Japan's Cautious Hawks

Why Tokyo Is Unlikely to Pursue an Aggressive Foreign Policy

This island is my island: the governor of Tokyo on Okinotori Island, May 2005. (Issei Kato / Courtesy Reuters)

The Japanese have thought about foreign policy in similar terms since the latter half of the nineteenth century. The men who came to power after the 1868 Meiji Restoration set out to design a grand strategy that would protect their country against the existential threat posed by Western imperialism. They were driven not, as their American contemporaries were, to achieve what they believed to be their manifest destiny nor, like the French, to spread wide the virtues of their civilization. The challenge they faced -- and met -- was to ensure Japan's survival in an international system created and dominated by more powerful countries. 

That quest for survival remains the hallmark of Japanese foreign policy today. Tokyo has sought to advance its interests not by defining the international agenda, propagating a particular ideology, or promoting its own vision of world order, the way the United States and other great powers have. Its approach has instead been to take its external environment as a given and then make pragmatic adjustments to keep in step with what the Japanese sometimes refer to as "the trends of the time."

Ever since World War II, that pragmatism has kept Japan in an alliance with the United States, enabling it to limit its military's role to self-defense. Now, however, as China grows ever stronger, as North Korea continues to build its nuclear weapons capability, and as the United States' economic woes have called into question the sustainability of American primacy in East Asia, the Japanese are revisiting their previous calculations. In particular, a growing chorus of voices on the right are advocating a more autonomous and assertive foreign policy, posing a serious challenge to the centrists, who have until recently shaped Japanese strategy.

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