The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Rising Sun in the New West

For more than a century, Japan has pioneered global political trends. That it is now gravitating, truly for the first time, towards a revitalizing democratic West speaks volumes.

Published on April 10, 2012

In many ways the policy of Japan is the weathervane of international politics. Even before military aggression became the modern world’s favorite modus operandi, Japan put it to use in 1894–95 against China and again in 1904–05 against Russia, and even its military tactics foreshadowed those that combatants later employed in the First World War. Once again in the 1930s, by the time Hitler’s steamroller got moving, and even before Italy invaded Ethiopia, Japan had already seized and occupied Manchuria. Then, after its defeat in World War II, Japan led a trend in the opposite direction. In the 1970s and 1980s, long before the Johnny-come-lately Great Powers, the Soviet Union and United States, had understood the revolutionary new trends in world politics, Tokyo had already put into practice the strategy of the trading state. It traded its way to economic success while Moscow and Washington spent the time locked in an arms race, a positional struggle that left both sides poorer. After its triumph as a trading state, Japan’s 1990s economic stagnation neatly prefigured the American and European recession today, and the collapse of Japan’s linked stock and housing market after 1987 should have forewarned the world about possibilities that might occur elsewhere. 

Today Japan has reached a similar choice point in which it may well chart yet another new course for the world. It is true that Japan’s government and party systems for some years now have thrown up incompetent and short-enduring Prime Ministers, but this doesn’t mean they’re no longer at the cutting edge of evolving trends in world politics. It is easy to miss this possibility because many assume that China is now the world’s juggernaut and trendsetter, attracting new countries into its capacious Far Eastern embrace. Meanwhile Europe, so it is said, is witnessing the death throes of the eurozone; even the breakup of the European Union itself is presumably close at hand. The United States hovers on the brink of bankruptcy.

All of these stories make headlines, but none of these prophecies, fortunately, is true. The West is not declining, and Europe is solving its financial problems. As Europe and the United States cope with their difficulties, and as problems in China, India, Russia and elsewhere emerge more clearly, Japan is very likely to join a renascent West.


hy is this fact evidence for Japan’s continuing role as trendsetter? Hasn’t Japan been a part of the West all along? Not really. Japan hasn’t actually been a part of the West, not even after its reconstruction within the U.S.-led Cold War alliance system. After World War II, it rejected the Western imperialism of Britain, France and other Western powers engaged in the colonial suppression of rising Eastern countries, and even when the West finally withdrew from its overseas possessions, Japan only peripherally associated with it. Japan’s Cold War-era defense treaty with the United States provided for U.S. troops stationed in and about Japan for protection, but Japan did not thereby promise “self help and mutual aid” in return. Unlike North Atlantic allies under Article V of the NATO Treaty, Japan did not necessarily regard an attack on the United States as an attack on itself.

To be sure, Japan has acted more generously and reciprocally than its treaty language with the United States requires. It has provided bases, it has offered funds to help cover the cost of stationing U.S. troops in Japan, it has entertained missile defense obligations, and it has put its defense strategy into concert with the United States. None of this, however, involved Japan in any broader defense obligations, nor did it require Japan to link up with other similarly situated powers.

Today, for the first time, Japan has begun to consider deepening its relations with what we call “the New West”1 (to distinguish it from its imperial predecessor). The New West is more like the European Union. It is open to new members, but not by means of coercion or military pressures. Indeed, it imposes democratic and economic qualifications on those who seek to join. Instead of colonization, the New West is looking for voluntary members who have already established themselves as democratic and developed, and who have participated in groups like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In addition to having a well-established democracy, Japan passes all of these economic and technological tests with flying colors. 

Political Evolution in Japan


he ascent of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has expanded a process already in progress that had stalled due to the successive tenure of two anti-American Prime Ministers (Yukio Hatoyama and Naoto Kan). The new government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has accepted greater defense responsibilities for other countries and areas of the world, putting the process back on track. 

Even before the DPJ’s triumph, Japan had sent engineers and other development experts to Afghanistan and joined India in naval maneuvers. Now it has reaffirmed its ties with ASEAN and has most recently engaged in discussions about joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which links the United States with Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam, and it is also negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union. Underscoring Japan’s movement away from the Old East is the fact that China participates in none of these arrangements. Japan thus is readying itself to take a role in Western great power groupings in both security and economics.

To be sure, China’s support of a nuclear North Korea and its territorial claims to the Senkakus and other island chains in the Western Pacific have contributed to Japan’s shift. But Japan had already been shocked into finding a new course in world politics in part because of the negative reaction to its purely financial assistance to Kuwait during the Gulf War. Bruised for its non-participation, Japan started to seek other means for making a security contribution. This produced a new law covering Japan’s participation in multilateral peacekeeping activities overseas. 

 Japan also broadened its relationship with the United States to include defense responsibilities in the area surrounding Japan, as well as the sea-lanes linking the Far East with the Arab world. In June 2004, contingency-related legislation passed the Diet enabling Japan to fight on the side of the United States in a regional crisis. Since then, Japan has developed defense associations with South Korea, ASEAN and India, and has also accepted the idea that the U.S.-Japan alliance has become an international public good that may from time to time be used to assist other nations as well. Japan’s participation in the U.S. Proliferation Security Initiative, which seeks to control the shipment of nuclear components from miscreant supplier states, also reflects the increasing breadth of Japan’s new interests.

