The Forgotten Player

The Forgotten Player

Mini Teaser: For seven years, the Clinton administration has ignored or belittled the political importance of Japan. As nationalism reawakens in that country, this may prove to be a costly mistake.

by Author(s): Michael J. Green

Until his stroke this past April, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's ruling coalition had repeatedly challenged the pacifist consensus that has prevailed in Japan since 1945, knocking over half century-old taboos and replacing them with the symbols of a "normal" state. A telling example occurred in March 1999, when Japanese destroyers fired on North Korean spy boats, driving them from Japan's territorial waters. The fusillades were the first fired in anger by the Japanese navy since the Second World War, and though they were only warning shots, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) promptly crafted legislation that would enable Japanese ships to fire for effect the next time. Support for the Obuchi cabinet increased by 5 percent in the wake of the confrontation.

Subsequently, the Japanese Diet passed legislation authorizing logistical support for U.S. forces in the event of a military conflict in Asia -- support the United States had sought without success since the 1970s. In August the Diet passed laws awarding official recognition to the hinomaru flag and to kimigayo, the national anthem, which opens with a refrain revering the emperor. Then in February of this year, two commissions in the Diet opened a debate on amending Japan's postwar constitution. This came on the heels of polls showing that 60 percent of the Diet's members supported revision and 40 percent were dissatisfied with its "Peace Clause." All this has been accompanied by a chorus of commentators and editorials championing a more assertive Japanese stance toward China, North Korea and the United States.

The sudden transformation of Japan's strategic culture has not been unanimously well received. "Japan Returns to Nationalism", trumpeted the Asian edition of Time magazine last year. In a more sober assessment, a June 1999 memorandum prepared by the U.S. National Intelligence Council cautioned that Japan is "pursuing greater autonomy or independence." The official Chinese press has warned of a return to the Japanese militarism of the 1930s. In a survey last year of Asian business executives, a majority expressed the opinion that Japan was becoming more nationalistic. Commentators throughout the region are today echoing Lee Kuan Yew's famous quip that encouraging Japan to play a larger security role is akin to feeding a reformed alcoholic chocolate liqueurs.

But Japan is not returning to militarism or embarking on a campaign of revanchism. Taboos have fallen, but the framework of postwar pacifism remains in place. Japan's allergy to nuclear weapons remains strong, and Tokyo continues to hold an idealized view of international institutions such as the United Nations. Japan's aging demographics also conspire against resurgent militarism -- Japanese rightists will not build a new Kwantung Army out of the aging "salarymen" who constitute the country's bulging demographic middle. In many respects, indeed, the Japanese are developing a more transparent, liberal and civil society; the same Diet that blessed the anthem and flag also passed sweeping legislation for the establishment of nonprofit and charitable organizations. More important, Japan is not bolting from the U.S.-Japan alliance, which lately has become even more crucial to Japanese security given uncertainties about China and North Korea. Quite the contrary: for the first time in postwar history, all of Japan's political parties (except the Communists) openly champion the alliance.
Still, Japan is changing. After years of cautious international behavior and paralyzing domestic debates about security policy, a broad consensus is emerging that Japan should assert its national interests more forcefully and be a more "normal" nation. In part, this new wisdom reflects the pent-up ambitions of Japanese leaders of a younger generation that appears more comfortable on the world stage and less encumbered by war guilt than its elders. In part, it reflects a growing realism about threats to peace in Northeast Asia posed by North Korean and Chinese missiles.

There is a nationalistic dimension to the changes in Japan as well, one rooted in resentment toward a domineering American foreign policy and anxiety about the nation's economic future. Taken together, this mixture of ambition, realism and angst has so far yielded more passion than strategic coherence, but the momentum behind a more independent Japanese security policy has become irreversible.

For the United States, the emergence of a more normal Japan represents an opportunity rather than a threat, but it is an opportunity that is being squandered. Ironically, after years of cajoling Tokyo to assume a larger security burden, Washington has lost its bearings. While seven years ago the Clinton administration was alarmed at the prospect of a formidable economic competitor across the Pacific, today Japan rarely receives attention above the middle layers of the bureaucracy. Tokyo is still seen as a source of funds, but hardly a strategic partner.

