Courtesy Reuters

Japan Is Back:Why Tokyo's New Assertiveness Is Good for Washington

These days, any book on Asia with the word "rising" in the title is likely to be about China. It was doubtless with that in mind that Kenneth Pyle decided on the clever title "Japan Rising" for his masterful new treatise on Japan's strategic culture. At a time when cabinet secretaries, CEOs, and journalists are rushing past Tokyo on their way to Beijing, Pyle reminds us that China is not the only actor making strategic choices that will shape Asia's future. As he notes in his introduction, "After more than half a century of national pacifism and isolationism, [Japan] is preparing to become a major player in the strategic struggles of the twenty-first century."

The more assertive Japan of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is often described by observers as "nationalistic" or even "remilitarizing." But beyond noting that the familiar moorings of Japanese pacifism and passivity seem to be eroding, few authors have been able to explain what the basis for current Japanese strategic thought might be. Pyle helps to fill that gap by spotlighting the enduring qualities of Japan's strategic culture and by elucidating Tokyo's long-running success at adjusting its domestic institutions and sources of relative power to get the most out of the prevailing international system. Taking the reader from the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry's black ships in Edo Bay in 1853 to the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere of the 1930s and 1940s and then to the postwar alliance with the United States, Pyle demonstrates how Japanese elites have maintained an intense focus on maximizing the nation's autonomy, rank, and honor. He also shows how they have remained attentive to the distribution of international power and adopted the hegemonic powers' most successful practices. In reading this elegantly presented history, one comes to appreciate that Japan is not returning to its realist roots; it never left them.

TRADITIONAL WAYS

One of the most striking elements of Pyle's account is the way in which Japan has consistently managed to do more with less. Pyle notes that from 1860 to 1938, when Japan was beginning to assert itself as a contender for dominance of half the globe, its share of global GDP only rose from 2.6 percent to 3.8 percent. Under the banner of "rich nation, strong army," the Meiji elite adopted those Western technologies and political institutions that served the purpose of rapid modernization and the goal of channeling leading-edge technologies into the imperial army and navy. In 1860, most Japanese military personnel still carried swords, spears, or halberds; by December 1940, Japan was designing, building, and deploying some of the most modern battleships and fighter aircraft in the world.

After suffering catastrophic defeat in 1945, Japan was forced to accommodate the U.S. occupation and a new U.S.-dominated international order. Pyle explains how the conservative elite operated to maintain Japan's core values while making necessary adjustments to maximize the country's relative strength. The architect of this postwar strategy, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, believed that the prewar leadership had not been sufficiently attentive to international power relations and had mismanaged Japan's sources of national strength. Yoshida closely aligned Tokyo with Washington and ensured that Japan's postwar focus remained on economic rebuilding, not remilitarization, even after the Eisenhower administration began to regret the imposition of the pacifist Article 9 of Japan's 1947 constitution. Yoshida and the conservative elite saw pacifism as a means to maximize Japan's national autonomy until the country had recovered. His successors ensured that Japan institutionalized Article 9 in domestic law as a break against entrapment in U.S. Cold War strategy. Yoshida was particularly concerned that Japan retain a relatively free hand to pursue commercial relations with China, which he was certain would eventually wean itself from Soviet influence. Later in his life, Yoshida expressed regret that Article 9 had become an excuse for Japanese passivity, including for banning collective defense efforts with the United States beyond the narrow purpose of defending Japan.

With the end of the Cold War, Japan's elite was again forced to adjust to a new international order. After five decades of strong economic growth, the nation seemed to possess the tools necessary to enhance its own position while remaining aligned with the world's sole superpower. Much of Japan's elite subscribed to the famous assertion of former Deputy Finance Minister Eisuke Sakakibara that the Japanese economy had "surpassed capitalism" and that, accordingly, Tokyo would be able to shape its strategic environment from a position of leadership within Asia without having to remilitarize. Instead, the 1990s saw a Japan paralyzed by inaction during the Gulf War, bereft of a credible economic model after the collapse of the bubble, unable to use economic interdependence to shape China's rapidly expanding strategic reach, and threatened by a North Korea bent on developing nuclear weapons.

