Geographically Japan is the farthest from Europe, and its relations with Europe are mature in many respects, but somewhat shallow. Today the attention of the world, including Europe, is focused on China. You would be surprised to be told that the share of Japan’s GDP is still almost 10% of the world’s economy and larger than the Chinese and Indian economies combined, and that Japan’s mandatory contribution to the UN budget is not very much different from the USA’s, and is equal to that of the 4 other countries of the Security Council combined.
Naturally people are more interested in the future projection than the current picture. It is certain that China’s GDP will surpass Germany’s this year or the next, and will also surpass Japan’s in due course. Even so, Japan continues to be bigger than each of the European big powers. But Japan has no equivalent of the EU, and is bound to be an isolated single entity whose status is less than a super power.
Then, why you have to bother listening to a lecture on a history – i.e. things of the past – of a far away, exotic and less-than-super-power country? Obviously you are not interested in becoming Japan specialists. But I am sure that you are interested in a broader subject of international relations, and that a history of modern Japan, with its dramatic ups and downs in a relatively short period, provides an invaluable reference to an understanding of the world today, particularly to the significance of China in the ascendant.
Of course, as a Japanese diplomat, my motivation lies beyond Japan’s reference value, and more in shedding some light on how Japan continues to play a relevant and constructive role in the changing international environment.
I. Three Big Challenges Posed to the World and How Japan Can Cope with Them
1. Let me start with a distinctively Norwegian institution: the Nobel Peace Prize. Alfred Nobel set forth 3 criteria for the prize, i.e. (a) fraternity between nations, (b) the abolition or reduction of standing armies and (c) the holding and promotion of peace congresses. Being precisely relevant to these criteria, 3 challenges stand out for the 1st half of the 21st century, i.e. (a) what kind of super power China is going to be? (b) how to maintain the NPT regime and to reinvigorate nuclear disarmament? and (c) how to strengthen multilateralism and multilateral institutions, particularly the UN?
Concerning the challenge related to China, relations of nations in Asia will have a decisive impact on what kind of super power China is going to be.
Concerning the challenge related to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, the NPT regime is shaken by (a) the nuclear ambition of Iran and North Korea, and (b) the nuclear weapon states’ being less than enthusiastic about honouring the basic bargain incorporated in the NPT.
Concerning the challenge related to multilateralism and the UN, they are not in good shape because of (a) the inclination of the US administration in the last 7 years to distance itself from multilateral approach, and (b) the UN Security Council’s increasing irrelevance to the emerging power structure of the world. A failure of the Security Council reform would further undermine the UN credibility and effectiveness.
2. In these 3 challenges, i.e. “China”, “nuclear weapons” and “UNSC” for short, Japan’s actions will have significant impact.
(1) First, “China”. One of the pillars of relations between nations in Asia is Japan-China relations. Nationalism is gaining force in both countries, and though the relations have made a positive turn lately, both have to deal with many difficult questions such as the issues related to history, territory and resources at sea. China’s reservation to Japan’s aspiration to be a permanent member of the UNSC has not been fully resolved. It is also possible that tension between the US and China over Taiwan and the related but broader issue of China’s military build-up may embroil Japan.
(2) Second, “nuclear weapons”. Against the background of North Korea’s anti-Japanese policies and development of nuclear weapons, and the rise of China and its military build up, can Japan stay non-nuclear? Japan’s reaction will have critical impact on the NPT regime.
(3) Third, “UNSC”. Japan wants to become a permanent member of the UNSC. If Japan fails, or rather if the international community fails Japan, it will be a grand disappointment for Japan. The growing sense of frustration in Japan for its contribution being taken for granted would increase if its aspiration would finally be rejected, pushing Japan towards nationalistic, introvert and unilateral inclination, possibly with reduced commitment in supporting the multilateral institution.
