A New Era in Asia:
Japan Rising

Japan Rising: The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose
Kenneth B. Pyle
Public Affairs, 2007
433 pp.

Asia is changing, and with it the global balance of power. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is well on its way to becoming a regional power, an indispensable partner to most other nations in East Asia. Later this century – if Beijing successfully navigates numerous economic and social minefields – China may become a peer competitor to the U.S., perhaps even surpassing America in economic strength, international influence, and military power. But that prospect lies well into the future.

An equally dramatic, if perhaps not quite so problematic, shift is taking place in Japan. Tokyo’s forceful bid for regional domination collapsed as its warships sank and cities burned in 1945. During the Cold War Japan produced an economic miracle but remained a geopolitical pygmy. Washington fumed, but both Japan’s rulers and neighbors preferred U.S. dominance.

Tokyo now is changing direction, however. Japanese politicians and leaders alike seem ready to turn Japan into a normal country, undertaking diplomatic responsibilities and creating military capabilities commensurate with its size and wealth. Although even a reenergized and rearmed Tokyo would be unable to impose its will on its neighbors, a more active Japan could temper the ambitions of North Korea and, more important, the PRC. Beijing may come to enjoy an “unipolar” moment in East Asia, but Japan’s new direction makes that prospect less likely, or at least more distant.

In Japan Rising: The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose, veteran Japan-watcher and University of Washington professor Kenneth Pyle looks at new Japan’s possibilities. He explains:

"[A]fter a decade of indecisiveness, at the beginning of the new century, Japan began to change in quiet, almost imperceptible ways. The country took small steps toward what could be a major reorientation of the nation in ways that may once again surprise outsiders. Adjusting and reshaping its institutions to new conditions in the international economy, Japan turned the corner in its economic recovery. Policy innovations restored healthy growth. In the face of more insecure regional politics and the specter of terrorism, the government steadily abandoned many of the prohibitions on a proactive military that were in place throughout the Cold War. Japanese Self-Defense Forces were deployed abroad, even to combat areas in the Middle East. The ability to project power abroad was broached."

This is not the first time that Japanese leaders have reconsidered their nation’s quiescent policies. What is different today, however, is the fact that a younger generation of leaders and people, unencumbered by the memories of World War II, seem ready to update an old policy for a new world. How far and how quickly they are willing to go may prove to be as interesting to all, and unsettling to some, as is the rise of China.

Although a new Japan was forged in the aftermath of World War II, that nation has an ancient and storied history that continues to shape its people. Pyle takes his readers back in time, explaining that “the key to understanding modern Japan’s abrupt changes and wide swings of international behavior lies in two major factors: The nature of the external order, and the distinctive strategy and style of Japan’s ruling elite for dealing with that order.”

In his view, Japan has faced several dramatic international changes, starting with the collapse of imperial China and the intervention of the Western powers in Asia. The latest is the end of the Cold War. All of these examples resulted in significant domestic adaptations.

Japan’s circumstances were critical: “Japan’s insular setting and geographic isolation ordained a distinctive culture, a keen sense of uniqueness and independence,” he writes. These characteristics determined how Japan responded to foreign challenges.

Pyle’s detailed overview of Japanese history is a valuable primer for anyone seeking to understand Japan’s journey from feudalism into the modern world, and, more important, why Tokyo took its tragic detour down the aggressive imperialist road during the 1930s and 1940s. The Japanese were responsible for their own actions, of course, but their complaints of Western hypocrisy hit home.

Pyle cites the views of one leading Japanese politician, who complained that the Versailles Treaty “divided the powers into those that possessed large landed holdings, rich with resources, and those that, because they arrived late on the international scene, lacked such extensive territory and resources. The former, he argued, were determined to entrench the status quo and keep the have-not countries in a subordinate and dependent role.” All too true, unfortunately.

Particularly interesting is Pyle’s discussion of U.S.-Japanese relations during the Cold War. Washington originally disarmed Japan and imposed on the latter a pacifist constitution. Washington policymakers soon decided that its unarmed ally should help confront the Soviet Union, but Japanese politicians preferred to rely on the U.S. for defense and hid behind the constitution.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida nicely parried U.S. Secretary of State Allen Dulles, who proposed Japanese rearmament. Explains Pyle:

“[Yoshida] established his bargaining position with Dulles by making light of Japan’s security problems and intimating that Japan could protect itself through its own devices by being democratic and peaceful and by relying on the protection of world opinion. After all, he argued, Japan had a constitution that, inspired by U.S. ideals and the lessons of defeat, renounced arms, and the Japanese people were determined to uphold it and to adhere to a new course in world affairs.”

