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Sunday, July 7, 2002



Japan's diplomatic balancing act

JAPANESE FOREIGN POLICY IN ASIA AND THE PACIFIC: Domestic Interests, American Pressure and Regional Integration, edited by Akitoshi Miyashita and Yoichiro Sato. Palgrave, 2001, 208 pp., $40 (cloth)

Japan is frequently criticized for "punching below its weight" in international affairs. That is another way of saying that Japan's influence doesn't reflect its power and potential. Crudely put, the economic giant is still a political dwarf. Worse, critics often complain that Japan is essentially a "reactive" state, capable only of responding to events or foreign pressure -- gaiatsu -- exerted by the United States.

Kent Calder, a professor of Japanese studies at Princeton University and special adviser to U.S. Ambassador Tom Foley during his tenure in Japan, proposed the "reactive state" thesis in 1988. A decade later, the contributors to this edition debated Calder's ideas at an academic conference; this volume is the result.

It's a valuable addition to the literature, covering a range of case studies, both functional (i.e., the role of foreign aid or nonproliferation policy) and geographical (such as policy toward the Middle East and Indochina). Most of the contributors are Japanese, which is especially important when many, if not most, books about Japan available in English are written by non-Japanese. These young scholars are rigorous and unblinking in their assessment of Japanese foreign policy. The analysis is hard-nosed realism that, if nothing else, provides solid criteria to evaluate both the authors' claims and the efficacy of Japanese foreign policy in general.

To be fair, "Japaneseness" does poke through at one point. In the discussion of Middle East policy, Yasumasa Kuroda, professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, claims that "Japanese foreign policy is Rashomonesque, a characteristic stemming from traditional Japanese culture." Kuroda means that there is fuzziness and ambiguities in Japanese foreign policy, and scholars should be cautious about making bold assertions given the "changing realities taking place on both symbolic and tangible levels." It is hard to see how Japan is different from other countries in this sense; he may have a point insofar as the language of the foreign policy discourse is less exact. Then again, all diplomats talk in carefully phrased expressions. There is also an element of theater in a lot of diplomacy; politics also matters. In other words, the fact that a statement can be interpreted several ways -- and may be at variance with reality as most people see it -- is no uniquely Japanese trait.

The authors' conclusions vary. Examining Japan's China policy, Akitoshi Miyashita, assistant professor of international relations at Tokyo International University and one of the editors, concludes that "gaiatsu played a significant role in shaping Japan's behavior" toward Beijing after Tiananmen. Although Tokyo was concerned about stability in China, it followed the U.S. lead and cut relations in the aftermath of the massacre. "In the absence of gaiatsu, Japan's policy toward China would have certainly evolved differently." But Miyashita also argues that Japan's inclinations gave the U.S. the opportunity to shift back toward engagement; the Bush administration had no desire to isolate China and it could let Tokyo break the ice. Influence runs both ways.

China provides another interesting case study in the area of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. After largely ignoring Chinese tests, Tokyo finally cut financial assistance in 1995 when China blatantly ignored Japanese protests and tested a nuclear device. William Long, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, argues that "Japan has taken an affirmative stand on the issue of proliferation, particularly, nuclear proliferation, and while it is premature to view this development as part of a Japanese grand strategy in foreign affairs, it does represent a substantial move toward both a more politicized and strategic use of Japanese foreign assistance and a more active role of Japan as an international security actor."

C.K. Yeung's study of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum is another example of Tokyo's assertiveness. Rather than bow to U.S. designs for the forum, Tokyo has been pushing its evolution in ways that are more congenial to Japanese interests and to an "Asian outlook" -- it is less formal and more focused on technical matters than grand solutions to trade and investment issues. Yeung argues that "The inception of APEC showed that Japan is capable of promoting a regional economic integration in its own image rather than unable to act in the face of often conflicting challenges and demands from the U.S. and its Asian neighbors."

It's hard to escape the conclusion that Japan may not have thrown its weight around, but it has done a pretty good job creating maneuvering space for its diplomacy. Working with considerable constraints -- a region suspicious of Japanese intentions, a security alliance that subordinated Japan to its partner, and limited diplomatic resources -- Tokyo governments have managed to maximize national interests. Japan may not be punching, but it has done a good job with its elbows. Unfortunately, as editor Yoichiro Sato notes in his conclusion, the country's economic troubles have diminished its capacity to do even that.

Brad Glosserman, a contributing editor to The Japan Times, is director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank.

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