3. How Japan manages to respond to these challenges, and thereby to define its identity in the world would greatly influence the prosperity and stability of the world in the 21st century. I believe that in trying to answer these questions we can find some hints in its 140-year modern history.
II. Japan’s 140-Year Modern History in a Nutshell
1. Japan set sail in 1868 on its journey for modernization. The country demonstrated unparalleled modern nation building, and as early as in 1905 it somehow achieved a measure of success by managing to defeat Russia in a war. After this “victory”, Japan joined the imperialist competition that had been prevalent in the world at that time. With the subsequent rise of militarism, Japan plunged itself into a war against China and then against the USA, and in 1945, which was exactly forty years after the “victory” in the Russo-Japanese war, the country lay war-devastated. It is noteworthy that it took only about 40 years to create an industrial country capable of fighting a war against a major power, and that it took subsequent 40 years to ruin the country in another war.
2. After the defeat in the Asia Pacific War, the Allied Occupation introduced sweeping reforms to ensure that Japan ceased to be a military threat to the United States. However, its emphasis soon changed to developing Japan into a Western ally in the Cold War. Japan preferred to stay away from taking on a military role and to concentrate on economic recovery.
Japan’s reconstruction was remarkable, and already by the middle of the 1950’s, its economy had surpassed the pre-war level. After having achieved a high level of economic growth over the next 20 years, Japan’s economy grew to be somewhat comparable to that of the United States by the early 1990’s.
In other words, about 40 years after the defeat in the war, Japan accomplished what it had desired but not been able to achieve before the war.
3. However, in the 1990’s, Japan experienced two setbacks.
(1) Although Japan made a contribution of $13 billion to fund the Gulf War in 1991, making a financial contribution without sacrificing sweat and blood did not win the appreciation of the international community.
(2) In the early 1990’s, at the height of its economic prosperity and self-confidence, Japan’s economic bubble burst, and thereafter it experienced a period of stagnation that lasted for more than ten years, known as the “lost decade”. With these setbacks, combined with the inevitability of a low growth economy and aging population internally and the rise of China and India externally, Japan entered a period of soul-searching and historical recalibration, which is continuing till today.
III. Outstanding Elements of Japan’s Modern History
Departing from the traditional narrative of history, I would like to take you straight to some of the most important reference points of Japan’s modern history, which I regard important in affecting and defining the Japan of today.
1. The Emperor
The regime change in 1868 could rightly be called a revolution, but it took on a form in which power was returned to the Emperor from the warrior class of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This is why the change is referred to in English as the Meiji restoration rather than Meiji revolution.
In other words, the revolution was carried out not in the name of a democratic entity that was supposed to give legitimacy to a new political power, but in the name of an archaic, traditional authority that was the Emperor. This was a recurring pattern throughout Japanese history. In fact, in the approximately 2000-year-old history of Japan, there are only limited periods in which the Emperor actively held political power. Instead, there was a pattern of the aristocracy or the military class taking the reigns of power at different times, and whoever held power did so by bringing the Emperor on their side as the source of legitimacy.
In the case of the Meiji Restoration, in order for the lower-class samurais from the peripheral regions of Japan to override legacies of the old establishment, the Emperor’s authority was vital. As well, implementing the revolution in the name of restoring the traditional authority of the Emperor helped significantly to make the transition relatively peaceful.
Thus, I have to point out that the rapid modernization seen in the Meiji period was served greatly by this factor unique to Japan – i.e., making use of the political legitimacy accorded to the Emperor.
(At this juncture, it is interesting to note that the postwar Allied Occupation also decided to use the Emperor’s authority to conduct the occupation of Japan as peacefully as possible, and refrained from prosecuting the Emperor for his wartime responsibilities. This illustrates the exceptionally high level of understanding of Japanese history and of the nature of its imperial institution among the American administrators of the Occupation.)
