Japan’s Dilemmas and the Future of the US-Japan Alliance

by Alessandro Calabrese

The main purpose of this short article is to describe the peculiar Japanese political situation, stressing its relations with the U.S., one of the most important consequences of the Second World War.

After WWII Japan’s international relations have been characterized by American military support, by the development of aids and economic investments in the Southeastern Asia (DBS, 2018), and by the attempt to improve strong ties with countries who are net exporters of energy. However, its foreign policy has always played a difficult role because of the many issues that they have had to face in the international scenario. The attempt to pursue stability is surely the main reason that has pushed Japan in the area of influence of the U.S., not only in the military sector, given the fact that the Americans have been the first net importers of Japanese products since 1945.

An element of continuity in Japanese foreign affairs has been its continuity to achieve energetic independence. Explicative of this was the first energetic crisis in 1972, when the country headed by Tanaka declared, in the case of the failure of the UN resolution n.242 (unfair Israeli acquisition of territories after the Six-Day War) that they would have changed their diplomatic relations towards Israel (Caroli, 2004).

It was a clear signal to OPEC countries. The same attitude was undertaken during the second energetic crisis and the Gulf war, when Japan’s diplomacy mainly aimed to maintain positive relations with Arabs countries. A clear effect of Japan’s lack of primary energy sources, considering the fact that Japan is the third industrial power in the world.

But this is probably the only international issue that has been solved in the past decades.

The literature can list numerous complex challenges: from the recognition of Taiwan and its relations with China, to the disputes with Russia and China over Sakhalin and Senkoku, to the not fully embracement of WWII crimes, which makes hard to establish good relations with potential Asian partners, and finally the north Korean menace (from the nuclear threat to the kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Korean authorities).

We can as well list many internal crises: the “baburu ekonomi” (economic bubbles) of the ‘90s and the advancement of the Chinese economy, which has replaced Japan as the world’s second strongest economy; the terrible Fukushima disaster which caused more than 18.000 victims (2011 Tohoku earthquake was magnitude 9.0, 2009 L’Aquila earthquake was “only” magnitude 6. Being the Richter scale a logarithm you must consider the exponential growth to fully understand the range of destruction).

Instead of dividing, these events have led to a strong cooperation between the different political forces to drive economic and social changes, even if Japan has been characterized by high levels of abstentionism mainly due to that feeling of social anxiety that permeated Japan’s young generations (59% of the population voted in 2012 elections) (Fabbri, 2018).

The list of internal problems has not yet ended: the unemployment rate has been rising in the past years, the general aging of Japanese people (the highest level of seniors in the world), the high rate of suicide in younger generation (suicide is the first cause of death between the age of 15 and 39) and the role of women in a society that is still not strong (Womenomics was promoted by Abe, but it did not have the expected results. Japan still has one of the lowest level of participation of women in the economic sector) (Fabbri,2018).

Despite everything, Japan is a regional power because of the fact that it is both an economic and military power (Orchard,2018).

This has been surely supported by the strong cultural mindset of Japanese. It has helped them to face many challenges during the country’s history: TATEMAE (facade, built in front) towards the AOI-ME (blue eyed, word used to describe the westerns) but also a deep knowledge of HON’NE (true sound) to preserve WA (harmony). The centrality of the animist religion of Shintoism has surely given strength to Japanese people throughout the centuries (Caracciolo,2018), (Puorto,2018).

It has been wonderfully depicted in Lucio Caracciolo’s article “The sun will rise again” in the extract taken from an interview with the famous writer Yukio Mishima: “Here the invisible is only Japanese”. As the abstract by the anthropologist Umesao Tadao: “Japan, from a communicative point of view, is a black hole: it gets all the signals from outside and emits none”.

In addition to this, a strong Japanese communitarianism, ingrained in its own culture, has given strength to a population that may appear so fragile from the outside (Caracciolo,2018).

The ability to take strength from its own is an element that shall must be considered to fully understand Japan.

Another element of strength is the so called developmental State. This theory was described back in the 80’s by Chalmers Johnson’s analysis of Japan post war industrialization:  the Japanese miracle was based on the direct action of the state into economy, threw an independent bureaucratic planning headed to the stimulation of the private sector, especially in R&S R&D (Mazzucato, 2013).

Going back to politics, Japan’s strong man is doubtlessly Abe Shinzo, the present prime minister. He has already covered this role back in 2006, but his adventure lasted only one year.

