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The pros and cons of an island nation: economic growth vs. national security

by Teruhiko Mano

Postwar Japan gave up guns for butter in its bid to prioritize economic reconstruction. This position has lingered for 60 years, and Japan today continues to rely heavily on its alliance with the United States for its own national defense.

On Oct. 29, Japan and the U.S. held the so-called two-plus-two meeting in Washington of foreign ministers and defense chiefs, and announced an interim report on how Japanese and U.S. forces would jointly respond to military emergencies in and around Japan, as well as on realignment of American forces in Japan. The report was put together amid changing global circumstances that require the two countries to readjust their system of cooperation, so that they can better cope with new post-Cold War risks, such as terrorism and religious conflicts.

The United States is reviewing its response to uncertainties over wide areas spanning Asia to the Middle East. But it is also natural for Japan, as the world’s largest creditor today, to review its Constitution and national security policies — a move that I must say has been long overdue.

Last month, I had a chance to visit Frankfurt, where the headquarters of the European Central Bank — the linchpin of control for the common currency, the euro — looms large with its commanding presence over other skyscrapers as a symbol of the changing political and economic landscape of Europe. The scene reminded me of the geopolitical changes that have swept Japan and Germany — which both experienced dramatic economic development after their World War II defeat.

In the early 1960s, I was working at Duesseldorf on my first assignment at the then Bank of Tokyo’s operations in Germany. At that time, West Germany — having experienced the Berlin Blockade and the Allied airlift operations right after the war — was confronted with security risks because it was situated right next to the communist bloc, a risk that was alien to Japan as a nation surrounded by the sea.

One of my German friends warned me that Soviet military tanks could reach Duesseldorf in an hour. He also advised me to always carry my passport, saying that a number of his fellow Germans got into a lot of trouble because for not carrying documents that could prove their nationality. Such dangers in continental Europe, however, have radically been reduced since the end of the Cold War and the birth of the European Union.

The sense of crisis has hardly touched Japan. British Ambassador Graham Fry — speaking from his position as a diplomat from another island country — was joking when he said in a recent speech that the best solution to racial disputes is to create island nations each made up of just one race.

However, Japan’s advantage of being an island nation is wearing off in Asia, where the Cold War still lingers on the Korean Peninsula, in the Taiwan Strait and in Japan’s territorial dispute with Russia. Since both China and North Korea possess missiles, the sea surrounding Japan does not provide much of a defense anymore.

On the contrary, my recent visit to Germany reminded me of Japan’s disadvantages as an island nation. One of them concerned cellular phone services.

Although some cell phones can be used to make international calls, most of the ones used in Japan are exclusively domestic. A shop at Narita airport that leases cell phones with international calling capability is popular among both incoming and outbound travelers. On the other hand, people in Europe take it for granted that they can use their “roaming” mobile phones across national borders.

Cell phones can save lives during terrorist attacks or natural disasters, like earthquakes and tsunami. In an era when the number of international travelers to and from Japan exceeds 40 million a year, why is a service taken for granted in Germany not available in Japan?

Cell phones are just one example. In the early postwar years, Japan boasted of domestically producing everything from ramen to missiles, but those days are supposedly over. While the cross-border movement of goods, money and services is rapidly expanding with economic globalization, the number of illegal immigrants and cross-border crimes is also increasing, necessitating a new control regime.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has recently compiled a draft of proposed constitutional amendments, and the main opposition force — the Democratic Party of Japan — also appears ready to discuss changes to the supreme code.

Japan needs to face up to the fact that the Cold War is not yet over in Asia and that new risks are increasing. Now is the time to tackle the long-shelved issue of reassessing Japan’s balance of guns and butter, and to further review its distribution of overseas aid.

Economic prosperity and better living standards are possible only if national security can be ensured. We should reassess the changes in Japan’s geopolitical position and quickly establish measures to deal with those changes.