Only after a decade of drift did Japan find its bearings again under Koizumi and Abe, both scions of anti-Yoshida political families. Koizumi attacked the power base of the old guard of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and fostered the restructuring needed to get the economy back on track. He also broke new ground by dispatching the Self-Defense Forces to the Indian Ocean and Iraq as part of a more robust security policy and a closer partnership with the United States. Since becoming prime minister in September 2006, Abe has elevated the Japan Defense Agency to the level of a ministry and announced his intention to revise Article 9. Both leaders have enjoyed broad support for this new direction among the political elite -- which includes Yoshida's grandson Taro Aso, who now serves as Abe's foreign minister.

Pyle concludes his history by predicting that Japan will continue to recalibrate its national power to accommodate a changing international environment. He correctly notes that Japan still has not come to terms with the legacy of World War II or made the hard choices necessary to sustain economic growth over the long haul (such as revamping immigration policy and reforming the agricultural sector). But the bottom line is clear: Japan has begun tapping into new sources of strength in order to remain a key player in Asia, just as it has many times before.

BALANCING BEIJING

Pyle's rich history offers an important corrective for those who believe that the future of Asian security can be assured through a bipolar U.S.-Chinese concert of power. Although increasingly aligned with the United States because of growing uncertainty about its external environment, Japan is an independent variable, and the Japanese elite will come to its own conclusions about how to safeguard Japan's interests. A positive U.S.-Chinese relationship is in Japan's national interest, but excessive U.S. accommodation of Chinese power at Japan's expense will lead to increased hedging by Tokyo and a less predictable Asian security environment. To give Japan the confidence to combine its already close economic ties with China with a similarly stable strategic relationship, Washington should base its engagement with Beijing on a close alliance with Tokyo. Pyle makes this point in a more understated way, noting that "successful coordination of engagement policies with Japan will require great sensitivity to the dynamics of Sino-Japanese relations."

Pyle's analysis also provides an indirect but powerful counterpoint to the belief that Japan's development of nuclear weapons is inevitable in the wake of North Korea's nuclear test last October. It is true that some senior Japanese politicians now muse openly about developing nuclear weapons, but the same politicians and their predecessors also privately -- and sometimes not so privately -- ruminated about possessing a nuclear deterrent during the Cold War. Japan's leaders are looking at North Korea's nuclear test within the context of Japan's overall national power. Japan's power assets include a strong alliance with the United States, the extended U.S. nuclear deterrent, domestic political cohesion, and regional economic relationships -- all of which would be put at risk by a unilateral nuclear weapons program. The Japanese are not about to slide toward nuclear armament -- so long as Washington remains attentive to the credibility of its own nuclear umbrella and to its strategic commitment to Tokyo.

As strong as Pyle's overall argument about the elements of continuity in Japan's current strategic posture is, he neglects some important aspects of Japan's new foreign policy style. After decades of pursuing relationships primarily for commercial reasons, Japan is now pursuing many of its international relationships with the geostrategic aim of balancing China's influence. Abe has embraced a new partnership with India and is actively discussing a formal security treaty with Australia. Despite Singaporean elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew's famous warning to Washington that encouraging Japan to play a larger security role is like giving a former alcoholic a rum bonbon, Singapore is now at the forefront of efforts to expand Japan's political and security role in Southeast Asia; Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand have followed suit. None of these nations -- including Japan -- is interested in "containing" China's rise, but all are engaged in a curious mix of balancing and bandwagoning, and Tokyo is beginning to take advantage of that game.

