For a large portion of the postwar period, and with very few exceptions such as the Korean War, Japan managed to avoid the direct experience of geopolitical risk. However, this idyllic state of affairs is coming to an end.

“Geopolitical risk” refers to the types of risk that are borne of certain immutable factors, such as geography or history, and which wield enormous influence over national strategies and foreign policy. Other important geopolitical factors include products such as oil or other scarce resources, which can only be extracted from certain soils or regions, and national characteristics such as population, which can only be altered over long periods.

There has been no change to the fact that the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan represent the most important geopolitical factors concerning Japan. In any attempt to defend the country, checking an enemy invasion before it reaches the main islands of Japan — in other words, thwarting an invasion through the forward deployment of troops — makes preventing these two areas from falling under enemy control, at the very least, a matter of life-or-death importance. This geopolitical certainty has remained unchanged throughout the course of Japan’s long history.

It is precisely this fact, however, that has become a primary factor in Japan’s tense relations with the Korean Peninsula and the Chinese continent. Indeed, Japan’s thorny relations with South Korea and China in recent years are a good indication that the stark geopolitical realities of geography (regarding the oceans) and history (since the Manchurian Incident) are now exposed in their raw form.

Next, energy security, in the form of a stable supply of oil and gas from the oil-producing countries of the Middle East, is essential for Japan. The assurance of free passage through the Strait of Hormuz and the Straits of Malacca, the Indian Ocean and South China Sea is thus indispensable. Japan, India and China have all grown increasingly interested in protecting sea lanes in these strategic areas of the ocean. In the future, both China and India will increasingly project their military force outward in their quest for forward deployment opportunities, both by seeking the cooperation of neighboring countries for defense and in order to secure access and positions for their navies.

Furthermore, there is a strong likelihood that population will reassert its significance as a factor in geopolitics. For, as the global dominance of the United States weakens, regional powers’ scope for discretion will increase. And for a regional power, population structure can make all the difference. Even if the overall population decreases, a country can remain prosperous if the per-capita national income is maintained. Prosperity cannot be maintained for long, however, once the elderly accounts for 40 percent of the total population. A stable population is essential to national power and strength. Both Japan and China will likely face this geopolitical challenge in the 21st century.

The study of geopolitics has fallen into disrepute and deemed “politically incorrect,” in part due to its manipulation and misapplication by the Nazis in the lead-up to World War II. But in essence, the study of geopolitics simply seeks to answer the question of how to overcome stark realities that cannot change, or that are difficult to change.

With this understanding, Japan must also develop a greater awareness of geopolitics.

Most importantly, when formulating our strategy toward China, we must remember that the Chinese excel at geopolitical thought, and that a wide intellectual gap exists between us and the Chinese when it comes to geopolitical acumen. This gap could lead to unfortunate misunderstandings on both sides.

Next, Japan must take care not to become overly consumed by geopolitics. Japan’s prewar adherence to a Monroe Doctrine within Asia was a mistake. Ultimately, Japan’s long-term strategic aim must be the formation of a world and regional order based upon the model of a “liberal international order” and rooted in the rule of law.

Finally, we must remain deeply aware of the risks and dangers inherent to Japan’s geopolitical position. There are few other countries as susceptible to geopolitical leverage as Japan. Regardless of whether the (aspiring) hegemons of East Asia decide to suppress Japan or forge a friendly relationship, their choice of approach will carry overwhelming significance for Japan. The Japanese islands — the nucleus of the archipelago at the far eastern edge of Eurasia — are very far from possessing merely passive edifice. And for just this reason, as long as Japan lacks a resolute strategy and prudent foreign policy, it risks becoming a strategic pawn in someone else’s game.

Japan must not only remain aware of this risk, but further hone its geopolitical acumen.

Yoichi Funabashi, chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, served as editor-in-chief of The Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his article in Vol. 30 of the bimonthly magazine Diplomacy.

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