Japanese Discovery of Democracy (Masaru Tamamoto, 10 May 2006, The Japan Institute of International Affairs)

Those familiar with post-1945 Japanese foreign policy will readily notice that bringing ideological difference to the fore is new. After the collapse of its empire by the defeat in war, Japan had refrained from expressing value judgments on how other nations organize themselves-empires are exactly about organizing the lives of other nations. Today’s new talk of democracy is one manifestation of the debate as to whether Japan should begin to adopt a more assertive foreign policy. Supporting the emergence of new democracies has become a part of the foreign policy agenda, though not central.

Elevating democracy above totalitarianism, liberty above tyranny, of course, had been the language of the United States in the Cold War. Cold War thinking and habits linger in the way Tokyo and Beijing frame their security structures with each other. And Japanese pundits who pit democratic Japan against dictatorial China surely have in mind the United States as audience. Emphasizing democracy is their way of reaffirming the bond of Japan’s alliance with the United States in the face of rising China. But the United States is not quite buying the Japanese rhetoric. Washington’s China policy is engagement, and its slogan is turning China into the world’s “responsible stakeholder.” While Washington has not entirely given up on “transformational diplomacy,” there is increasing impatience with the way Japan handles China; there is even concern that the U.S.-Japan security treaty might turn into a burden if Japan’s alienation in East Asia were to worsen.

Many Japanese analysts agree that Japan now faces a fluid and unstable strategic environment-the issue is the rise of China and nuclear brinkmanship of North Korea. Throughout the Cold War and beyond, Japanese foreign policy has had a simple architecture. How to maintain the American relation was key, and most all else flowed from that relationship.

Following the defeat in war in 1945, Japan recoiled from the harshness of international power politics. The American victors offered vanquished Japan a deal, which was sealed with the U.S.-Japan security treaty: The United States extended a security umbrella over Japan in exchange for the use of Japanese territory as America’s forward military base. The United States acted as Japan’s buffer to international power politics, while Japan happily pursued the life of economism. In this way, the security treaty became Japan’s highest source of authority, the functional successor to the prewar emperor, “sacred and inviolate.”

The Cold War provided Japan with a stable strategic environment, the threat of nuclear annihilation of humanity notwithstanding. And there was nothing much that Japan could or was willing to do to affect the deadlock of mutually assured destruction. This Japan could not make any value judgments about the world, according to Kiichi Miyazawa who would be prime minister in the 1990s. So the goal of Japanese foreign policy was to establish friendly relations with as many countries as possible, while under the protection of the United States, the final guarantor of Japan’s willful innocence of international politics.

The question today is: To what extent should Japan continue to depend on the United States to frame its place in the world? While there is a handful of younger parliamentarians espousing the brave vision of a Japan independent and responsible for its own security, the bulk and core of the Japanese foreign policy establishment sees no wisdom in imagining a world without American protection. The current dispatch of Japanese troops to Iraq as part of the American “coalition of the willing”-Japan’s first military venture abroad since 1945 without United Nations cover-is not unrelated to the Japanese calculation of the rise of China; the American insurance premium has gone up.

Sometimes, on some questions, the student surpasses the master.


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