Japan's Cautious Hawks: Why Tokyo Is Unlikely to Pursue an Aggressive Foreign Policy

By Curtis, Gerald L. | Foreign Affairs, March/April 2013 | Go to article overview

Japan's Cautious Hawks: Why Tokyo Is Unlikely to Pursue an Aggressive Foreign Policy


Curtis, Gerald L., Foreign Affairs


The Japanese have thought about foreign policy in similar terms since the latter half of the nineteenth century. The men who came to power after the 1868 Meiji Restoration set out to design a grand strategy that would protect their country against the existential threat posed by Western imperialism. They were driven not, as their American contemporaries were, to achieve what they believed to be their manifest destiny nor, like the French, to spread wide the virtues of their civilization. The challenge they faced-and met-was to ensure Japan's survival in an international system created and dominated by more powerful countries.

That quest for survival remains the hallmark of Japanese foreign policy today. Tokyo has sought to advance its interests not by defining the international agenda, propagating a particular ideology, or promoting its own vision of world order, the way the United States and other great powers have. Its approach has instead been to take its external environment as a given and then make pragmatic adjustments to keep in step with what the Japanese sometimes refer to as "the trends of the time."

Ever since World War II, that pragmatism has kept Japan in an alliance with the United States, enabling it to limit its military's role to self-defense. Now, however, as China grows ever stronger, as North Korea continues to build its nuclear weapons capability, and as the United States' economic woes have called into question the sustainability of American primacy in East Asia, the Japanese are revisiting their previous calculations. In particular, a growing chorus of voices on the right are advocating a more autonomous and assertive foreign policy, posing a serious challenge to the centrists, who have until recently shaped Japanese strategy.

In parliamentary elections this past December, the Liberal Democratic Party and its leader, Shinzo Abe, who had previously served as prime minister in 2006-7, returned to power with a comfortable majority. Along with its coalition partner, the New Komeito Party, the ldp secured the two-thirds of seats needed to pass legislation rejected by the House of Councilors, the Japanese Diet's upper house. Abe's victory was the result not of his or his party's popularity but rather of the voters' loss of confidence in the rival Democratic Party of Japan. Whatever the public's motivations, however, the election has given Japan a right-leaning government and a prime minister whose goals include scrapping the constitutional constraints on Japan's military, revising the educational system to instill a stronger sense of patriotism in the country's youth, and securing for Tokyo a larger leadership role in regional and world affairs. To many observers, Japan seems to be on the cusp of a sharp rightward shift.

But such a change is unlikely. The Japanese public remains risk averse, and its leaders cautious. Since taking office, Abe has focused his attention on reviving Japan's stagnant economy. He has pushed his hawkish and revisionist views to the sidelines, in part to avoid having to deal with divisive foreign policy issues until after this summer's elections for the House of Councilors. If his party can secure a majority of seats in that chamber, which it does not currently have, Abe may then try to press his revisionist views. But any provocative actions would have consequences. If, for example, he were to rescind statements by previous governments that apologized for Japan's actions in World War II, as he has repeatedly said he would like to do, he not only would invite a crisis in relations with China and South Korea but would face strong criticism from the United States as well. The domestic political consequences are easy to predict: Abe would be flayed in the mass media, lose support among the Japanese public, and encounter opposition from others in his own party.

In short, chances are that those who expect a dramatic change in Japanese strategy will be proved wrong. …

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