Distracted by the "rise" of China, Washington seems to have lost sight of the fact that there are today two aspiring powers in Asia. Rather than taking a patronizing and aloof approach, American policy toward Japan should seek to assure Tokyo that the United States is both committed to the alliance and is listening to the concerns of its ally. This means actively supporting Japanese diplomatic initiatives that serve broad U.S. strategic interests in East Asia. It means dropping the hollow rhetoric of "strategic partnership" with China. And it means encouraging a more "normal" security policy for Japan, albeit one premised on the current division of roles in which Japan assigns offensive and strategic missions to the United States.

The Burst Bubble

Japan's struggle to craft a more ambitious security doctrine is not new. In the early 1980s Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone seized on public alarm at the Soviet military build-up in the Far East to boost defense expenditures and to make the word domei (alliance) an acceptable term in official references to relations with the United States. After the Gulf War, the Japanese government secured Diet support for limited military participation in UN peacekeeping operations and launched a concerted but unsuccessful bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. These developments were significant, but in large measure evolved in response to international pressure for increased burden-sharing. Japanese officials described their purpose to a reluctant domestic audience in terms of giri (obligation) or koken (contribution) to the international society. Today all that has passed away, as Tokyo increasingly champions a more assertive foreign policy for reasons of sheer self-interest.

Observers of Japan from Herman Kahn to Henry Kissinger have long predicted that the Japanese would eventually devise a strategic role commensurate with their growing economic power. Few, however, anticipated that Japan's most significant steps in the security arena would follow the collapse of its economic model. After nine years of averaging close to zero growth, Japanese economic planners are finally beginning to admit that the old formula of intrusive government intervention, controlled competition and lifetime employment can no longer be sustained. The Japanese government claims that bad debts in 1998 totaled about $0.5 trillion, but the lack of transparency in the financial sector has led many outside analysts, including former Resolution Trust Corporation Chairman William Seidman, to conclude that the amount must be closer to $1 trillion. Lurking just behind the debt crisis is a massive underfunding of public and private pension funds, distorted and deflating asset markets, overcapacity in the manufacturing sector, a rapidly aging society, and unemployment rates that many economists forecast will approach 8 percent in the next decade.

Predictably, the demise of the old economic order has fueled resentment and anxiety. Attacks on "globalism", "American standards" and "market fundamentalism" have become a staple in the Japanese media and have been popularized in books like Shintaro Ishihara's The Yen As Japan's National Will, his The Japan That Can Say no, and Mototada Kikkawa's Loss of the Money War. This economic uncertainty is fueling nationalism, which, in turn, is fueling a growing assertiveness in security and foreign policy. At the same time, declining economic resources are also forcing moderates and internationalists to rethink their approach to the world. As Challenge 21 (a 1998 Foreign Ministry planning document) argues, Japan must raise its diplomatic profile to compensate for its lost economic power.

Still a Dangerous Neighborhood

Uncertainty also pervades Japan's stance toward its neighbors. Asia is not necessarily a more dangerous place than it was during the Cold War, when Soviet Backfire bombers and nuclear submarines patrolled the Sea of Japan, but the threats are today far more visible and direct, and the Japanese public, for largely domestic reasons, has become more attuned to security concerns.

Japanese attitudes toward China, for example, have hardened considerably in recent years. Tokyo never fully shared Washington's postwar hostility toward Beijing and, indeed, rushed to establish formal diplomatic relations with China after the U.S. rapprochement in 1972. In the early 1990s, Japan enjoyed something of a special relationship with Beijing, serving as a bridge between China and the West in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen incident. As Yoichi Funabashi, the respected columnist for Asahi Shimbun, argued in the pages of Foreign Affairs in 1992, the Japanese were growing confident in the "Asianization of Asia."

By the middle of the 1990s, however, Japanese thinking tended toward an anxious realism about China's strategic intentions. In 1995 Chinese nuclear tests outraged both the hawkish Right and the anti-nuclear Left in the Japanese Diet, leading to an unprecedented suspension of grant aid to Beijing. China rattled the Japanese public again in March 1996 by bracketing Taiwan with ballistic missiles, some of which landed near Japanese shipping lanes south of Okinawa. China's increasingly strident attacks on theater missile defense and the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines have also provoked concern in Tokyo. In 1985 only 18 percent of the Japanese public polled by the Asahi newspaper responded that they did not feel friendly toward China. By 1996 that figure had risen to 51 percent.

