Managing the Rise of a "Normal" Japan

Japan's general pacifism, generous overseas development assistance and its strong support of the United Nations lends credence to the claim that it is a model citizen in the international community of states---at least to many people outside China and Korea. This is despite the blemish on its international reputation over its failure to come to terms with the misdeeds of its military in World War Two.

Although an economic superpower, Japan has been a geopolitical pygmy. As it strives to become a more "normal" power with larger security responsibilities, for example, by deploying troops to Iraq and naval vessels in the Arabian Sea in support of US military operations in Afghanistan, there is still a great reluctance to engage in combat-oriented responsibilities which incur casualties. For instance, Tokyo went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that its troop contingent to Iraq was deployed to one of the safest places - so concerned was the Koizumi government of the domestic reaction to any mishap in Iraq.

But make no mistake, things are changing in Japan. Politics is shifting to the right and nationalism is on the rise. Recently there have been troubling reports of ultra-right wing elements seeking to silence academics, journalists and officials in public disagreement with their hawkish nationalism through intimidation. Fortunately, such ultra-right wing groups remain a small minority for now.

There may be a legitimate need to awaken the Japanese people to the harsh realities of a world where Japan can no longer afford to just make money without shouldering heavier security burdens.

However, Japan has a history of parochial thinking and a certain political and strategic ineptitude that has caused it much harm in the past. Today, when Japan's status and self-perception as the premier Asian power is being challenged by a rising China, it sometimes appears bereft of ideas about how to respond, as if unable to fix on a health middle way between pacifism and hawkish nationalism.

A heightened sense of insecurity generated by changes in the geo-political environment appears to be the principal driver of Japan's new nationalism. The acquisition of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles by North Korea is one major source of anxiety. Another is the rise of China and its perceived hostility towards Japan. To many Japanese, China seems determined to keep Japan down and deny it a respectful place in the international community, commensurate with its economic power and its contributions to international peace and development.

Nonetheless, in the context of the new geopolitical realities in Asia, Japan is likely to be under more pressure to shoulder the burdens of security in East Asia in alliance with the US, especially in view of America's preoccupation with the Middle East. But how this is done and with what effect on Japan's domestic politics is important.

A larger Japanese military profile outside the borders of Japan will generate concern if Japan is seen to be moving in the direction of an unhealthy nationalism with militaristic overtones. Not because such a Japan may repeat the aggression of the 1930s and 1940s. That is improbable because of the existence of nuclear weapons, the rise of other Asian powers, and the influence of the US.

Rather, if Japan were to move in the wrong direction towards a surly nationalism which further worsens its relations with its neighbours, this would become a source of strategic unease for others. Establishing cooperative relationships as well as a healthy balance among the major Asian powers would then become more difficult. In such a scenario, Japan could find itself isolated in Asia.

China would likely be the main strategic beneficiary if Asia's international relations took such an unfortunate turn. This would be truly ironic because China seems to be a principal reason behind the hawkish nationalism of the Japanese right.

The international community thus faces the challenge of not only peacefully accommodating the rising power of China. It may also be faced with the task of managing Japan's geopolitical rise, including managing a Japanese "complex", which is the relatively diminishing status of Japan in its own eyes--even though Japan will remain a major economy, and ahead of China in technology and living standards for many years more.

Japan's friends and allies need to engage Tokyo at all levels and help ease its transition to a "normal" power that can exercise a bigger role in world affairs in a manner that is acceptable to the international community. The United States should play a key role especially since it has a unique security relationship with Japan. Indeed the US-Japan alliance and the US military presence in East Asia provide the indispensable context for Japan's emergence as a "normal" power.

But China too could make a valuable contribution if it accepts the proposition that it is in the enlightened interest of all the Asian powers to see Japan playing a larger role in a responsible manner, and if it could do more to rein in North Korea.


Daljit Singh is a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore. 

Copyright: OpinionAsia, 2006.
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