This blog post is part of a series entitled Is Japan in Decline?, in which leading experts analyze Japan’s economy, politics, and society and give their assessment of Japan’s future.
For some reason we scholars, policy analysts, and journalists seem unable to see Japan as normal. No matter what Japan does, people view it through the lens of extremes. In the 1970s and ‘80s, when Japan’s economy grew rapidly, we concluded that Japan had created a miraculous strain of capitalism that would propel it to overtake the United States and achieve global supremacy. Then Japan’s bubble burst, and the slide began. Analysts now suggest that Japan is in terminal decline. Reading the news, one might conclude that in 100 years, there will only be eleven Japanese people left, all octogenarians.
Japan’s foreign policy is also cast in extremes. After World War II, the country pursued a restrained national security policy nested within an alliance with the United States; it built an impressive military with which to assist in Soviet containment. Many analysts and international relations scholars observed Tokyo’s restraint, disregarded the impressive military, and declared Japan to be a disarmed pacifist nation whose postwar norms and institutions had led it to eschew military statecraft.
Now we’re in the midst of a full pendulum swing, with observers proclaiming that Japan’s worsening relations with China are leading to the end of pacifism and a rise of Japanese nationalism. In the September flare-up of the two countries’ island dispute, mobs in Beijing burned and looted Japanese businesses, waving signs calling for genocide of the Japanese people. Japan’s prime minister Yoshihiko Noda responded with restraint, calmly urging the Chinese government to rein in the violence. Ironically, in the months since the riots, articles in the world’s leading newspapers warn of a nationalist wave sweeping Japan, and discuss the ascent of the hawks in Japanese politics. Just to be clear: Japan’s “hawks” are leaders who, in any other political setting, would be the most dovish in the room; leaders who advocate a grand strategy slightly to the left of Canada; leaders who responded to Chinese eliminationalist rhetoric by urging for peace and respect for international law.
Japan is not pacifist, but nor is it aggressive and militarist. It is not an economic Godzilla, nor is it a home for the aged. It is a normal middle power.
Those that cast Japan in these extremes are not merely wrong, they lead us to overlook the central role that Japan can play in the East Asian balance of power. With the exception of the United States and possibly China, no other country has a better mix of the building blocks of power and influence that Japan has. For hundreds of years, power has stemmed from economic output (GDP), wealth per person (GDP per capita), total population size, technological base, and political stability. Perhaps democracy should be a modern addition to that list.
On those six dimensions, Japan is only clearly surpassed by the United States. No country in Europe has Japan’s combination of economic might and population. By comparison, the UK—a leading state among the middle powers—has half Japan’s population and half its GDP. Germany, Europe’s powerhouse, has two-thirds of Japan’s population and GDP. Even China, a country in the process of surpassing Japan on the critical measures of national power, has some big problems with its fundamentals. Although China has a massive, hard-working population, and hence a very large GDP, most of its people are poor, its government appears wracked with corruption, and it faces significant challenges to its political stability.
Japan, of course, has problems too. Its population is aging, so its GDP will likely remain flat for some time (as number three in the world), even if it can generate healthy productivity growth from its shrinking workforce. Japan’s democracy is stable, but its political system has produced nine governments in thirteen years. And Japan faces a big soft-power deficit because of persistent disputes over history with its neighbors. But these challenges notwithstanding, Japan’s overall portfolio boasts sterling fundamentals: a large, wealthy, democratic, educated, tech-savvy population, with a powerful military to boot.
Recognizing Japan’s potential—and viewing it as normal—should open our eyes to how useful Japan could be. Viewing Japan as pacifist leads us to overlook the normal role it can play in East Asia; viewing Japan as militarist makes us afraid to trust it as a true partner.
For the past six decades Japan has been punching well below its weight. Not only did Japan rely on the United States for its security, it subsumed its security policy within this alliance, content to play the role of junior partner. The United States, for its part, agreed that the best role for Japan in the alliance was a minimal one (we provide the forces, you provide the bases). But today, Washington and Tokyo should consider whether it’s time for Japan to play a more normal role in the alliance and in international politics that befits its actual potential.
Jennifer Lind is associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, and a faculty associate at the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University.