Japan's Daunting Challenge

March 1, 2013 Topic: Grand StrategySecurity Regions: Japan

Japan's Daunting Challenge

Mini Teaser: Shinzo Abe might turn Japan into an isolated, aging, indebted fortress.

by Author(s): Daniel Sneider

The United States would be well served by a revitalized Japan, but not one that confuses the past with the future. There are clear limits to what Americans can do about the thorny issues of wartime history, especially given the U.S. role in that war. And China’s leaders certainly will continue to use historical issues cynically for their own political purposes, at home and abroad. But American policy makers need to strengthen the hand of Japan’s pro-Western forces in their contest with revisionist nationalists by making clear U.S. intolerance for a rollback of the postwar regime that America constructed.

Ultimately, much hinges on whether the promise of political reforms begun two decades ago will be realized. An innovative and growing Japan must rest on the foundation of a truly competitive political system in which the interests and voices of a globalized Japan, not just those seeking protection from competition, are represented. That requires a balance between the LDP and a realigned opposition incorporating the diminished DPJ and emergent forces that gained ground in this last election and tend to favor a more reformist domestic agenda.

The debate over Japan’s role in Asia—and the globe—will continue as long as the challenge from China remains. The Asianists are not wrong to want to move beyond the idea of Japan as an offshore balancer, distanced from the rest of Asia. But the pursuit of Gaullist pseudoindependence is a failed strategy. Japan’s best path is not to be the Britain or the France of Asia but rather, however ironic it might appear, the Germany of Asia. Like postwar Germany in Europe, Japan’s leadership in Asia rests on its economic prowess, its role as the leading center of high-tech manufacturing and its willingness to play a security role beyond its borders within the framework of collective security, no longer restrained by outdated ideas of pacifism. But Japan, again like Germany, can assume that mantle of leadership only if it abandons a morally repugnant defense of its wartime criminality and settles concerns about its wartime past in a dramatic and repentant fashion.

The United States should assist Japan, as it did postwar Germany, down this path. Abe could, if he chooses, be Japan’s Konrad Adenauer or even its Willy Brandt. Only time will tell whether he is willing, or able, to do so.

Daniel Sneider is the associate director for research at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. A former foreign correspondent, he is the author of a study of Japan’s foreign policy under the Democratic Party of Japan and codirects a project on the formation of wartime memory in Asia.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/JurriaanH. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Image: Pullquote: Below the surface, many Japanese of all political stripes were never comfortable with a strategy of reflexive dependence on the United States.Essay Types: Essay