Kenneth Pyle says his first memories of Japan were of watching war films when he was a child — “all the dogfights with Zero fighters and all that.”

The 72-year-old American still keeps a close eye on Japan’s military maneuverings. Now, though, he’s a historian, scouring the 20th-century political landscape for hints about Japan’s often inscrutable underlying goals and motivations.

Pyle is recognized in Japan and internationally as one of the leading scholars of Japanese modern history. From his base at the University of Washington, Seattle, where he is a professor, he has established a reputation for analysis that reveals the strategic thinking behind Japan’s relations with the world. For example, Pyle says that Japan’s disinterest in diplomacy and international involvement during the Cold War was a deliberate, long-term strategy to allow it to recover its strength after its wartime defeat and destruction.

The historian’s latest book, “Japan Rising,” published last year, focuses on the last decade or so, when he says Japan has been quietly preparing for a return to a period of greater diplomatic assertiveness.

Last month, Pyle made his “45th or 50th trip to Japan.” That visit was to receive the prestigious Japan Foundation Award for his contribution to the dissemination and development of Japanese Studies in the United States.

With the world now in particular flux, it seemed appropriate to ask the scholar about his favorite subjects: Japan’s history, its politics — and its relations with the United States.

Congratulations on receiving the Japan Foundation Award. You’ve devoted a large part of your life to the study of Japan, so it must be very satisfying to have that effort recognized by the Japanese government.

Oh yes. It’s really fulfilling. Symbolically, too. For example, there was not only the award ceremony, but that morning my wife and I had an audience with the Emperor and Empress in the palace.

Did you have a chance to talk to them?

Yes. They were so gracious. The Emperor, Empress and my wife and I are all of the same generation, so we talked about our historical experiences and their similarities. Obviously there are a lot of differences, too. The Emperor knew I was a historian of Japan, and he began asking me about what my special interest was.

I believe that special interest was initially in the philosophy of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), but before we talk about that, can you tell me what it was that initially attracted you to Japan?

Well, in contrast to most people who get into Japanese studies, who I think initially fall in love with the culture, my first interest was in history in general. I grew up in Pennsylvania, not too far from Gettysburg (site of a murderous U.S. Civil War battle in 1863). My father was a university professor and administrator and he said “Asia is going to be important in your time.”

Which year was that?

That was in the late 1950s, so it was a period when Asia was really becoming front and center. There had been the Pacific War and the Korean War and Sen. (Joseph) McCarthy was asking how we could have lost China. So, it was a time when Asia was beginning to come forward as a trouble spot, but that wasn’t what my father meant. I think he meant that he thought Asia was going to rise in the way that it has. I picked up on that, and when I got to college I majored in American diplomatic history, but I began taking courses on Asia at that time. Then in graduate school, I realized this is what I wanted to work on — U.S.-Asian relations. And so I began language work.

When I was studying Japanese at school, my grandparents’ generation couldn’t believe I was studying the language of the enemy. What was it like for you?

Well, you know, I was really a part of what you might call the first academic generation of American specialists. Ambassador Edwin Reischauer’s generation was the kids of missionaries and then after that were those who came here during the Occupation. The people I came over with, in 1961, were all on Ford Foundation scholarships. It was still extremely unusual for people to come for academic reasons to study Japan, without any family or Occupation background.

How do you think your academic background differentiated your approach to Japan in comparison with the missionary children or Occupation generations?

I think maybe we were a little bit more dispassionate and have a little bit more perspective. I sometimes had the feeling that those who were here in the Occupation and perhaps the missionary generation felt a kind of need to almost defend Japan, explain Japan, in a sympathetic way. That’s not to say that we’re not sympathetic, but, coming with our academic perspective, perhaps we were a little bit more dispassionate.

You came to Japan in 1961 and studied here for three years. Were you attached to a university?

At that point, Stanford University (in Palo Alto, Calif.) was establishing a kind of branch campus here in a place called Wakeijuku up above Waseda in Tokyo. It’s since become the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies. They assigned me a tutor for 18 or 20 hours a week. About halfway through the second year, the center made arrangements for me to study with a professor at the University of Tokyo — Sannosuke Matsumoto. He was Masao Maruyama’s successor in political philosophy at the university. Again, because it was such an early period in academic relations with Japan, he would invite me out to his house every Saturday, just alone. We would spend a whole day, mostly reading Maruyama’s major works on political philosophy.

You began your studies with the Meiji Era. What drew you to that period?

