The Rise of Liberal Japan

Most people looking at the rise of Asian power focus on China and India. They often forget that Japan’s $5 trillion economy is the second largest in the world – more than China and India combined – with a per capita income that is ten times that of China. In addition, Japan spends $40 billion annually on defense, and has one of the top five military forces in the world. China’s economy is growing more rapidly, and its total size will probably overtake Japan’s in a decade or two, but any serious analysis of power in East Asia must include Japan as a major factor.

Japan has played a unique role in world history. It was the first Asian country to encounter the forces of globalization, master them, and then make them serve its own interests.

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Moreover, Japan has reinvented itself twice. During the Meiji restoration of the nineteenth century, Japan scoured the world for ideas and technologies that allowed it to defeat a European great power in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. Unfortunately, Japan moved onto militaristic imperialism in the 1930’s, which eventually led to its surrender and occupation in 1945.

But in the post-World War II period, Japan again used the forces of globalization to reinvent itself as an economic superpower that became the envy of the world. As Kenneth Pyle argues in his interesting new book Japan Rising , these reinventions were responses to external shifts in world politics. Now, with the growth of Chinese power, one of the great questions for this century will be how Japan responds.

The Japanese are currently debating their role in global politics. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken a more nationalistic stance than most of his predecessors, and his Liberal Democratic Party is committed to revising Article 9 of the constitution, which limits Japan’s forces to self-defense. Public opinion is divided on the issue, and polls vary according to how the questions are asked. Nonetheless, many astute analysts believe that the constitution will be amended within the coming decade.

While Abe wisely visited China and smoothed over relations ruffled by his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who repeatedly visited the Yasukuni Shrine (where 14 class A war criminals from WWII are interred), many people are uncertain about his long-term vision. As one well-known Japanese intellectual told me during a recent visit to Tokyo, “I can accept constitutional revision in the long run, but not while Abe is prime minister.”

In May, Asahi Shimbun , a major newspaper known for its left/liberal inclination, proposed an alternative vision for twenty-first century Japan in a series of 21 editorials. Asahi rejected the idea of revising Article 9, and proposed instead that the Japanese Diet legalize the role of the Self-Defense Forces. The editorials accepted the treaty with the United States that serves as a basis for Japanese security, but rejected the idea that Japan has a right to collective self-defense.

Interestingly, one of the reasons given for retaining Article 9 was that it would better enable Japan to resist American pressures to engage in military “coalitions of the willing” far from Japan’s shores. Asahi worried about the precedent set when Koizumi sent Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to Iraq, albeit in a non-combatant role, to please US President George W. Bush. Conservative voices argue just the opposite – that abolishing Article 9 is important for exactly such reasons.

The alternative vision that Asahi offered was for Japan to become a world power as a provider and coordinator of global public goods from which all peoples can benefit and none can be excluded, such as freedom of the seas or a stable international monetary system. This would be a way for Japan to escape its reputation for insularity, avoid the mistakes of its military history, improve its relations with Asian neighbors who still remember the 1930’s, and increase Japan’s “soft” or attractive power.

More specifically, Asahi urged that Japan take the lead on managing global climate change by building on its record of successful innovation in energy conservation following the oil shocks of the 1970’s. In an interesting conjunction of events, shortly after the Asahi editorial was published, Abe committed Japan to halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and to helping developing countries to join in a new post-Kyoto protocol climate regime.

The liberal vision also includes a major Japanese role in stabilizing globalization by supporting international trade and monetary institutions; alleviating global poverty by increasing overseas development assistance, particularly to Africa; helping to develop instruments for conflict prevention and management such as the United Nations Peace-building Commission; and participating in UN peacekeeping operations.

As for the rise of Japan’s giant neighbor, the liberal vision urges patience and tenacity in encouraging China to move toward greater transparency, the rule of law, and democratization, as well as adhering to international rules governing world order. While maintaining its alliance with America, “Japan must always bear in mind the strategic importance of stabilizing its relationship with China.” By helping China in the areas of energy and environmental issues, perhaps “the scars left from the war with Japan may begin to heal.”

Japan has become more willing to use its power, and more aware of changes in the external balance of power. It is rising, but how? As one Japanese liberal commented to me, “this is our third response to globalization. What can we contribute this time?”