economic power.”

Behind this historical reversal lie revolutionary changes in Japan’s diplomacy over the past 30 years after the end of the Cold War. As Kenneth B. Pyle, a leading expert on Japan in the United States, wrote in his book, “Japan in the American Century,” “When the unanticipated and abrupt ending of the Cold War shook the world, no country was less prepared for the new era of international politics than Japan.” 

Under the unique conditions of the bilateral order during the Cold War, Japan could almost entirely rely on the United States for its own security. “Incredibly,” Pyle said, “the Japanese had no plan or legislation that would allow the government to deal with national emergencies. Japan, supposedly a sovereign country, had in effect no plans for ensuring its national security. Dependence had become the foundation of the nation’s foreign policy.” 

Japan’s awakening in the national security domain stemmed from a sense of vulnerability instigated by the threats posed by North Korea and China, coupled with escalating pressure from the United States as highlighted by Hornung. While the challenges posed by North Korea and China are widely acknowledged, comprehending their significance for Japan necessitates recognizing the seldom-discussed fact that they are unprecedented issues not encountered by Japan since ancient times.

Historically, the Korean Peninsula was not a region that threatened Japan, but rather a region that Japan threatened. However, by successfully developing nuclear warheads and missiles, North Korea has become the first indigenous Korean power to directly pose a substantial threat to Japan.

Traditionally, China was not a major threat for Japan, either. Of course, the successive dynasties that occupied the Chinese continent were much stronger and more aggressive than those in the Korean Peninsula. Generally, however, they were land powers with little capability to invade other countries beyond the seas. Since ancient times, with a few exceptions, Japan maintained close cultural and economic relations with the Chinese continent, but it established its own emperorship and did not acknowledge Chinese imperial supremacy. 

Despite this irreverence, Japan faced invasions from the Chinese continent only twice: in 1274 and 1281. Both invasions were launched by the Mongolian Yuan dynasty, which held sway over vast regions of Eurasia, including the Chinese continent. Prior to targeting Japan, the Yuan dynasty attacked the Korean Goryeo dynasty and forced it into submission. This enabled the Yuan to invade Japan. However, it was difficult for a land power to demonstrate true strength in an invasion across the sea; hence, both of the Yuan invasions failed.

Uniquely in Chinese history, the Ming dynasty, which succeeded the Yuan dynasty, had a strong interest in projecting power onto the seas during its early days, transforming itself from a land power to a naval one. Under royal orders, Zheng He, a court eunuch, formed a large fleet of vessels and embarked on seven monumental voyages across the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. Beginning with the fourth sailing and each time thereafter, some ships left his fleet en route and reached all the way to the east coast of Africa. But after this brief era of maritime interest, China’s imperial government turned its attention back to the land.  

The Chinese Communist Party renewed Chinese interest in the seas for the first time in the 600 years since Zheng’s voyages. It has built a navy comparable to that of the United States’ in Asia, expanding its power to the East China Sea, South China Sea, and Indian Ocean. These moves pose challenges for Japan because, unlike during the Ming era, Japan today has important sea lanes from the East China Sea through the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean. Japan also has many other interests in terms of territory, fisheries, and underwater resources in the East China Sea, which it borders. By expanding its power into the seas, the People’s Republic of China has become the first naval power on the Chinese continent that greatly menaces Japan.

Facing these unprecedented threats, Japanese leaders have made a series of important decisions, and as Kishida said, transformed Japan “from a reticent ally” to “a strong, committed ally, looking outward to the world.” Surprisingly, Kishida’s Cabinet recently determined that Japan would possess counterstrike capabilities that could strike targets on foreign soil, a development that would have been unthinkable during the Cold War.

Despite significant threats, however, Japan would not have transformed itself diplomatically without a firm domestic foundation. As Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, asserted, “foreign policy begins at home.” Noteworthy in this regard are political reforms that Japan embarked on in the 1990s to drastically change its electoral and administrative systems. 

Satoshi Machidori, a leading political scientist in Japan, pointed out in his book, “Political Reform Reconsidered,” that these reforms are comparable to those implemented during the Meiji Restoration in the latter half of the 19th century and during the Occupation period after World War II. One objective of the 1990s reforms was to reinforce the prime minister’s political power to cope with “the new era” brought about by “the unanticipated and abrupt ending of the Cold War” that Pyle referred to. The reforms are too diverse to detail here, but they certainly enabled Japan to have strong and decisive prime ministers such as Koizumi Junichiro and Abe Shinzo.

Although several factors may have made those reforms possible, a fundamental reason lies in Japan’s robust democracy. Over the past 30 years, the Japanese economy has been lackluster, and Japanese society has been plagued by serious crimes, including the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system by a cult group called Aum. It has also been hit by several national catastrophes such as the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. Despite these hardships, the Japanese people steadily continued to support democracy codified in the Japanese Constitution, enabling their leaders to conduct drastic domestic reforms and allowing them to make important diplomatic decisions. This is a notable accomplishment in the current world that has seen the decay of democracy in many countries, including the United States.

Some pundits call the past 30 years of Japan the “lost three decades.” In contrast, the late Stanford University economics professor, Masahiko Aoki, introduced the notion of the “three decades in transition.” In an article published in the Japanese newspaper Nikkei on January 6, 2014, he contended that Japan was undergoing a period of adjustment to new economic realities, driven by factors such as a declining labor force, increased urbanization, and the rising significance of service sectors. Aoki suggested that this adjustment process, requiring approximately one generation or 30 years, was essential for Japan’s adaptation. 

Prime Minister Kishida echoed Aoki’s arguments during a speech to business leaders last December, indicating a perspective that the transition phase was nearing completion, evidenced by upticks in prices, wages, and investments. 

The notion of “three decades in transition” extends beyond Japan’s economic landscape to encompass its diplomatic realm. Over the past 30 years, Japan’s diplomacy has adjusted to new international realities triggered by the conclusion of the Cold War and the increasing threats posed by North Korea and China. This evolution has led to the emergence of an assertive and self-assured Japan, which bodes well for Americans and all others who uphold the principles of “freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.”