Well, that period’s almost unique in world history in the sense that as the first non-Western country to industrialize, Japan was trying to figure out what were the strengths of the West that needed to be adopted. How far do you go? Do you just adopt science and technology? Or do you have to have to adopt Western values? Do you have to adopt Western religion? There were no answers to all that. Yukichi Fukuzawa and the Japanese intellectuals at that point were struggling with those questions.

My own dissertation focused on the first generation of intellectuals who had gone through a completely Western style of education. I picked up on a nationalist group of young scholars. They were working on what we would call a struggle for national identity, or cultural identity: What is it about Japan that can be preserved in the midst of all this borrowing? What really is our national essence — “kokusui” was the term they used.

What other periods in Japanese history — including the ones you have witnessed in your lifetime — have you found most interesting?

I guess the most exciting thing was figuring out that Japan had a strategy during the Cold War. Japan seemed so politically uninvolved with the rest of the world, and the explanation that everybody gave was that the trauma of war, defeat, occupation and atomic bombings had given rise to pacifism and a determination not to be involved in anything international, strategic or military.

To a considerable extent, that was true of the Japanese people. But as I began to work on the postwar period and the conservatives — the conservative leadership — I began to feel that there was a strategy there, and various things that I came across led me to focus on (Prime Minister; 1946-47 and 1948-54) Shigeru Yoshida.

There was a brilliant political scientist named Yonosuke Nagai, and he sent me an unpublished paper of his in which he mentioned the “Yoshida Doctrine.” It was the first time I’d come across that term. I picked up on it, and began to realize that Yoshida had a brilliant strategy. For the populace at large, yes, there was pacifism and the trauma of war, but for the conservatives and the “Yoshida school” there was a real strategy for restoring Japan’s place as a great power — by concentrating on the economy.

Yoshida had this historical understanding of international relations, and the theory that sometimes you can win the war and lose the peace. You do that because the victors quite often disagree over the spoils of war, and that gives the defeated nation the chance to take advantage of that. That’s what happened during the Cold War.

Yoshida took advantage of that situation. He realized that the Americans had no choice during the Cold War but to defend Japan, and so Japan could accept that defense and in a sense take advantage of it to concentrate all its energies and resources on rebuilding itself as a great economic power.

That sounds similar to the approach in your latest book, “Japan Rising,” where you have outlined how, over the last decade or so, there has been a deliberate, though largely undetected, shift in Japan’s approach to international relations. I’d like to ask about the title, “Japan Rising,” and the cover, which has a photograph of the Self-Defense Forces. Taken together, these add up to quite a provocative statement. What were you trying to achieve with this presentation?

It was to an extent intended to be provocative. I finished the book in 2005 or 2006 — at about the time that Shinzo Abe became prime minister. What I’m referring to in “Japan Rising” is that Japan is going to re-emerge as a politically assertive, politically involved actor in international politics. Right now, or over the last three years maybe, it has been very incremental or almost below the radar screen. They’ve been small changes, but they’re there: the dispatch of the SDF to the Middle East, and the close cooperation that’s developing in ballistic-missile defense with the United States, which will involve sharing military-related technology. There was also the changing of the Japan Defense Agency into the Defense Ministry, the debate that occurred during the Abe years about collective self-defense and constitutional revision — and then just a month or two ago Japan making it clear it will use Space for strategic reasons. We are also beginning to see some power projection possibilities: the buying of Boeing tankers so that Japanese military jets can refuel, a kind of proto-aircraft carrier that carries helicopters that was built, and so on. So, these are almost unnoticed changes, but when you add them up they point to a certain trajectory of change.

Of course, for the past year this has been stalled by the disagreement between the two houses of parliament, which are each under separate party control now. Although the two houses did all come together for this last bill I mentioned, about Space — which was very interesting.

Also, in the past year the external environment has changed significantly. China realized the hardline approach they were taking against Japan on the history and cultural issues was backfiring and counterproductive. That took some pressure off the Japanese, and the other thing was that the six-party talks (on North Korea) seemed to be making progress. So there’s been this period of a holding pattern, in which domestic stalemate in politics is sort of front and center.

But from my perspective — and I’m a historian, so I take this broad view — I’m absolutely convinced that Japan is fundamentally changing its foreign policy, and that the Japanese eventually will become a politically assertive strategic actor. Not a great militarist power in any sense, mind you, I’m not predicting anything like that.

How deliberate and coordinated do you think these incremental changes have been? They seem to be piecemeal and in many cases forced on Japan from abroad.

As a historian, I am always trying to understand the underlying forces, and the underlying force that I think is so important is the outside-in effect: the effect on Japan of the external environment.

