Torn Identities and Foreign Policy: The Case of Turkey and Japan

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This paper examines the impact of contested national identity on Turkish and Japanese foreign policies. Applying a modified constructivist theoretical framework, it seeks to explore the ways in which the national identities of Turkey and Japan are constructed, internalized and in turn externalized through their foreign policies. In examining the case of Turkey and Japan, the paper problematizes national identity as a contested space characterized by a clash of opposing sub-national identities with distinct readings of national interests and security. Hence foreign policy decisions emerge in the context of this contestation among opposing national identities.


On the surface, Turkey and Japan share little in common. Turkey is a developing nation with associated economic and political problems, whereas Japan is a global economic power with its own set of unique, well-established, social issues. The political systems and political cultures of Turkey and Japan are also very different. Nevertheless, the two countries share an important commonality: their geographical location on the outskirts of Asia. Ironically, an additional similarity lies in the fact that, for both Japan and Turkey, historical experiences have led to intense questioning of the idea of geographical belonging. At the end of the nineteenth century, Turkey and Japan attempted to confront the challenge mounted by the West through a defensive process of modernization and Westernization, leading to the emergence of a dualistic national and civilizational identity in both countries.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the ways in which the contested national identities of Turkey and Japan continue to shape their respective foreign policies. It seeks to explore the ways in which Turkish and Japanise national identities are historically constructed, internalized, and then externalized through their foreign policies. The principal question is why Turkey and Japan have been ambivalent toward the processes of regionalization in their immediate non-Western regions, where their common cultural ties are expected to produce a natural foreign policy orientation. It is claimed in this paper that the answer to this question lies in the historically rooted and domestically contested national identities of both countries, which impose constraints on, and foster ambiguity for, their respective foreign policy choices. The lack of a national consensus in both countries in regard to their sense of belonging to a geographical location can be traced to an incomplete process of civilizational identity formation marked by ongoing debates about the shift toward modernity and the West at the domestic level. The process was incomplete in two senses: (1) The Westernizing elites failed to internalize the West in their own identity, while detaching themselves from a sense of belonging to the East; (2) such a shift of identity failed to reach a national consensus, while rival claims to national identity remained dormant and strong; within a suitable context they achieved intellectual and political hegemony.

Contested national identities in Turkey and Japan emerged out of a historical process that can be traced back to early confrontations with the West. Facing the Western threat in the nineteenth century, the dominant political and intellectual conclusion in both countries was that the only realistic way of maintaining national sovereignty was through modernization. This bit to retain autonomy was translated into practice in the form of Westernization and de-Orientalization. However, this practice led to the formation of a dualistic identity orientation, as members of each nation failed to completely internalize the West as an integral part of their identity. In other words, the shift in the perception of civilizational belonging was never a complete process. On the other hand, it was characterized by ceaseless domestic identity conflicts between the modernizing, pro-Western elites on the one hand, and the social actors that opposed the identity shift on the other. …