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.
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.