Part of that is cultural, and part of it is economic — Japan has to trade to exist. They have to be extraordinarily sensitive to their external environment in order to exist. So what I’m talking about is not “gaiatsu” — (foreign pressure) — in the sense that we used to talk about it in the 1980s or ’90s. What I’m talking about is this longer-range effect of the external environment on Japan since it became a modern power. But then, that also implies change from within.

You know, Japan has this conservative tradition that goes back all through history. If we’re talking about the modern period, the conservatives have led Japan since the Meiji Restoration (in 1868).

In the Allied Occupation, we thought we had democratized Japan and uprooted the conservatives, but we made a big mistake when we left the bureaucracy intact. So the conservatives came back, and — in spite of (Occupation overlord U.S. Gen. Douglas) MacArthur and the U.S.-led Occupation — the conservatives survived.

They are still in power now.

Just look at the new Cabinet — look at all the family ties there! So the conservatives still rule Japan. And Japanese conservatism is very different from conservatism in, say, Europe, where you have a set of deep-seated conservative principles. Japanese conservatism is pragmatic. It goes with the flow.

I love what is the favorite slogan of Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which is, “We have to change in order to remain the same.” That could be the slogan for Japanese conservatism: We will change, in order to stay in power. Interestingly, that is a line that came from a movie that Ozawa saw — a Burt Lancaster film (“The Leopard”) — when he was at Keio University in Tokyo.

So you think that the underlying motivation comes down to self-preservation — both for the country and the longtime ruling Liberal Democratic Party?


But a lot of people would also say that the LDP is the United States’ greatest ally in Japan. Two recent prime ministers (Shinzo Abe and Junichiro Koizumi) each said they wanted to change the Constitution in ways that, essentially, America has been urging for decades. Is not American pressure molding the way that Japan is changing?

Well, that’s part of it, because the U.S. alliance is so critical to Japan. They’re aware of the American desire for a much more active role for Japan in the alliance. There is sort of an impatience, almost, with the failure to make a decision about collective self-defense. But the Americans have given them quite a bit of slack. I think there is a limit to that.

But surely from an American perspective, the LDP offers a better set of options than the DPJ or (the ruling coalition partner) New Komeito or the Japanese Communist Party.

Well, yes.

It’s LDP policies that seem closest to what the Americans want. So the fact that the LDP has been in power for so long hasn’t exactly worked against American interests.

No, it hasn’t.

What would really be interesting in that regard would be if the DPJ were to win the Lower House (in addition to the Upper House it presently controls) and Ozawa became prime minister. He has a rather unusual view, shall we say, of how you resolve this dilemma about collective self-defense. He tied his thinking after the first Gulf War (in 1991) to getting the Japanese more involved with the United Nations. He talked about contributing Japanese forces to a U.N. military force. That was a little bit bizarre. But more recently he stressed the need for a U.N. resolution in order to dispatch troops abroad.

The conservative fear is of course of American unilateralism. This is the kind of classic dilemma of the weaker party in an alliance: you don’t want to be abandoned, but you don’t want to be ensnared or entrapped.

The unilateralist nature of the George W. Bush doctrine caused great heartburn here, so there is some appeal in Ozawa’s emphasizing the role of the U.N. But how far can Japan go relying on the United Nations, when China and Russia both have veto power and China is never going to allow Japan to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council?

I shouldn’t say “never,” but it’s highly unlikely in the foreseeable future that China would do that.

An Ozawa administration would have to do some hard thinking about how you keep the U.S. alliance strong and at the same time achieve the kind of things he has suggested in his writings and his recent speeches.

At the moment, Shigeru Yoshida’s grandson, Taro Aso, is prime minister. He’s obviously more hawkish than a follower of his granddad’s “doctrine.” What do you think his options are now?

Obviously the top priority for the voting public now is the economic situation. Not only from the perspective of the present financial crisis, but from resolving livelihood questions here in Japan — like with this incredible bureaucratic bungling with the pensions. So he’s got to deal with those issues if he’s going to be a successful prime minister. As far as foreign policy is concerned, he is closer to Abe than to Yasuo Fukuda, Aso’s immediate predecessor. So he would be coming back to the kind of trajectory that I was talking about.

He’s said he’s not disinterested in collective self-defense.

Yes. All those issues are there, and one reason Japan surprises foreigners is that when Japan changes sometimes it is very rapid. That’s partly because we don’t study what’s going on here below the radar — the kind of changes that I outlined before. The things that are changing — they’re there, and when the tipping point comes, whether it’s through North Korea deciding to fire a missile over Japan again, or Chinese provocation, or something, or a consensus reached through a political realignment at home — Japan can change very rapidly because those things are there.

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