In the struggle against terrorism, Japan provided logistic support to the navies of coalition countries in Afghanistan. Over a decade, 59 Japanese ships have provided oil, water, food and munitions to the fleets of 11 countries in 845 separate operations. Five years ago, Foreign Minister Taro Aso addressed the North Atlantic Council in Brussels, clarifying the implication of this activism: “We are very well aware that NATO’s primary role is collective defense. . . . Due to its constitutional restraints, the Self-Defense Forces cannot be part of any collective defense arrangements. However, despite this constraint, Japan is moving proactively forward to shoulder its responsibilities.” Prophetically, he added, “I firmly believe that Japan and NATO have much to achieve together.” 

How far and how fast this collaboration can go is related to the settlement of two other issues: First, will Japan ease the three principles currently restricting arms exports, which would be required if Japan is to enter into security arrangements with other states? Second, can Article Nine be interpreted to permit self-defense arrangements with countries other than the United States?

In both cases important shifts are in process. The three principles governing arms exports—no shipment to Communist countries; no shipment to countries under United Nations embargoes or sanctions; no shipment to countries that might be involved in international conflict—have already been eased in the context of cooperation with the United States and particular European nations. The question is whether the changes so far can be broadened to include NATO as a group. Japan has not objected to participating in dangerous UN peacekeeping missions, to UN-authorized missions carried out by NATO, or to the casualties that might follow from this participation. It has indeed sent civilians to Afghanistan since 2009 despite the possibility of casualties. 

The assumption underlying Article Nine of the Japanese Constitution, drafted in 1946, was that the United Nations would provide for international peace and security. If it did not, or did not right away, Japan was not thereby prohibited from arrangements with the United States to provide security in the interim. In like manner, Japan could justify participation in NATO arrangements prior to the assumption by the United Nations of full responsibility for international peace and security. It could also export military equipment, whether finished systems or components, to NATO associates.

Japan’s full participation in NATO, if indeed it comes about, would dramatically change the global structure of power. The European Union, United States and Japan combined account for 60 percent of the global GDP, an amount unequalled by any other state or combination of states. China will not be able to surpass the sum of these three economies in this century no matter what its rate of growth. The aggregate strength of these three power blocs would possess an even great advantage in military power. 

Japan’s contribution to this total would be primarily technological and naval. In 2011, Japan developed its own version of a ground-controlled unmanned combat air vehicle that can go from zero to forty miles per hour in seconds and take off and land vertically, assembled from commercially available parts for the low cost of about $1,400 per vehicle. This machine can carry a camera, sensors and other devices, and can reconnoiter, attack and destroy targets in very quick succession. More broadly, Japan is well poised to take advantage of the Revolution in Military Affairs as it relates to robotics. It already produces 70 percent of all industrial robots worldwide. Fully implemented, this advantage could help rebuff land armies in a variety of contexts and would be enormously helpful to NATO. 

Interpreted strictly, any Japanese association with NATO or ANZUS could be regarded as a balance-of-power exercise with respect to China, and that would not sit well with the Japanese perception of how its broader security network operates. Nevertheless, there are other ways to characterize a closer association between Japan and the other members of the New West. At an appropriate stage, a NATO that includes Japan could be joined by other powers—Russia, even India, or in the long run China. If this were to happen, it might be possible to assemble something like Immanuel Kant’s “league of peace”, or even, in time, a league of democracies, a notion of more recent vintage. If that occurred, the New West would indeed have met the rising East in peaceful encounter and agreement.

It would also reconfirm Japan as an international trendsetter. We know that Japan’s rapid economic development in the 1960s impressed Deng Xiaoping and stimulated China’s move to economic and export preponderance. We know that Japan’s example transformed American policy and raised technology and exports to a new priority in U.S. policy. That example has also influenced the countries of East Asia, some in Africa, and, together with the postwar German example, also many European countries. In none of these cases, however, have individual strategies coalesced to produce the kind of collective achievement possible for the New West. That can now happen through implicit overarching organization that binds the West’s democratic trading states together. 

Finally, Japan can lead one more necessary development. The world’s trading states today evince an imbalance between their economic power and their security investments. Not until the United States and Japan add to the efforts of the European Union can a better symmetry between military and economic functionality be achieved. Once it is achieved, the New West will begin to attract other countries like Russia, India and China. Japan will then have been part of a truly revolutionary transformation in world politics—combining, not dividing, power, security and prosperity between East and West. 

1In its fullest sense, the New West includes the European Union, NATO, the United States and its Anglospheric allies via the ANZUS alliance.

Mayumi Fukushima is a former Japanese diplomat and a MPA candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. Richard Rosecrance is adjunct professor and director of the Kennedy School’s Program on U.S.-China Relations. He is completing a book on “The Return of the West.” Yuzuru Tsuyama is a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University in Japan and a research associate at the Harvard Kennedy School.