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Japan well-served by ‘soft power’ strategy

by David Williams

Japan’s International Relations: Politics, Economics and Security, by Glenn D. Hook, Julie Gilson, Christopher W. Hughes and Hugo Dobson. London & New York, Routledge, 2001, 532 pp. $32.95 (paper).

Problem child, kingmaker and political gadfly, Ichiro Ozawa has long been one of the most ambitious men in Japanese politics. He is also one of the most frustrated. An example: When Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, Ozawa rushed to the prime minister’s residence in his capacity as secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, only to discover that no one was on duty. His fury at such complacency has never left him.

The incident made “crisis management” into an Ozawa mantra. It also helps to explain his tireless insistence on constitutional reform. He believes that Article 9, the famous peace clause, has to go if Japan is to shed its pacifist paralysis and become once again a “normal country” — that is, a nation capable of both defending itself and acting on the world stage with the same sort of freedom and confidence as, for example, Britain or France (rather than Germany).

But Ozawa is wrong: This is the main, if slightly obscured, tenet of “Japan’s International Relations.” In a subtle defense of Article 9, the four British authors of this excellent textbook insist that constitutional change is anything but urgent, because Japan is already “normal.” It may not exercise military might, but over the past 20 years, Tokyo has emerged as a masterly player of the game of economic “soft” power.

The book takes Japanese ideas, theories, feelings and values seriously in a way that transcends the cool, objective and often smug “we-know-better” approach that characterizes so much foreign writing on Japanese politics. Written before the events of Sept. 11, the intrinsic interest and timeliness of its thesis has only been enhanced by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s attempt to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with President George W. Bush in his “war on terrorism.” This is because soft power, rather than the B-52s that have bombed Afghanistan, increasingly dominates our world. The reason is obvious. Television coverage of battlefield carnage, the ultimate expression of hard power, makes even prowar conservative Americans wince.

In redefining foreign policy realism in a way that abandons pure pacifism but leaves Article 9 intact, “Japan’s International Relations” feeds into the intense Japanese debate over constitutional reform as profoundly as any other Western text on the subject. All of the writers — Julie Gilson teaches at the University of Birmingham, Christopher Hughes at Warwick, and Glenn Hook and Hugo Dobson at Sheffield — have made their own way to what might be called “antimilitaristic realism.” This revolution in leftwing thinking is most easily traced in Hook’s work, from his “Militarization and Demilitarization in Contemporary Japan” (1996) to his more recent “Japan’s Contested Constitution” (coauthored by Gavan McCormack).

“Japan’s International Relations” is unmistakably a textbook but never falls into the trap of oversimplification. Rejecting theoretical abstractions and the tortures of ideology, the authors have organized the book’s four principal sections “geographically”: One section has been given to Japan’s relations with America, another to East Asia, a third to Europe and a fourth assessing Japan’s ties with important global institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the Group of Eight summits. These four “geographic” sections are introduced by a well-crafted chapter on the significance of Japan’s international relations. The book concludes with a speculative but balanced answer to the question “Japan’s International Relations: What’s Next?”

It also includes a range of very useful learning resources — from chronologies and tables of official bodies to a list of URLs for relevant organizations and a fat bibliography — and even boasts its own Web site. Equally valuable is the way the text combines thumbnail sketches of the main institutional players in the making of Japanese foreign policy with a judicious review of many of the most important recent writings on this area, both in Japanese and English.

The section on norms and values, however, could be expanded and clarified, and certain criticism needs to be robustly met by the authors in future editions. For example, Patrick Kollner of Hamburg’s Institute of Asian Affairs has warned that one must not overstate the supposed victories of recent Japanese foreign policy in the economic field. More evidence, please.

The British often mock textbooks but when they put their minds to the task, they can write what prove to be excellent contributions to the genre. Arthur Stockwin’s “Governing Japan” is one example; “Japanese International Relations” is another. This textbook should be given an enthusiastic welcome in classrooms anywhere in the world where Japanese politics is taught with the seriousness it so obviously deserves.