2. The Russo-Japanese War
In the history of modern Japan, the Russo-Japanese War constituted the most important watershed. First, it signifies that by 1905, less than 40 years after the Meiji restoration of the late 1860s, Japan had achieved the kind of modernization that enabled it to fight successfully a war against Russia, one of the major powers of the time.
Secondly, Japan’s “victory” of a sort in 1905 gave birth to an overblown confidence and a misguided nationalistic sentiment among the populace, affecting Japan’s subsequent militaristic development greatly.
Up until the Russo-Japanese War, the strengthening of Japan economically and militarily was mainly intended as a defense against external pressure and a defense of its independence. Once having experienced victory, however, Japan started to lean towards militarism, and increasingly took on the characteristics of an imperialist nation.
(The year 1905 is also significant to Norway, and to the Japan-Norway relations. In 1905 Norway became independent and in the same year diplomatic relations were established between Japan and Norway. It is recognized historically that the war in the Far East was a factor which destabilized the situation in Europe and helped to push European powers to exert their influence on Sweden to reach an early and peaceful settlement on Norway’s independence.)
3. The Asia Pacific War
The biggest question in the history of modern Japan is: why Japan so foolhardily entered a war against the United States, a country with roughly ten times its resources? This enigma will probably never be resolved completely, but it is still possible to provide some relevant explanations.
(1) Political and Economic Environment
By the time Japan acquired awareness of being a major power and sought further expansion as a latecomer to the imperialist world, the world was beginning to be more intolerant to such expansion. The established powers became more concerned about defending what they had gained already, and nationalism was also on the rise in China. Japan’s imperialist expansionism was therefore doomed to conflict with the major powers of the time as well as be resisted by China. In retrospect, Japan could have tried to meet its economic needs within the broadening framework of international trade. For Japan to take such an approach, it was vital to maintain at least a degree of cooperation with the dominant powers of the time, particularly the U.S. Indeed, the International Conference on Naval Limitation in Washington from 1921 to ’22, as well as the London Naval Conference of 1930, presented Japan with such a choice. However, with the world economy stagnating at the end of the 1920s and the emergence of trade blocks as well as the shrinking of the world markets, choosing such an option became difficult.
(2) Surge of Nationalistic Ideology
The success of modernization and of imperialist expansion resulted in confidence among the Japanese leadership and the public, as well as arrogance and condescension against China and the West. The limitation on naval strength, imposed by the Washington and London Conferences, was felt in Japan at a time of its economic difficulties, as an impediment to Japanese interests. It fed the resentment held among the Japanese public toward the West. Against such a backdrop, an idea arose in Japan, professing that further expansion of the Japanese empire was the best way to resist the Western domination of Asia and put a stop to the West’s subjugation and perversion of the Orient. This kind of ideology, helped by racial overtones, became increasingly subjective and emotional, making Japan increasingly blind to the realities of international relations and objective assessment of its own strengths and weaknesses. The voices of the sane were crushed beneath the militarist doctrine and terrorist acts and threats thereof.
(3) Institutional Shortcomings of the Imperial Military
As war spread through Asia, efforts were made to halt military advancements and seek compromises. But these attempts were ill fated, because Japanese troops on site could not be adequately controlled by the central command, and the military as a whole developed beyond the control of the government, letting Japan degenerate into a regime of irresponsibility. Consequently, Western nations lost faith in negotiations with Japan, and introduced economic sanctions against Japan, which further pushed Japan toward the gamble of a war with the U.S. At the root of this degeneration were the sacrosanctification of the military and its institutional independence from the government. The Meiji government, in order to create a conscripted military with morale high enough to suppress the old warrior class, attached its command directly to the Emperor and endowed it with a large degree of autonomy. Here again the Emperor’s extraordinary quality to induce legitimacy was used, and again with consequences.
