Japan Takes Its First Step Toward a Strategic Role

June 24, 2000 • Commentary
This essay was first published June 24, 2000 in the Taipei Times.

Some undiplomatic comments by Japan’s prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, have produced a surge of apprehension in both East Asia and the US that aggressive Japanese nationalism may be making a reappearance. Mori described his nation as “a divine country with an emperor at its center.”

The reaction in a Washington Post editorial epitomized the suspicion of Japan that lurks barely beneath the surface in the US and elsewhere. The Post charged that, despite Mori’s efforts at damage control, his remarks showed that there was “nostalgia for the mystical chauvinism that drove Japan’s expansionist drive in Asia and ultimately its war with America.”

Such allegations are grotesque distortions of reality. After a US‐​encouraged political and strategic slumber lasting more than half a century, Japan is beginning to behave like a normal country. Most notably, it is experiencing the initial stages of a strategic reawakening with regard to developments in East Asia that could impinge on Japan’s security instead of simply relying on the US to take care of such problems. That change is long overdue and should be accepted — indeed, encouraged — by the US and Japan’s democratic neighbors in the region. A strong, more assertive Japan is an essential component of a stable East Asian security environment in the 21st century.

Several events during the mid and late 1990s forced Japan to begin taking security issues more seriously. They included Beijing’s attempted bullying of Taiwan in 1995–96, North Korea’s missile launch in August 1998 and Washington’s flirtation with a US-PRC “strategic partner‐​ship” — an initiative that reached its peak during President Bill Clinton’s visit to China in June 1998.

Tokyo’s response, though, has been modest and cautious. After the tepid US reaction to the North Korean missile launch, Japan decided to create a robust, independent intelligence gathering and evaluation capability — including plans to launch a network of spy satellites. Japanese officials also began to take more interest generally in developments on the Korean Peninsula — as evidenced by Tokyo’s active diplomatic posture in the months leading up to the Korean summit.

Potentially more significant, Japan decided to let its naval Self Defense Forces participate in multilateral efforts to eradicate piracy in the Straits of Malacca. The Liberal Democratic Party, the dominant member in the governing coalition, has indicated for the first time that it is willing to discuss modifying Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. As generally interpreted, that article prohibits Japan from using military force except in response to an attack on its own territory.

Those steps suggest that Japan wishes to begin playing a strategic role commensurate with its status a great economic power. Other actions, though, convey a continuing hesitation. For example, Tokyo declined to contribute military personnel to the international peacekeeping force in East Timor, despite the obvious Japanese stake in promoting stability in Indonesia.

Worst of all, Japan appears content with its continuing subordinate status under the revised defense guidelines for the US‐​Japanese alliance adopted in 1997. The revisions authorize Tokyo, for the first time, to provide logistical support for military operations involving a crisis in East Asia that does not include an attack on Japan. Despite considerable propaganda on both sides of the Pacific, however, that change is relatively modest. The revised guidelines in no way suggest that Japanese combat forces will join their US counterparts in responding to a crisis in, say, the Taiwan Strait — much less that Japan can take the initiative in repelling an act of aggression directed against a third party.

Unfortunately, Washington actually prefers such a limited security role for Japan. Indeed, the US desire to keep Japan on a short leash was evident by the comments of Clinton administration officials following the preliminary negotiations for the revised guidelines. Those senior officials stressed that they did not expect Japanese forces to fight alongside US forces in an East Asian crisis, nor did they desire such a commitment.

Such reflexive distrust of Japan is unhealthy for all concerned. Both the US and Japan’s East Asian neighbors need to recognize that early 21st century Japan bears almost no resemblance to the aggressive, militaristic Japan of the 1930s.

Today’s Japan is a stable, democratic country with an enormous economic stake in the regional and global status quo. There are other great powers that are far more likely than Japan to disrupt the peace of East Asia.

Those people who fear the rebirth of Japanese militarism are chasing ghosts. Japan needs to become a normal great power in every respect. Developments on the Korean Peninsula ought to matter more to Japan than the US. Likewise, discouraging Beijing from forcibly absorbing Taiwan should be a matter of the highest priority to Japanese leaders, since such an act of aggression would change the entire balance of power in the region.

Contrary to the Washington Post, Singapore elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew and others who warn of resurgent Japanese nationalism, the danger is not that Japan will seek to do too much too soon in the security arena. Given the growing signs of turmoil in East Asia, the real danger is that Japan will do too little, too late.

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