VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and many Japanese spokespersons, official and unofficial, have been repeating for months that “Japan is back.”
Indeed, viewed from abroad, from Canada and Europe certainly, and from many parts of Asia, Japan has returned, indisputably, to global attention. But the world to which it has returned is not the one that prevailed when Japan enjoyed its great success in the 1970s and ’80s.
For starters, there are 1½ superpowers, heading for two. China, by all indications, has a different trajectory than the Soviet Union had last century. It will possess, within a generation or two, power comparable to that of the United States. That was never the case of the Soviet Union.
Japan is in a globalized, digitized world that did not exist when it emerged so successfully, beginning in the mid-1950s. Japan would shower the world with its products and capital to the extent possible, keeping things hermetically sealed at home. Japan truly was an amazing island nation success, a country that contributed to the world, without actually being fully part of it. Nomura Research described the economic effects of this isolationism, deftly naming it the Galapagos syndrome.
That was then, this is now: Globalization is incompatible with insularity. As a matter of fact, Japan has moved well beyond its islands, but in many respects, it has retained elements of an island mentality no longer compatible with its modern reality.
True, above the waves, the Japanese archipelago has not noticeably shifted west (or east). But below the waves, Japan’s exclusive economic zones have changed Japan’s geographic space and political realities. Territorial disputes apart, Japan’s EEZs are greater in size and in natural resource potential than the islands themselves. They touch directly, physically, the EEZs of Russia, South Korea, China and even the Philippines. It is not inconceivable that resource development operations in these zones could one day be meters apart. Japan’s immediate neighbors are no longer beyond the horizon.
Japan is the world’s fourth largest exporter. The Japanese economy and its people need imports to survive. This overall trade dependence is not new, but what is new is Japan’s massive and continuing trade deficits, only partly compensated by revenue from Japan’s foreign investments.
Japan’s connectivity to the globe’s all-embracing, deterministic economy is now much more clearly essential to its social health as well as prosperity.
China’s increasing political, economic and military power is transformative and challenging. Like the U.S., regional players such as Australia and Japan, responding to the logic of strategy, will adjust to these changes not through “containment” — an option contrary to economic interests — but with new forms of security cooperation. These could conceivably involve China itself (such as anti-piracy strategies).
Historically Japan could bask in its island fortresses, secure in the primitiveness of the ships and navigation skills of its continental neighbors. This sense of security was renewed through the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which revived the notion that Japan could pursue its domestic and international goals behind the barrier of U.S. power.
Japan now faces the rise of China’s maritime military power and evolving U.S. priorities. While the U.S. insists on the continued validity of its security treaty with Japan, it must also deal with the rise of China and its broader international interests. Abe’s “proactive pacifism” recognizes this emerging paradigm. But these new realities cannot be conterminous with the residues of an island mentality. Abe, in his Yasukuni Shrine visit and statements on history, appears to believe that official Japan can signal one way to a narrow constituency at home while at the same time sending an opposite signal abroad.
Rightist-inspired comments by history deniers such as government appointed NHK Board member Naoki Hyakuta and board-picked NHK chairman Katsuto Momii are the products of feudal thinking, right out of the “Taiheiki,” where, yes, terrible things happen in war (c’est la guerre), but we will live to fight another day). They make for great stories, movies and manga, but they are irresponsible and ignore geopolitical realities, Japan’s emerging responsibilities and its relationship with the U.S.
Japan’s conservatives can’t have it both ways: on the one hand, being indifferent to U.S. strategic calculations — which require fully functioning alliances with Japan and South Korea — and, on the other, working toward a militarized security role that should serve, first and foremost, as a positive contribution to regional security.
The only space in between those two perspectives is that of a Japan going it alone, and becoming, potentially, an independent threat to its neighbors. This “space” is what feeds the otherwise fanciful fear in China and South Korea of a Japanese military resurgence.
These residues of an “island mentality” also do damage to one of Japan’s greatest strengths: its soft power. Japan’s postwar record is exemplary: a fully functioning democracy; a constitutional, political and institutional bias in favor of peace and the pursuit of common interests; material prosperity and social stability; some of the world’s greatest and most influential corporations — all building on a widely appreciated cultural heritage of unique aesthetics and modern vitality.
Soft power is something that starts at home, but it is manifested abroad. Japan possesses this power, to a considerable if unmeasurable extent, and much more than most Japanese realize. It is one of Japan’s greatest assets, the ticket to facilitating the entry and engagement not only of the Japanese government, but of civil society, of businessmen and women, educators, scholars, artists, tourists and so many others as they travel and do business abroad.
Everywhere, Japan’s soft power provides the Japanese people with a welcoming place at the table.
Soft power can be seriously damaged when Japanese officials, whether speaking in their official or personal capacities, proffer views that do not take any account the views of their unavoidable audiences outside Japan, nor of their likely reaction. They are heard rather as intentionally provocative. Their expression does not serve Japan’s interests, they damage them. In this day and age, there is no such thing as a purely domestic audience. There are no such things as islands.
These are tense times. Abe and his government face unique circumstances and difficult challenges. But he leads a country with some of the best assets that Japan has had in two decades: political stability; a set of policies that might, just might, re-establish both domestic and international confidence in Japan’s economy; a widely shared desire to bring Japan’s business environment solidly into the 21st century; and an international cheering section that wants Japan to succeed.
Abe as a leader, and more importantly, the Japanese as a people and as citizens, have to sort out the predispositions and ways of thinking that will maximize these assets, from those that will return Japan to the doldrums, not to speak of increasing its insecurity. For Japan to be truly “back,” it can only move forward.
Joseph Caron spent 17 years in Japan as a diplomat and businessman, including as Canada’s ambassador from 2005 to 2008. He also served as ambassador to China from 2001 to 2005 and high commissioner to India from 2008 to 2010.