Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Hollowing-out of the Japan-US Alliance: Would Japan be able to stand on its own?
Akio Kawato / Former Ambassador to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Newsweek Japan Columnist

September 20, 2023
On August 18th in Camp David the first-ever Japan-US-South Korea summit took place. At first glance, it seems welcome that the security framework in the Western Pacific is becoming more solidified. However, in reality, there are tensions accumulating within the Japan-US security relationship.

For instance, the defense of Taiwan. In case of a crisis involving Taiwan, there have been simulations conducted by think tanks on how Japan and the US would coordinate militarily. Looking at these simulations, it becomes evident that both Japan and the US are on uncertain grounds and seem inclined to push the responsibilities onto the other. For example, the US operates under the fundamental premise of not to attacking China's bases on the mainland. As a result, Chinese naval vessels and fighter aircraft would relentlessly target and inflict significant damages on US and Taiwanese forces.

On the other hand, Japan would find it very hard to deploy its Self-Defense Forces for a Taiwan contingency, because such an act would require classifying it as a "situation endangering Japan's survival" and obtaining approval from the parliament, which would be no easy task.

In terms of the sales of weaponry to Japan, the US has become more inward-looking regarding the disclosure and transfer of technology, which casts a shadow on the future dealings with Japan. The cause of the crash of an F-35A fighter jet off the coast of Aomori Prefecture in April 2019 remains unclear to this day, largely because the US reluctance to disclose the technological data. This situation has led Japan to explore the development of a successor aircraft for its main fighter, the F-2, in collaboration with the UK and Italy.

Economically, too, the US has been increasingly adopting inward-focused policies. Beyond providing substantial subsidies in billions of dollars for infrastructure building, semiconductors, and electric vehicle production, there are occasional signs of excluding foreign companies. Subsidies for electric vehicles, for instance, would ultimately benefit only the Big Three US companies.

What would all these imply? Not that it would happen soon, but Japan would have to think about a situation when it would no longer have the United States as its guardian. In such a scenario, Japan could find itself returning to the international environment of the early Meiji period (the period starting in 1868 when Japan broke with the feudalistic Edo era). During that time, the United States was healing from the wounds of its Civil War and was relatively inactive externally, while the Qing Dynasty of China purchased modern Western warships that encroached on Nagasaki in 1886 under the pretext of repairs and the crew committed acts of wanton violence ashore. The European powers continued to exploit Japan for unfair benefits through the unequal treaties.

Admittedly, Japan has become much more powerful today. But it is again surrounded by major powers, possessing nuclear weapons this time. If Japan should misjudge the situation and mishandle its diplomacy, it could again find itself in a humiliating situation like the Triple Intervention by Germany, France and Russia of 1895, being forced to relinquish the gains from the First Sino-Japanese War.

Since the Meiji era, Japan’s efforts to master the art of effectively managing the behemoth called the nation-state have not really been successful. In the pre-WWII period, powerful figures from the Satsuma and Choshu clans used the Emperor as a figurehead and ruled the country through the bureaucrats recruited from around the nation. The military usurped this power structure and led the nation to the Pacific War. After the defeat in the war, the Emperor was stripped of his political power. The American occupation forces guided the post-war headless Japan using the service of the bureaucrats from prewar Japan. When the occupation ended in 1952, Japan's sovereignty was limited; the foundation of Japan's foreign policy, security, and financial matters was informally determined in Washington, D.C.. I would name this status as a "temporary state."

The leviathan of the nation-state is hard to manage not only for Japan, but also for established powers like the United States, the UK, France, and Germany. But Japan stands out for its lack of such Western liberalist philosophy as espoused by John Locke and John Stuart Mill at the core of its political ideology.

In the absence of anthropocentric liberal humanism, Japan's national discourse has been divided between two radical poles: pre-war jingoism and Marxist ideology of class struggle. Such has been the case in education as well. As a result, Japan lacks fundamental values that should form the backbone of the Japanese people’s identity and make it align with modern society.

Bureaucrats driving policies are overwhelmed by procedures and tiresome coordination of various forces to reach a consensus, and lack the mindset to create strategies and policies. Academics and experts, who follow international developments and design strategies, lack practical experience and are deficient in the know-how required to
drive policies.

As a result, Japan is like a headless and backbone-less entity, swimming in the world of roughnecks, marketing solely its appeal to feelings and sensibilities through manga, anime, and J-Pop.

In 1969, during the height of rapid economic growth, Japanese singer Carmen Maki sang, "Sometimes I want to go on a lone journey like a motherless child" ... The Japanese people may dream about breaking free from the dependence on the United States. In fact, whether they desire it or not, they might be compelled to embark on this journey. Can a headless and backbone-less entity endure this? Probably not.

The current situation reminds us of Japan 160 years ago. The Edo feudalistic era was in its death gasp, being forced to open up the country by the Western powers. People danced in frenzied abandon on the streets, chanting "Ee ja nai ka (anything goes)",
and Samurais endlessly and meaninglessly killed each other with sharp swords and polarized political slogans: open up the country or expel foreigners.

KAWATO Akio is a former ambassador to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and a Newsweek Japan columnist This article appeared in the August 22 edition of Newsweek Japan.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

河東 哲夫 / 元駐ウズベキスタン・タジキスタン大使、ニューズウィーク日本版コラムニスト

2023年 9月 20日













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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Hollowing-out of the Japan-US Alliance: Would Japan be able to stand on its own?