No More Passing: Japan's Foreign Policy in Interesting Times

By Cooney, Kevin | Asia Policy, October 2018 | Go to article overview

No More Passing: Japan's Foreign Policy in Interesting Times


Cooney, Kevin, Asia Policy


In my interviews with Japanese foreign policy decision-makers in the late 1990s and again in the mid-2000s, I found an almost single-minded focus on the purpose of Japanese foreign policy. Officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) were particularly noteworthy in this regard. Of the officials interviewed, who ranged from some of the most senior to fairly junior, they almost unanimously answered that the goals of Japanese foreign policy were "the safety and prosperity of the nation." When probed for specifics, these officials had difficulty giving any and tended to repeat the same mantra, "the safety and prosperity of the nation." This national goal seemed to be drilled into career MOFA bureaucrats as the raison d' étre of their jobs.

For the Japanese foreign policy community, this goal has kept Japan on track in a changing world and has permitted it to focus on purpose-driven outcomes. When rapid changes occur, tangible policy goals can be changed quickly because they no longer serve the nation. For example, the safety and prosperity of the nation at one time may have been served by the pursuit of a permanent UN Security Council seat-a tangible goal that Japan has long had but is no longer pursuing as actively as it once did because this goal no longer seems as necessary. There are other paths to the safety and prosperity of the nation, given current global circumstances, like through a closer relationship with U.S. leadership. The overall result is that Japanese foreign policy is becoming more adept at adapting to sudden changes in the global foreign and security policy environment.

This essay examines Japan's ability to adapt quickly to radical changes in global leadership and traditional foreign policy norms that have left other nations adrift and confused. It concludes that a purpose-driven foreign policy is more likely to aid and guide the nation in a strange and interesting policy environment than one driven by tangible goals.

Adapting to Change

In the late 1980s, Japan was on top of the world. Its economy was second globally, only behind that of the United States, and was rising. Scholars such as Paul Kennedy predicted that Japan would overtake the United States as the next global hegemon.1 Then came the sudden and unexpected end to the Cold War in 1989, followed by the bursting of Japan's economic bubble in 1991 and over two decades of recession, deflation, and economic stagnation. In the late 1990s, Japanese foreign policy experts argued that Japan was experiencing a phenomenon that they called "Japan passing," in which the country was being passed over as no longer relevant.2 However, the 2000s brought a new special relationship between the United States and Japan, thanks to the personal connection between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. This highly personal approach to foreign policy has continued under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Donald Trump.

Key to Japan's success has been the ability to recognize change and quickly adapt to it, plus the luck of circumstances. In 2001, Koizumi came to power in Japan a few months after Bush entered office. Whereas Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, saw eight Japanese prime ministers during his eight years in office, Koizumi served almost concurrently with Bush. The relationship between these two heads of state was aided by the fact that when the September 11 attacks occurred, the Japanese national security team was meeting in a late-night session to deal with a typhoon that was about to hit Japan. Koizumi thus was able to be the first world leader to pick up the phone and offer the United States sympathy and assistance. The Koizumi-Bush relationship, cemented by this phone call, transformed the bilateral relationship overnight. As one MOFA official told me in the summer of 2005 when asked about the status of the relationship, "It is the best ever!"3

Fast-forward to November 9, 2016, when Japan woke up to the surprise victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the U. …

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