Japan’s Realist History and Future

Authored by Daniel T. Murphy

Japan’s trade balance shifted to a deficit last year for the first time in thirty years, as oil imports rose to meet the country’s energy shortfall.  Reports from the Ministry of Finance showed a trade deficit of Y2.49tn ($32bn), compared with an average annual trade surplus over the past 10 years of Y7.7tn.  The biggest deficits occurred during the Spring and Summer, when the earthquake and tsunami significantly impacted the country’s energy supply.  Some analysts see a challenging road ahead for Japanese policymakers to be able to move the country back to a surplus.  Some think it may take a long time and will require Tokyo to revisit some of its key foreign policy tenets.

Thus, US policymakers will need to be on the lookout for changes in Japanese foreign policy.  Leaders in Tokyo are realists through-and-through, and they may show us some surprises in the near future.  More than ever before, it is critical that US foreign policy makers understand the historical patterns of behaviors among nations to predict the future behaviors of those nations. 

Japan’s behavior has been realist, consistent and predictable for more than a century.  We could potentially look back to the First Sino Japanese War of 1894-1895 or to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 to see that Japan’s world view has been, and for the foreseeable future will be a realist’s view.  Ironically, Chiang Kai-shek followed the liberalist path during the early 1930s, working with the League of Nations to try to resolve Sino-Japanese differences and de-escalate the conflict.  While China played the role of the Melian, Japan may as well have quoted the Athenians – “It is for the good of our own empire that we are here.”[1]  Thus, the Second Sino-Japanese War began in 1937 when Japan unilaterally chose to initiate hostilities in their national interest.  In September 1940, Japan invaded French Indochina to prevent the movement of arms and fuel from Haiphong and Hanoi to China via the Sino-Vietnamese Railway.  In retaliation, the U.S. and European allies initiated an embargo that would cause Japan’s oil to run dry by December 1941.  In December 1941, Japan invaded the Dutch East Indies to take the oil, and invaded the Philippines to protect their sea lanes of communication to the new southern resource area. And they destroyed the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor to buy time to secure the new territories.  Washington liberals remained hopeful until the morning of December 7, 1941, despite the fact that Japan had demonstrated a consistently realist policy all the way through 1941.   

It could be argued that, in the years after the Second World War, Japan’s lens on the world has become liberalized.  Beginning in the 1950s, Japan began participating in various United Nations programs and other worldwide economic development initiatives. As Japan achieved economic superpower status in the 1970s and 1980s, they began to play a larger role in the UN, and sought to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council.  Like all economic superpowers, Japan is a member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  Fair enough – Japan participates in all the same international organizations as everyone else. 

However, a true liberalist world view requires something more – A vision.  Even the most realist U.S. presidents have had a vision of American uniqueness and American obligation.  Our current National Security Strategy says we have created “webs of commerce, supported an international architecture of laws and constitutions, and spilled American blood in foreign lands – not to build an empire, but to shape a world.”[2]  America is known for such liberal visions.  Japan is not.

Since 1945, Japan has supposedly been our closest ally in Asia.  I would argue that this is not through any heartfelt desire for cooperation with a country that dropped two atomic bombs on their cities.  Rather, Japan has cooperated with the U.S. because they are realists. Beginning in 1945, they saw the U.S. as the Athenians and themselves as the Melians.  As the Athenian delegates said “You, by giving in, would save yourselves from disaster.”

Today, Japan is very aware of the global shift of balance in the Asia-Pacific region.  Japan’s 2010 national security and national defense strategies specifically acknowledge the rise of emerging powers such as China, India, and Russia, and the relative decline of U.S. military and economic superiority.  Japan has thus embraced a new “Dynamic Deterrence” strategy that includes not only continued cooperation with the United States, but new and extended cooperation with other security partners, through agreements both bilateral and multilateral.[3]  In fact, the new strategy seeks to improve the lengthy and time consuming special legislation that is required each time Japanese Self-Defense Forces partake in peacekeeping operations with the United Nations.  Sounds like Japan may be transitioning from a realist to liberal strategy, yes? 

Not a chance.  Japan is seeing through its realist lens, that its geographic boundaries and natural and human resources are significantly more finite than up-and-comers like China and India.  Japan is realizing that, while they will certainly not become the Liechtenstein of Asia, they may certainly become the Netherlands.  As a result, though Japanese leadership may continue to think from the realist perspective, they understand that they will need to walk, talk and cooperate like liberals.  Japanese policymakers see states as the major actors.  The goal of the state is to enhance (or at least preserve) power and security.  And the condition of the international system is based on self-help.[4]  This is the reason that Japanese policymakers may opt to ignore the US-led oil sanctions on Iran.  

Samuel Huntington sees Japan as one of the eight major civilizations of the world.[5]  In Samuel Huntington’s model, Japan will very much need to remain realist, because they are surrounded by Slavic-Orthodox and Confucian civilizations to the west and Islamic civilizations to the south.  And, as Krauthammer points out, a Confucian-Islamic connection has emerged to challenge Western (and Japanese) interests, values and power.[6] 

Copyright 2012 Daniel T. Murphy


[1] Thucidides, Melian Dialogue

[2]National Security Strategy, May 2010, page 5. 

[3] Yauhiro Matsuda, “Japan’s National Security Policy: New Directions, Old Restrictions,” Asia Pacific Bulletin, East-West Center, February 2011, page 1. 

[4] Marc A. Genest, Conflict and Resolution: Evolving Theories of International Relations, Thomson Wadsworth, 2004, page 41.

[5] Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993, page 25.

[6] Huntington, page 46.

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