TOKYO – Japan’s political resurgence is one of this century’s most consequential developments in Asia. But it has received relatively little attention, because observers have preferred to focus on the country’s prolonged economic woes. Those woes are real, but Japan’s ongoing national-security reforms and participation in the new 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership have placed it firmly on the path to reinventing itself as a more secure, competitive, and internationally engaged country.
Japan has historically punched above its weight in world affairs. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Japan became Asia’s first modern economic success story. It went on to defeat Manchu-ruled China and Czarist Russia in two separate wars, making it Asia’s first modern global military power. Even after its crushing World War II defeat and occupation by the United States, Japan managed major economic successes, becoming by the 1980s a global industrial powerhouse, the likes of which Asia had never seen.
Media tend to depict Japan’s current economic troubles in almost funereal terms. But, while it is true that the economy has stagnated for more than two decades, real per capita income has increased faster than in the US and the United Kingdom so far this century. Moreover, the unemployment rate has long been among the lowest of the wealthy economies, income inequality is the lowest in Asia, and life expectancy is the longest in the world.
In fact, it is Japan’s security, not its economy, that merits the most concern today – and Japan knows it. After decades of contentedly relying on the US for protection, Japan is being shaken out of its complacency by fast-changing security and power dynamics in Asia, especially the rise of an increasingly muscular and revisionist China vying for regional hegemony.