(4) Poor Understanding of the Situation in Europe
Around the time immediately preceding its war with the United States, Japan made a number of critical errors in reading the international political landscape. For example, overestimating German strength motivated Japan to join the Tripartite Alliance with Germany and Italy, making war with the U.S. unavoidable. As well, Japan misread the non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany, which was in essence a short term pretence, and Japan tried even to draw the Soviets into the “Axis of three countries”, demonstrating an astonishingly rudimentary understanding of the situation in Europe.
(5) Underestimation of the USA
Japan also underestimated America’s resources and national morale, and believed that if Japan succeeded in the early campaigns of the war, it would deflate the U.S. will to fight, bringing about a chance for a swift ceasefire.
4. The Pacifist Orientation of the Post War Japan
(1) The postwar occupation of Japan by the United States was in great part received by the Japanese as liberation from Japan’s own militarist regime. The Allied Occupation’s original effort to reshape Japan into a pacifist nation was something that, in fact, the Japanese themselves desired. There was a deep longing for peace and a passionate outburst of antimilitarist sentiment, which still remains strong today. The renunciation of war in Article 9 of the new constitution, for example, had overwhelming support, which even now remains constant. It should be noted that although recently discussion has started to revise the constitution, it is most likely that the basic tenet of Article 9 will ultimately be preserved.
(2) However, the policy orientation of the Occupation Authority later shifted as the U.S. sought to develop Japan as an ally in the Cold War. This brought about strong resentment against the U.S. in Japan, particularly among the leftist political groups. Until the end of the Cold War, the political force in Japan critical of the county’s alliance with the U.S. comprised a substantial portion, roughly 1/3, of the National Parliament. During this time, the loudest bickering between the governing and the opposition parties centered on Japan’s management of its relations with the U.S. However, the ruling party nonetheless managed to maintain the Japan-US relations by asserting, when necessary, its will through the power of the majority. The public also did not overly take the government to task for this. The logic shared by the mainstream intellectuals, the leadership of the governing party, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ran this way: anti-Americanism shakes the foundation of the Japan-U.S. security alliance, strengthens the need for independent military build up, possibly with nuclear armament, the effect of which would jeopardize relations with the U.S. irreparably and make relations with Japan’s neighbours more difficult.
(3) Even when the aim of the Allied Occupation shifted, and the U.S. began to desire the remilitarization of Japan, the Japanese Government only reluctantly responded to such requests. Japan’s defence budget did not exceed one percent of its GNP until 1985, and subsequently has not exceeded it by much. In 1968, then Prime Minister Eisaku Sato made a pledge known as the Three Non-Nuclear Principles, that is, not to produce nor possess nuclear weapons, nor allow them into Japan. This policy statement won support from an overwhelming majority among the public, which has not shaken to this day. Furthermore, in the same year, Prime Minister Sato also pledged not to export weapons to areas of conflict, which was later consolidated to a total ban on the export of arms in general. The basic tenet of this policy, which still keeps Japan from entering the world arms market, has become a unique hallmark of Japan’s pacifist self-restraint.
(In 1974, 6 years after these policies were introduced, Mr. Sato was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.)
5. Economic Giant, Military Dwarf
(1) Postwar Japan quickly recovered economically and re-emerged on the international stage, developing both as a manufacturing/trading nation as well as a non-nuclear weapons, militarily non-threatening and peace-oriented country. In the late 1940’s, Japan’s economy was the equivalent of 5% of the US GDP. As early as the mid-1950s, the Japanese economy surpassed its prewar peak period, and for each of the subsequent 20 years posted close to 10 percent growth. By the early 1990’s, Japan’s economy grew to be the equivalent of over 60% of the US GDP, which made some people in Washington feel uneasy and Japan was sometimes referred to as the threat to the U.S. to replace the Soviet Union of the Cold War era. In other words, it took only 40 years after the end of the Second World War for Japan to reach an economic status to which it had aspired, but never was able to gain, before the war: i.e., an economy comparable to that of the United States.
(2) By then, as far as international economic affairs were concerned, Japan could not help but play the role of a major power, and actively participated in maintaining the world economic order.
