Japan's Strategic Thinking

By Shuja, Sharif | Contemporary Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Japan's Strategic Thinking


Shuja, Sharif, Contemporary Review


THE doctrinal tradition of Realism has dominated the discipline of International Relations and is becoming enormously influential in Japan's foreign policy. Realism offers four major propositions about global reality: (1) independent sovereign states are the most important actors in global politics and must be the basic unit of 'realistic' analysis; (2) the relationship between these states is best understood as ungoverned anarchy; (3) the behaviour of states can nevertheless be understood in rational terms--as the utilitarian pursuit of self (state) interest; and (4) even when state actors appear to engage in cooperative activity and/or when actors other than states engage in integrative behaviour that appears to undermine the power politics premise, this is a transient and ephemeral phenomenon and the structural determinants of (anarchical) global existence still apply.

While there are many variations on this theme, there is general agreement that these propositions are central to Realism. It is the state, rather than culture or civilization, which continues to be the primary locus of power and identification. It is the state that is the primary source of political power. Despite the influence of transnational corporations and international capital flows, it is the state that remains the primary economic unit. Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has endorsed Realism as the theoretical framework in and through which Japan approaches its strategic thinking, and is now adopting its new security and foreign policy.

This study, applying the state-centric approach and Realism, represents a modest attempt to examine Japan's foreign policy adjustment in recent years, and predicts its future directions. It argues that under Koizumi's leadership, Japan is making a pragmatic, practical, hard-headed assessment of its security needs and its real long-term interests.

Today Japan has the world's third largest defence budget after the US and China and keeps a quarter of a million men and women under arms. Its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) are deployed on peacekeeping operations overseas and in support of US-led coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq. More and more politicians argue that Japan must be more resolute in defending its vital interests, including taking pre-emptive military action, when necessary. Prime Minister Koizumi has declared his desire to see Japan become a 'normal country'. (1)

Will Japan become a leading military power? In the short to medium term it is unlikely that Japan will seek to become a major military power. The primary reason for Japan's reluctance to do so is not to be found in any structural factor, such as a high degree of dependence on trade or the absence of any potential security threats, but rather is attributable to Japan's postwar culture of anti-militarism. This anti-militarism is one of the most striking features of contemporary Japanese politics and is a reaction to the militarist takeover in the 1930s and the subsequent disastrous decision to go to war with America in 1941.

The chief lesson Japan has drawn from these experiences is that the military is a dangerous institution that must be constantly restrained and monitored lest it threaten Japan's postwar democratic order and undermine the peace and prosperity that the nation has enjoyed since 1945. This particular view of the military has become institutionalized in the Japanese political system and is supported by Japanese public opinion, as well as by large segments of Japan's political and economic elites. (2)

This article is an analysis searching for an answer to Japan's changing security and defence policy, and its implications for Northeast Asia in issues like the US-Japan alliance, the perception of a Chinese threat, the North Korean nuclear and missile threats, and Japan's own nuclear and missile programme. It will attempt to give sufficient explanations as to why Japan's security and defence policy is changing and what factors are contributing to the change. …

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