Nevertheless, Japan's relationship with China is still defined mostly by economics. Tokyo reached its own bilateral agreement with Beijing this summer on China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), and continues to provide around $1 billion per year to China in loans. Tokyo is also working with Beijing to solve China's environmental problems under the Japanese government's "Green Aid" plan. Still, the tone of relations is entirely different from the past. Annual Japanese direct investment in China rose from $438 million in 1989 to $4.5 billion in 1995, but fell to $1.1 billion in 1998, and many in the Japanese business community have voiced exasperation with the Chinese market.

Then, too, Japan no longer reflexively defers to China on matters of historical accounting. During his state visit to Tokyo in November 1998, Chinese President Jiang Zemin insisted on an official apology for Japan's invasion of China. Obuchi refused to offer one unless the Chinese agreed to ask for no further apologies in the future. The impasse was never resolved and the summit proved a diplomatic disaster for both sides. Tellingly, the Japanese media expressed near unanimous support for Obuchi's tough stance.

Japan has also lately been formulating security policy and diplomacy in Asia with an eye toward Chinese bellicosity. After reaffirming the U.S.-Japan alliance in 1996, Tokyo defrosted its icy relationship with Russia, proposed a new strategic dialogue with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and established the first regular high-level security consultations with South Korea.

North Korea, too, has shaken Japan's sense of security. As the Cold War ended, Japanese politicians figured they could maneuver deftly between the two Koreas without abandoning Japan's de facto alignment with the South. In 1990 Shin Kanemaru, political kingpin of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party, met with Kim Il Sung and vowed in a tearful statement to normalize relations with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) as soon as possible. Japan had much to offer the North. Japan's ethnic Korean community once transferred close to $600 million annually to Pyongyang and Tokyo hinted at a multibillion-dollar package to settle "post-colonial claims." Alas, the promise of improved relations with Pyongyang has disappeared in a hale of missile launches and caustic rhetoric from the North. In 1992 the Japanese media revealed that North Korean commandos had kidnapped close to a dozen innocent Japanese citizens from coastal Japan (for the purpose of training spies). Japanese anxiety about the DPRK was further inflamed in 1993 by the first of North Korea's Nodong missile tests, and in 1994 by confrontation over North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

But the worst shock came in August 1998, when Pyongyang test-fired a Taepodong long-range missile directly over northern Japan. The Taepodong has become Japan's Sputnik. After decades of recusing itself from security issues on the peninsula, Tokyo's approach to Pyongyang today is in fact more confrontational than either Seoul's or Washington's. In the wake of the Taepodong launch, Japan temporarily suspended financial support for the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, agreed to missile defense cooperation with the United States, and accelerated the passage of tougher defense guidelines. It also approved the development of independent reconnaissance satellites, in part as the result of frustration with the tepid U.S. response to the missile firing and an erroneous belief in Japanese political circles that Washington had failed to share intelligence about the launch. In the Diet, Japanese politicians even debated the constitutionality of unilateral "pre-emptive strikes" and the need for an independent "counterstrike" capability.

Generational Divisions

While all this was happening, Japanese domestic politics have been in a state of flux. A process of political realignment began in 1993, when the Liberal Democratic Party surrendered its four decade-long control of the government to an eight-party coalition, which managed to institute new electoral laws before collapsing under its own weight.

The immediate impact of these upheavals was the destruction of the old Japanese Left. The Socialist Party, which existed in large measure to block changes in Japanese security policy, is now a skeleton of its former self and will probably disappear altogether in Japan's next election. It has been replaced as the largest opposition party by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), a polyglot of former Socialists, former LDP politicians and new politicians from urban and suburban districts. The DPJ bears no resemblance to the old Socialist Party. Its platform supports the U.S. military presence in Asia and calls for laws to strengthen the self- defense forces. But this is only the consensus view within the party. In fact, the DPJ's president, Yukio Hatoyama, ran for office on a platform arguing that U.S. forces should be reduced and the constitution revised to grant Japan more responsibility for its own defense.

With the exception of the Communists, it is difficult to draw clear distinctions among the major political parties on security issues. This is particularly true of younger politicians. Polls show that 90 percent of elected officials in their forties and younger favor constitutional revision (the number is about half that for those over fifty). Whereas many analysts expected a new Left-Right cleavage to develop with the demise of the old "1955 system" (named after the year the LDP was formed), the most striking division appears to be generational. For the most part, younger politicians favor the U.S.-Japan alliance. An overwhelming majority voted for what previously would have been a controversial piece of legislation forcing a reluctant Okinawan governor to accept the renewal of U.S. basing leases in March 1997, and for the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines legislation last spring. But few are satisfied with the status quo. Most of the younger voices champion a more active role for Tokyo within the U.S.-Japan alliance. They expect eventual reductions in the number of U.S. bases, fuller consultations on the deployment of U.S. forces in Japan, and more diplomatic space for Japanese initiatives.