Particularly with respect to development assistance, it became the world’s largest provider of Official Development Assistance through the 1990s. However, beyond economic affairs, the appetite for gaining influence or taking leadership in the international community did not grow much and its participation in global issues was mainly through providing financial contributions for international efforts. Few political leaders were comfortable with diplomacy, and the limitations of its bureaucracy also seemed ill suited to place the country in a position of leadership.
6. The Two Setbacks of the 1990s
(1) Gulf War of 1991 – “Japan’s 2nd Defeat”
In the wake of the Gulf War of 1991, Japan received little expression of appreciation from the rest of the world, despite the fact that Japan contributed U.S. $13 billion in aid of the allied effort. The message was that throwing money around, without shedding real sweat and blood, was not enough to win the respect of the international community. This was almost as shocking as losing another war. Indeed, it was described by some as Japan’s “second defeat” after the first one in 1945, and prompted national debates about its foreign policy with lingering effects to date.
Partly in response to this humiliating experience in the early 1990’s, Japan has since then tried hard to redefine itself, and participated in various UN peacekeeping operations, international election monitoring missions and international humanitarian relief activities. It has been participating in the anti-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan, through providing fuel to the ships involved in the campaign. Japanese forces have been engaged with coalition efforts in Iraq. Japan’s self-defence forces have played a major role in many of these operations. Some pundits have said that this means Japan was becoming a “normal” country at long last.
(2) Lost decade in the 1990s
Japan’s rapid economic growth stagnated upon entering the ‘90s with the burst of the economic bubble, plunging the country into what would be later known as the “lost decade”. Japan would not recover from its economic doldrums until 2003. The recovery since then has been far from strong, and the years of high growth have not come back. While Japan experienced these setbacks, China and India underwent a remarkable rise. The relative position of Japan became quite a lot weaker than the time when it was said half jokingly, but half seriously that Japan would soon surpass the United States.
However, the “lost decade” was not simply 10 years wasted. During this time, pork-barrel, behind-the-scene-brokerage and factional politics quickly lost ground. Japanese financial institutions rid themselves of bad loans, and Japanese industries were streamlined. The most fundamental change of all was how the public became intolerant of a system that was unable to make real reforms, bound as it was by outdated norms and practices and vested interests. The Japanese strongly directed their leaders to make changes in Japan, even painful ones. With this popular support P.M. Koizumi (2001-6) pursued his reform agenda of reducing public spending, promoting privatization and deregulation.
(In 2007 the coalition government lost its majority in the 2nd Chamber of the National Parliament, and P.M. Abe was forced to resign. Abe’s successor Fukuda also fell victim in August, 2008, to the continuing 2nd Chamber minority constraint. The election defeat of the governing coalition in the 2nd Chamber took place against the background that such perception became prevalent that the reform policy gave rise to the economic disparity between urban and rural regions and the income gap between the rich and the poor. Whether the recent turn of events will stop Japan’s reform drive remains to be seen).
IV. Assessment and Foreign Policy Implications
1. (1) The modernization of Japan was started by the Meiji restoration in 1868. It was approximately one century after the start of the modernization in Europe, marked by the industrial revolution (1769- ) and the French revolution (1789- ). The 100-year gap had a fateful influence on the subsequent developments in Japan’s modern history.
(a) First of all, the rapid modernization, though successful in itself, prepared a ground for the subsequent grand failure.
The modernization was driven by the awareness of the leadership that in order to maintain the nation’s independence threatened by the pressure of the modern, powerful, imperialist West, the country needed to be modernized quickly.
The modernization of Japan was so hurriedly pursued with such success that it did not endow the nation in the short period with sufficient experience in the management of a modern state with all its destructive might.
Compared with the astonishing growth in the country’s economic, military and other material power, an attitude of using that power with restraint could not catch up with that pace. Rather, I believe that after 1905 Japan strayed from the long tradition of its own cultural orientation of peace and civilian welfare, and temporarily diverted to a course that led to the rise of militarism and bellicosity.
