Commentary / Japan

Time for Japan to take on a new role

by Joshua Walker

2020 has gotten off to a frighteningly rocky start. The mounting global tensions of 2019 have continued to simmer at an ever-higher frequency, and at the start of this year, we are already at a geopolitical tipping point. Eurasia Group’s annual top risks report has highlighted growing levels of geopolitical risks for a decade, but this is the first year ever that the United States has been given the No. 1 slot, which places it at the top of the list of global boiling points.

The “Great decoupling” of the U.S. and China comes in a close second. While America braces for stormy weather (and a presidential election), Japan is preparing for sunshine as the world comes to Tokyo for the Summer Olympic Games.

The world’s eyes will be on Japan and it can look forward to the many perks that come with being the star of the show. 1964 was the first time Japan hosted the Olympics and it provided an opportunity to showcase the miracle of Japan’s postwar recovery. However, the rest of the developed world was also relatively stable then.

Today, as Tokyo gears up to host what promises to be a remarkable Olympic season, we are living in a moment that I like to call “Peak Japan,” a phrase that Brad Glosserman first coined. This is not necessarily because Japan has done so well, but because the rest of us are doing so poorly. Therefore, Japan must prepare for the future and sustain how it will build on this year.

With the United States, Japan’s only formal ally, primary security partner and underwriter of the international order, the top risk this year, along with its chief rival China, these geopolitical risks now pose a double threat to Japan. That is the bad news.

The good news is that the recent upheavals predicted to affect Japan may not play out. As the Eurasia Group report describes, the threats posed by nations like North Korea and Iran are red herrings. While the breakdown of the international order along with multinational institutions will impact Japan (as will the other top risks from India, Europe, Turkey, to OPEC), it is safe to say that Japan is not a driving force in any of these.

Ultimately, Japan must prepare to take on a new role. It must successfully hedge itself between a less engaged America and a more aggressive China that is concurrently burdened by concerns over Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang and geotechnology. While Tokyo and Washington will maintain close ties, the U.S. presidential election may force Japan to contend with a new or vastly changed administration.

Japan has traditionally preferred Republican presidents, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump has been amazingly resilient. However, it can’t sustain a second term while facing any number of crises that could explode in initially unforeseen ways.

In terms of the Democratic candidates, Japan’s preference is unknown but generally it lies with centrists from the known quantity of former Vice President Joe Biden to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and even Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. However, it is clear that Tokyo perceives a dearth of good options. Therefore, the implication for 2020 is that Japan must become more independent, which has its own impacts for its neighbors like China and South Korea.

If Trump wins another term, Abe will have a better chance of remaining in office past September 2021, when his current term as Liberal Democratic Party president ends, assuming he wants to stay — which is an open question. Abe and his allies have spent considerable time creating a narrative that Abe is the best man to manage Trump, but the bigger question is what happens with Japan in the post-Abe era. In American English 20/20 implies perfect vision and also hindsight — both of which Japan desperately needs this year as it prepares for the challenges ahead.

Tokyo has enjoyed unprecedented stability in the most turbulent geopolitical times because of its lack of domestic political drama. Having hosted almost every international forum from the Group of Seven, the Group of 20, and now the Olympics, Abe’s status as a global statesman is secured. However, if Japan simply falls off the international scene without its longest-serving prime minster, how will this affect his legacy?

2020 is the year of the rat — which may not sound particularly appealing to Westerners, but is considered especially auspicious as the first sign of the zodiac, with such a dynamic and wise creature leading the way. Like its new imperial era of Reiwa that emphasizes “beautiful harmony” in transition from the old to new emperor, a smooth domestic and international transition must begin to take root in Japan. Therefore, despite the constant news from the Middle East about a possible war with Iran, or even Lebanon, where the high-drama of Carlos Ghosn’s escape has captivated a global audience for 2020, Japan must keep its focus on hosting the world.

It’s game on for Tokyo, which will undoubtedly be a consummate host and offer a spectacle befitting of the global stage it represents. Even with the natural disasters, the Rugby World Cup was a huge success thanks to the resilience of the Japanese people, and 2020 seems destined to be Japan’s most epic year yet, even if the world is at a tipping point.

Joshua W. Walker is the president and CEO of the Japan Society.

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