There has long been a group of nationalists on the Japanese political scene that defines its country's purpose in terms of separation from the United States -- regardless of U.S. policy. And it is always possible that the assertiveness of the younger generation could mutate into a more traditional form of anti-Americanism. The election of Shintaro Ishihara as governor of Tokyo suggests that nationalism has a sizeable constituency in contemporary Japanese politics. Ishihara's election, though, was not merely about nationalism -- it was fundamentally about shaking up the old system. Only 13 percent of voters backing Ishihara said they agreed with his views, while 53 percent said they supported him because they thought "he could get things done." The emerging generation of political elites in Tokyo resents the lack of initiative in Japanese foreign policy and chafes at American policies that treat them as passive partners. But if the U.S. posture toward Japan were to reflect a willingness to accept a more equal strategic partnership, this political force should respond positively.

The Consequences of "Japan Passing"

What is urgently needed now is a U.S. policy that approaches East Asia in strategic terms and with a clear sense of where Japan fits in. Thus far, the signals from Washington have been decidedly mixed. The Clinton administration opened its first term with two years of intense pressure on Japan to negotiate "results-oriented" trade agreements. In 1996 the administration reversed course and attached more importance to bilateral strategic ties under the so-called "Nye Initiative", which culminated in a joint security declaration in April 1996 and agreements to revise the defense guidelines and consolidate U.S. bases on Okinawa. But the promise of the Clinton-Hashimoto declaration soon evaporated in a series of small but highly symbolic U.S. gestures.

The first of these occurred in late 1996 when the State Department denied that the United States had an obligation to defend Japan in the unlikely event that Tokyo's territorial dispute with Beijing over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands turned violent. Diplomatically, the administration was correct to remain neutral, but technically the United States is obligated under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty to defend the Senkakus. Critics of the U.S.-Japan alliance in Tokyo recognized this and pressed for unilateral action until senior Pentagon officials finally resolved the issue by declaring that the islands were indeed covered by the treaty.
Shortly after the Senkaku dispute, the administration announced a new "strategic partnership" with China. In pursuit of that aim, President Clinton passed up a stopover in Japan to spend nine days in China in 1998, at one point using a joint press conference with Chinese President Jiang Zemin to criticize Japanese economic policy. Prime Minister Hashimoto later told Madeleine Albright that this did not bother him, but the press in Japan coined a new phrase for the administration's Asia policy -- "Japan passing."

The worst case of "Japan passing" occurred in the wake of the August 1998 Taepodong launch. As Japan reeled from the shock of the missile test, Washington offered Pyongyang 200,000 tons of food aid and funds for the construction of four light-water nuclear reactors. Tokyo, which was to pay about $1 billion of the tab, was informed that it must choose between accepting Washington's agreement with Pyongyang or war on the peninsula. And during this same period, the administration rebuffed or ignored a series of Japanese diplomatic proposals to address the South Asian nuclear tests, a multilateral security dialogue in Northeast Asia, and the Asian financial crisis.

To be fair, the administration does not deserve all the blame for poor strategic policy coordination. Increasingly in Japan, local governments, citizen groups, the press and domestic agencies are influencing policy formulation. Tokyo also drops the ball frequently -- for example, by not sending peacekeepers to places like East Timor, in spite of bolder rhetoric about regional security. And Japan has occasionally gotten out ahead of U.S. policy in the region. This proved to be the case when the Obuchi government announced a suspension of aid for North Korea immediately after the Taepodong missile launch, and when the Ministry of Finance announced its plans for the creation of an Asian Monetary Fund without first consulting the Treasury Department or the International Monetary Fund.
Nevertheless, even some of Tokyo's most disruptive attempts to be heard have merit from the perspective of U.S. interests. The Asian Monetary Fund concept may have been a fanciful conceit, for example, but at the time Washington was barely paying attention to the growing financial crisis in Southeast Asia. Japan was also justified in its concern about North Korea's missile development program, which the Clinton administration had downplayed in negotiations with Pyongyang until Congress pressed for action. And the Japanese have accomplished with their China policy what has thus far eluded the administration: a successful negotiation on WTO coupled with firmness on security issues. From Tokyo there has been no silly rhetoric about strategic partnership.

