Securing Japan: Tokyo’s Grand Strategy and the Future of East Asia, by Richard J. Samuels. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2007, 320 pp., $29.95 (cloth)

The security debate is heating up in Japan, revealing more cleavages and anxieties than strategic thinking. Hence, this stimulating and insightful analysis of current strategic thinking among Japan’s policy elites is timely. Richard Samuels clarifies the international and domestic factors that are shaping the options and choices facing Tokyo and the implications that an emerging strategic consensus in Japan carries for the U.S. alliance and relations in East Asia.

Samuels shows how international constraints and domestic politics have been interacting since the late 19th century, filtering and framing security policy choices. He argues that through all the fluctuations — and Samuels is a very astute guide through these zigs and zags — the search for prestige and autonomy have been the constants. He concludes that they are now within Japan’s grasp.

In post-World War II Japan, the Yoshida Doctrine prevailed, involving Japan’s cheap ride on defense by exchanging autonomy for the U.S. alliance and military bases. Despite pressure from Washington, Samuels writes, “Yoshida steered Japan brilliantly between Article 9 and the U.S. alliance, ‘squeezing it between’ (hasamiuchi) pacifism and traditional nationalism.”

Bolstering the Japanese economy trumped military muscle, placing Japan in a subservient position vis-a-vis the United States. However, from the 1980s Washington renewed pressure on Japan to share more of the burdens in the lopsided security alliance. Even as this bargain unravels, established patterns and inclinations have been hard to shake on both sides of the Pacific.

The first Persian Gulf War heightened international perceptions that Japan was leaving the heavy lifting — and sacrifices — to others. ATM diplomacy was pilloried as no substitute for boots on the ground. Some conservative Japanese — most notably Ichiro Ozawa, now leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan — expressed an acute sense of humiliation and called for Japan to regain autonomy under the wings of the United Nations and become a “normal” nation — one that could make a military contribution to global security. Since then, Japan has gradually and steadily expanded its security posture, assuming a role in U.N. peacekeeping operations and more recently sending a token force of engineers to Iraq.

Sept. 11, 2001, created a policy window for advocates of further expanding Japan’s security activities. Under former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Tokyo developed ever-cozier security ties with Washington. However, this trend has heightened anxieties among Japanese who still favor the post-WWII pacifist consensus.

In 2007 the Defense Agency became the Ministry of Defense, a symbolic break with past institutional constraints on the SDF. With former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe subsequently passing legislation facilitating constitutional revisions, and explicitly targeting Article 9, the elite security consensus seems to be shifting away from pacifism. As Japan gropes toward an expanded security role, spurred by threat perceptions in a dangerous regional neighborhood and unmistakable signals from Washington, there have been domestic and regional reverberations.

Forging a new consensus is a work in progress and shaped by the interaction of international and domestic pressures. The Diet drama this autumn is about the LDP’s efforts to do what Washington wants — extend the Indian Ocean refueling operation — and the DPJ’s domestically driven agenda of forcing early elections by shelving the antiterror legislation. Samuels points out that current Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba wrote in his memoirs that “civilian control works only when politicians understand military issues.”

In light of the scandalous revelations by former Vice Defense Minister Takemasa Moriya, he might add that civilian oversight also depends on bureaucrats and politicians not succumbing to inappropriate conduct.

In outlining Japan’s emerging grand consensus, Samuels refers to the dual hedge: “Japan not only hedges against U.S. abandonment by courting entrapment, it simultaneously hedges against predation by courting protectionism.” In simple terms, this means Japan is simultaneously pursuing its interests within a U.S.-led security community and an Asian-focused economic community. Thus, “Japan could help create prosperity in China while relying on the United States to help check the Chinese military.”

Samuels expects, “a Goldilocks consensus — one that positions Japan not too close and not too far from the hegemon-protector, that makes it stronger but not threatening.” In his view, Japan will continue to favor a close embrace of the U.S., but somehow avoid getting dragged into what he vaguely refers to as “undesirable territory.”

“Securing Japan” concludes that “The change in Japanese security policymaking has been auspicious for the U.S.-Japan alliance, for the development of a more muscular and autonomous Japan, and for regional and global security.”

The nagging questions are how a more muscular Japan will position itself, how neighbors will respond and what the U.S. sees in and wants from the alliance. Samuels argues that U.S. interests lay in developing and relying on a multilateral security infrastructure.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian studies at Temple University, Japan campus.

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