Japan's approach to regionalism is also undergoing important changes that merit attention. When Japanese leaders were trying to protect their domestic economic structure from U.S. pressure, it made sense for Tokyo to pursue a regional order based on Asian economic exceptionalism. Such a stance served as a buffer against the dictates of the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. Treasury Department. Today, however, China's lack of transparency and weak rule of law present a far greater threat to Japan's resurgent economy than the so-called Washington consensus. As Asian leaders debate the formation of new multilateral institutions such as the East Asian Community, Japan is engaged in an intense contest with China to determine what the new institutions are to be based on: preserving Asian exceptionalism, as Beijing now argues, or pursuing a common set of values rooted in democracy and the rule of law, as Tokyo contends. The advocacy of democracy and the rule of law as a cornerstone of Japan's foreign policy seems inconsistent with Pyle's point that Japanese elites have always eschewed transcendent Western norms. But it is entirely consistent with his argument that Japan's leaders are adept at adopting the tools that best help them enhance their influence and shape their security environment at any given time.

RESURGENT ALLY

The resurgence of Japanese power and purpose is not all about petty nationalism, even though nationalism characterizes the Japanese public mood these days (just as it does the public moods of South Korea and China). Nor is Japan's resurgence a simple matter of remilitarization, since Japan's defense spending remains below one percent of GDP, as it has for decades. Japan's latest rise is once again about doing more with less. Fortunately for the United States, leveraging the U.S.-Japanese alliance will be high on the list of Tokyo's priorities. That is a good thing both for the United States and for the world. The question is whether Washington fully comprehends this.

Pyle's book is replete with examples of U.S. policymakers who have failed to understand Japanese strategic thinking. Former Secretaries of State Cordell Hull and Henry Kissinger are singled out, and Pyle takes particularly strong exception to the October 2000 bipartisan report on Japan's strategy chaired by Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye (which this reviewer helped to author). The Armitage-Nye report served as the blueprint for the Bush administration's Japan policy and probably would have for an Al Gore administration had the Democratic members of the group entered office in 2001. Pyle dismisses the report as a patronizing attempt to foist the U.S.-British alliance model on an unwilling Japan. In fact, the central theme of the Armitage-Nye report was that the era of "gaiatsu" (foreign pressure) on Japan is over. Rather than advocating imposing strategies and then expecting Japan to foot the bill, the report called for the U.S. government to consult with Tokyo, account for Japan's strategic interests, and let Japan define a proactive role for itself in resolving international challenges -- as Washington did with London. Its premise was the same as Pyle's: it is incumbent on the United States to adjust to a Japan that is entering a new era of resurgence. But Pyle missed that point as he strayed from a superbly chronicled history of Japanese strategic thinking into a more facile critique of U.S. "unilateralism" under the Bush administration. The record shows that the Armitage-Nye strategy was embraced by Tokyo and formed the basis for the strongest relationship between a U.S. president and a Japanese prime minister in history.

Ultimately, Japan is not all that inscrutable, nor is management of U.S.-Japanese relations all that complicated. Japan's political elite will always harbor some ambivalence about its junior-partner status with the United States, but the current generation of political leaders clearly wants the U.S.-Japanese alliance to work better for both nations. They are no longer reticent about doing more -- or asking for more in return. The important thing is that Washington continue to listen. Japan's public is intensely worried about North Korea's nuclear weapons, China's growing influence in Asia, and the United States' preoccupation with the Middle East. The alliance between Washington and Tokyo remains the centerpiece of Japanese foreign and security policy, but as Pyle notes, Japan is no longer sheltered from the Sturm und Drang in Asia or passive about deciding its own course. As a result, there is much less room for error when it comes to maintaining the credibility of the U.S. commitment to this most successful of alliances.

By illuminating Japan's historic strength at redefining its national power and purpose, Pyle has offered a compelling reason why Tokyo should remain central to Washington's strategic thinking. His story of how Japan came to this point may not contain all of the answers about what to expect in the future, but it is the best explanation yet of why it is worth paying attention.