(b) Secondly, though the rapid modernization was successful in expelling the fear of Japan being subjected by the West, it could not turn the world clock back to 100 years before, and when Japan became ready to expand, the historical tide of the world had already begun to change. Morally speaking, there was no fundamental difference between Japan’s expansion and the European expansion. The difference is that Japan’s expansion was “too late” and thus doomed to fail.
(2) The modern history of Japan, when compared with that of other countries in the world, is probably one of the most tempestuous. The historical experience of building a modern state in 40 years, then seeing its destruction in another 40 years, then reconstructing it in yet another 40 years, and thereafter undergoing serious setbacks has obviously had a great influence on the identity of Japan today.
The apparently successful and rapid modernization up to 1905 was after all only the 1st stage of Japan’s modernization. In other words, the full modernization of Japan took all the experiences during the last 140 years. It is not a short period, and only after these many years, Japan has finally become a truly modernized, mature industrial democracy.
(3) Today’s identity of Japan as a non-nuclear weapons, militarily non-threatening and peace-oriented manufacturing/ trading nation has taken firm root in its people and institution. This is particularly because it springs from the bitter experience of the war defeat and the following successes as well as setbacks during the post war period.
In other words, through these experiences in their modern history, I believe that the Japanese have not only achieved material prosperity and democratic institutions, but they have developed also such values and attitudes as required to a mature democracy. These values and attitudes are respecting the middle path and balanced views of international relations, keeping emotions in check, placing priority on rationality, practicing patience, overcoming nationalism and rejecting extremism and fanaticism.
2. The reactive, rather than proactive, tendency of postwar Japan in international relations is due in great part to the long shadow cast by the experience of defeat in the Asia Pacific War. This shadow made Japan reject taking any military role on the world stage.
From the bitter memory of the Asia Pacific War came the fear among a substantial portion of the public that Japan’s armed forces being active overseas, for peacekeeping missions or even humanitarian aid, may lead the country down a path it has travelled once before. But the lessons learned from the experiences of its post war history have been important and potent in steering Japan towards playing a unique and positive role in the world.
(a) First, although losing the Asia Pacific War forced Japan to give up its approach of trying to expand its spheres of influence, its subsequent growth into a major economic power made clear that establishing global economic ties, rather than a regional economic block, was ultimately practical to the country’s needs and interests. Japan’s postwar policy orientation of not seeking hegemony in the region was also beneficial to Japan, and contributed to the stability of Asia.
(b) Secondly, since losing the war, Japan has been taking the posture of non-nuclear arms, militarily non-threatening and peace-oriented country, and has done so with strong support from its citizens. This choice has served as a stabilizing factor in Asia and contributed to keeping tensions in the region from worsening. Because a choice for nuclear weapons is as much a political one for status and influence as it is a military one for security, Japan’s renouncement of such weapons expresses how the nation intends to define its identity and role in the world.
Also by not participating in the world’s arms market, despite its manufacturing competitiveness, Japan is effectively demonstrating that its “peace” identity is more important than economic gains. These economic as well as politico-military orientations will certainly be the proper, guiding principles for Japanese diplomacy in the future too.
3. While a certain degree of uncertainty surrounds the future of China, I am confident that Japan's commitment to its national identity – as well as its values and attitudes behind this commitment – will make it possible to resolve the issues with which the world is watching how Japan will deal.
4. To conclude my lecture, let me point out that Norway has a unique soft power to acknowledge Japan’s positive contribution in the last 60 years, to peace, stability and prosperity of the East Asia, and to encourage Japan to stay in course, particularly in the 3 major challenges, i.e. “China”, “nuclear weapons” and “UNSC”, despite the current testing circumstances.
(The opinions expressed here today reflect the speaker's personal views, and not necessarily those of the Government of Japan.)