Japan deserves to be taken more seriously as an American partner in Asia. The administration should have formulated a strategy with Japan toward the Asian financial crisis as it spread, instead of bickering over rhetorical differences in economic philosophy. After the Taepodong launch, senior U.S. officials should have planned a response together with Tokyo and Seoul before rushing to an agreement with North Korea (a trilateral coordination group has since been formed). Likewise, the administration would do well to sit down with Japanese officials to devise a joint strategy for permanent Japanese membership of the UN Security Council. And the administration should strengthen and expand its cooperation with Japan on global issues such as health and the environment, which are currently subsumed within the U.S.-Japan "Common Agenda" -- a potentially important exercise that has been neglected in recent years.
Most important, the United States needs to pay far greater attention to its defense relationship with Japan. To begin with, the U.S. intelligence community should expand cooperation with the new Japan Defense Intelligence Headquarters, with the aim of strengthening mutual analytical capabilities. The administration should further aid Japan in the implementation of domestic crisis management rules, so that the bilateral defense guidelines are complemented by clear lines of authority inside Japan. U.S. forces in Asia should also begin integrating Japanese logistical and rear area support into their own contingency preparations and training. And we must welcome, not fear, Japan's debate about an expanded role in UN military operations.

The U.S. and Japanese governments agreed in the 1980s to a division of military roles and missions in and around Japan, whereby the United States would assume responsibility for all strategic, offensive and counteroffensive missions and Japan would retain responsibility for defensive tasks. That basic formula, expanded in the 1990s to incorporate Japanese participation in UN operations, need not change. Were Japan to acquire capabilities, or assume responsibility, for offensive operations, the alliance would be altered so fundamentally that Japan-China relations and Japan-South Korea relations would become unsustainable, thus undermining both U.S. and Japanese security aims. As Japan debates constitutional revision and the related question of whether to recognize the right of "collective self-defense", this division of roles and missions must remain clear. Within that formula, however, there is much more that Japan can do to enhance its own security and launch diplomatic initiatives as a global power, albeit one in support of and supported by the United States.

The rest of Asia may prove more difficult to convince. Japan will need to move promptly to reassure its neighbors that constitutional revision and other modifications to its defense policy will bolster, rather than diminish, the security of the region. The demise of old taboos will not make this any easier. Revisionism about the Second World War has become a leitmotif of popular media and politics in Japan. The 1997 film Pride glorifies Japan's wartime leader, Hideki Tojo. Millions went to see the film and the producers are currently at work on sequels about the kamikaze pilots and Japan's noble effort to "liberate" Indonesia. Not surprisingly, Japan's neighbors view these developments with considerable unease.

In Japan, the problems of the past have become entangled with visions of the future. Most Japanese do not deny the darker side of their national history. They do, however, intend to transcend it. Japan may have found a formula for doing so in its relations with South Korea. When Obuchi offered South Korean President Kim Dae Jung "heartfelt remorse" and a "deep apology" for Japan's transgressions against Korea, Kim accepted the gesture and promised to work toward building a stronger partnership with Japan in Asia. By contrast, China's Jiang Zemin refused to accept a similar apology and, more significant, to embrace a larger regional role for Japan. That impasse, as much as anything, accounts for recent tensions in Japan-China relations. China's transparent preference for a weak and passive Japan has not been lost on Tokyo.

The Japanese elite is today thinking more seriously about Japan's own security interests than at any other point in the postwar period. The United States should welcome this awakening and assure Japan that it will not weaken bilateral ties. From here on, America will have to consult with Japan earlier, more frequently and at higher levels. We will have to consider joint management of U.S. bases in Japan, endorse Japanese candidates to lead international organizations, and support Japanese diplomatic initiatives in Southeast Asia and at the United Nations.
In exchange, we should raise the bar of expectations. We should insist on active Japanese participation in peacekeeping operations, on a clearer Japanese stand against rogue regimes like Iraq, and on improved consultation prior to Japanese diplomatic initiatives. In all of this, we should appreciate that the opportunity to build a stronger relationship is at hand and that the consequences of alliance mismanagement are serious.

Before the dark days of the 1930s, the Japanese diplomat, scholar and student of Woodrow Wilson, Inazo Nitobe, wrote that the true internationalist in Japan must first look down at his own feet to see where he stands before raising his head to see where the world is going. As Japan raises its head, the first thing it should always see is the United States.

Essay Types: Essay