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David Boling: What Is Japan’s Clout?

by Guest Blogger for Sheila A. Smith
December 13, 2012

Buildings are silhouetted against the setting sun in front of Mount Fuji in Tokyo December 2, 2009 Buildings are silhouetted against the setting sun in front of Mount Fuji in Tokyo December 2, 2009 (Gary Hershorn/Courtesy Reuters).

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.

Lady Gaga’s Klout score is 93 out of 100. Many readers of Asia Unbound are probably familiar with Klout. For those who aren’t, Klout is a webpage that measures a person’s social media “clout” and assigns a numerical value to it. One can check one’s Klout score to see whether it has decreased or increased within the last seven days, thirty days, or ninety days.

My Klout score, on the other hand, is merely 49. I was told by a social media expert that a minimum score of 50 is required to be considered an “influencer”. I tried not to take it personally.

In the world of social media, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are three of the principal sites that Klout analyzes to determine a person’s score. Similarly, in the world of geopolitics there are ways to measure a nation’s clout. Economic power, military power, and political power are three of the principal types of power that determine a nation’s clout.

So what is Japan’s clout these days? Is it decreasing or increasing?

Economic Clout. Japan’s postwar clout has come mainly from its economic power. We all know that it has slipped from being the second-largest to the third-largest economy in the world, but having the world’s third-largest economy is still very significant clout.

At the same time, Japan’s economic power has not grown significantly since the early 1990s. And that’s the problem. Japan has significant economic clout but it is not growing. Other neighbors, like China, have had robust growth, even though its per-capita income is a fraction of Japan’s. Likewise, in contrast to Japan, South Korea has taken serious steps to internationalize its economy by signing a historic free-trade pact with the United States. So Japan’s economic clout, while formidable, is not expanding when compared to its neighbors.

Military Clout. Japan has a modern military but its constitution restricts its ability to use it. Japan has been an important ally to the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan—and is second only to the United States in terms of funding provided in these countries for reconstruction. But that funding derives more from Japan’s economic clout than its military clout.

Also, a lot of Japan’s military clout derives from its alliance with the United States. Other Asian countries pay attention to Japan’s military clout because of its close relationship with the United States, which was strengthened under Operation Tomodachi.

Nevertheless, although Japan has a serious military, for the foreseeable future it will not be using that military clout to project power in the way that the United States, United Kingdom, or other nations are willing to do. It will only use it to defend itself. Thus, Japan has defensive clout not offensive clout.

Political Clout. Finally, there is political clout. Japan’s ongoing domestic political instability continues to undermine its political clout in its bilateral relationships. The merry-go-round of prime ministers and cabinet ministers is maddening. It is hard for the president of the United States to have a constructive relationship with the prime minister of Japan if they can’t get past the first date because there never is a second date.

On the global stage, Japan remains rather passive compared to other nations. It often prefers a behind-the-scenes role rather than a leadership role. It just does not seem willing to take the risks that political leadership naturally entails.

Increasing Japan’s Clout. So I conclude the following. Japan’s overall clout derives heavily from its economic clout. Because its economy has been stalled for two decades, it is not surprising that its clout has not increased, and as a result its clout has fallen relative to other nations. Likewise, compared to other nations in the postwar era, Japan has not been seen as having particularly strong military or political clout. Japan’s military and political clout certainly hasn’t increased to a level to counteract its diminished economic clout. So overall, relative to other countries, Japan’s clout is down from two decades ago.

So what can Japan do to increase its clout? I encourage Japan to do the following.

First, Japan should capitalize more on its well-educated female work force to boost its economic clout. Japan’s population is shrinking and this means its economic clout will likely continue to fall. Japan often boasts that it is a country bereft of natural resources and that its people are its true natural resource. But Japan still maintains its strong preference for a rigid, male-dominated workplace that often pushes women to the sidelines.

Second, Japan should continue to move toward relaxing constitutional restrictions that hamstring it from projecting offensive military power. It is unlikely that Japan will ever be seen as having significant military clout if it cannot use it offensively.

Third, Japan should move aggressively toward joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. Japan’s active, positive participation in this ambitious trade agreement would not only boost its economic clout but also its political clout. It would demonstrate Japan’s political will to further integrate itself into the world economy.

I think it is fair to say Japan’s clout is down. But the world would benefit from a Japan with more clout.

David Boling is deputy executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, where he oversees the U.S.-Japan Network for the Future Program. He is trying hard to increase his Klout score.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Bob Walker

    Japan has several military and military like groups which are trained for various national defence activities.

    However if Japan was threatened with imminent invasion…being part of an overall war of East against West..Japan would provide the maximum number of troops availible to engage the enemy mand would further train new troops for the pending war bob

  • Posted by Nancy Snow, Ph.D.

    I heartily agree with the first statement about what Japan should do to increase its clout. See my August 2012 article, “Holding Up Half the Sky,” about the need to recognize and empower women in Japan. (http://metropolis.co.jp/features/the-last-word/holding-up-half-the-sky/)

    Women who step outside the workplace to raise their children find it exceedingly difficult to re-enter the work environment. Their so-called “blank years” at home are undervalued and these experienced multitaskers are left feeling disenfranchised by their home country. No wonder so many highly educated, unmarried Japanese women consider living and working abroad.

    Japan will lose its clout completely unless it learns to embrace male/female equality.

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