What that meant in practice, of course, was that Washington would defend Japan.

When a more assertive government took power in Tokyo, American officials grew “suspicious of Tokyo’s independent course,” writes Pyle. Moreover, popular opposition to the U.S.-Japan security treaty, which envisioned only a minimal Japanese defense role, led to massive opposition demonstrations. Through the 1990s, Japan was mostly satisfied with being a cash machine for America’s military operations. Observes Pyle:

"The view of Japan as a pacifist nation, fervently held by the progressives, was cynically used by the postwar conservative leadership to dampen domestic confrontation. It served as a pretext for their strategy of concentrating exclusively on the goals of economic nationalism. Every country has its share of sophistry in its foreign policy rationales, but in the case of Japanese conservative leaders, the gap between pretense and reality was extreme."

This pretense came under increasing pressure with the end of the Cold War. Most important has been China’s growing assertiveness and North Korea’s irresponsible belligerence. In a relationship that remains tainted by history, Beijing and Tokyo endure an oft-difficult relationship. Japanese citizens and political leaders eventually questioned Japan’s provision of aid to the PRC. “Why, many Japanese politicians asked, should we aid the buildup of an unfriendly rival?” writes Pyle. Unrestrained North Korean hostility, combined with Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons and missiles, also has spurred a rethink of Japanese foreign and military policy.

Finally, there were rising expectations in Washington. Explains Pyle:

"Long-simmering U.S. discontent with ‘Japan’s free ride’ burst forth in a new insistence that Japan should assume a greater burden in the alliance. Keenly sensitive to the crisis that had resulted from Japan’s failure to respond to these expectations at the time of the first Gulf War and during the Korean nuclear crisis in 1994, Japanese policymakers reluctantly offered support for the new agenda. The Bush administration made clear that alliances were less important than coalitions of willing partners ready to join in meeting the new dangers. Not only did the United States want Japan’s participation in the out-of-area campaigns, it wanted a much tighter, proactive cooperation and a realignment of U.S. forces that would integrate Japan into a global strategy for the war on terrorism. The impact of all these developments on Japan was huge."

At the same time, the U.S.-Japan alliance has come under pressure. It was created in a specific time and circumstance, all of which have, mercifully, disappeared. Japan has recovered economically. Japan’s imperial mentality is dead. The Soviet Union is gone. Maoism has disappeared from China. Why America should defend Tokyo, and from whom, is no longer obvious.

Pyle acknowledges that “Once the Cold War ended, the terms of the grand bargain that underlay the alliance became outmoded.” Pyle would seek “a new, efficient, and equitable division of labor that serves the interests of both countries.” Yet he fails to consider whether those interests would be best served by fashioning a new relationship, where cooperation on issues of mutual interest replaced a formal defense alliance committing the U.S. to battle China or other powers to protect Japanese interests. Washington’s Cold War disarmament of Japan made Tokyo dependent on America. But that era has ended. The U.S. would protect its own interests more effectively by acting as a distant balancer rather than constant meddler in East Asian affairs.

Japan, like the rest of Asia, is changing. Over the last 15 years, notes Pyle, “Step by step, Japan began undoing its Cold War strategy and constructing a new one to fit the still emerging order in its region and in the world.” There are pitfalls in this new course, and many of Japan’s neighbors, including China, are uncomfortable with the change. But Tokyo’s position as a weak geopolitical dependent on America was always artificial. Today, when American and Japanese interests increasingly diverge, the relationship between the two nations must be reshaped. And that means Japan as a normal country pursuing its own interests with all of the normal tools of statecraft.

Pyle’s book will prove a valuable and interesting read, whatever one thinks of the prospect of a rearmed Japan. Although the rise of China might be turn out to be the leading seismic event in Asia this century, the geopolitical return of Japan will have significant repercussions as well. As Pyle concludes Japan Rising, “there can be no question that Japan is on the threshold of a new era."