Reelected in 2012, he has a stable control over Japan political scene, surviving to a scandal in the last months that have paradoxically strengthened his political leadership. Some of his main political battles were the introduction of the so called “Abeconomics” adopted in 2013 to stimulate Japan’s economy. It is based on an aggressive monetary policy, flexible fiscal policy, the low interest rates of Japan’s central bank, and a growth of strategic investments in many Asian countries.

The revision of n.9 constitutional article was also a main issue. The above mentioned limited Japanese military capacity since the 1952 treaty of mutual cooperation and security between U.S. and Japan (to impose this limitation, U.S. linked his military forces to Japan’s territorial defense: American soldiers in Japan are the most numerous in the world, followed by Germany and Italy). Abe has partially been able to improve Japan’s military capacity, and this made him very popular, especially in the right wing (Caroli, 2004).

Abe’s Liberal Party (LDP) has had the majority since 2012 and he will try to achieve his third mandate in a row in 2021. He is the strong man, and if he is going to be able to manage Japan’s future challenges, he will lead the Japanese transition to a new world both internally as well as externally. He will be probably remembered as one of the most stable democratic leaders in this times of uncertainty.

Let’s focus on the main challenge of international politics that Japan has to face: the regional one,  coming from the North Korean Peninsula and from China and the alliance with the U.S. after Trump’s elections. They are two faces of the same medallion: the world hegemony.

Both in the so called “Huntingtonian world” that sees a multipolar world division or in more neoliberal world where the soft power is a central tool to impose national priorities, Japan and America’s world views are similar, for example in Japan’s regional plan of a free and competitive Indo-Pacific, but if the relations with the U.S. were good during the Obama presidency (they faced together North Korean, as well as China imperialism) the same cannot be said after Trump’s election.

Trump’s first move towards Japan was to declare their economic behavior unfair, comparing Japan to China and Mexico in a tweet. After that, he decided to leave the TPP commercial agreement in 2017, one of the first official acts of Trump’s presidency.

This had a huge impact on Japanese’s public opinion, but it was not enough to start a process of anti-Trump protest as in Europe (Chicago Council of Foreign Affairs, 2017).

In such a changed situation, it is normal and wise to think about the potential options to react.

For Japan they would be (Chicago Council of Foreign Affairs, 2017):

Constitutional reforms and the reconstruction of the army to flank one of the most equipped naval fleets in the world. It would have a huge effect, both at a national and supranational level. This option is achievable, but at what cost, and what effects would it produce on the international scenario. Is Japan strong enough, both militarily and economically, to face China and North Korea on its own?

The second option would be to fully embrace Chinese hegemony. An option which is not realistic for the different social views: one is a liberal democracy, and the other a communist dictatorship. It would be too much to bear even for Japan.

The third option would be to rely on supranational organizations, such us the United Nations. But who has the power to veto in the UN? Relying only on a supranational organization would not be a wise move.

The only realistic option for Japan is the United States, and the Japanese’s elites knows it.

Let’s analyze this aspect more in depth: back in 2009 Yukio Hatoyama, Japan’s prime minister, in a joint press conference with president Barack Obama, declared that Japan wanted an equal partnership with the U.S., announcing a series of initiatives such as: a deep investigation of the transit of nuclear weapons through the Japanese territory, revising the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and the payment for the cost of U.S. troops in Japan (Inoguchi, 2011).

However even after this joint declaration, with a left wing prime minister (Hatoyama was a member of the DPJ, which interrupted a real hegemony of the LDP right wing pro American period), Japan under the Hatoyama government continued to emphasize the U.S-Japan alliance as the most important bilateral relationship, while keeping in place the participation with the United States in overseas areas such as the Sea of Aden and Nepal (Inoguchi, 2011).

This is a clear signal of Japan’s dependency on American support: the alliance is first bilateral and secondarily global. China’s rise and Korea’s menace had pushed towards bilateralism. The U.S. wanted to maintain a global hegemony and Japan to be a regional power. A controversial point is the one related to the prohibition of deploying military troops abroad, which make the two protagonists even more dependent. It is clear that if Japan is not going to be militarily dependent in the next years, the U.S. has to deploy a huge military effort on the island (an example of that is Futenma base in Okinawa, hosting more the 100.000 American soldiers). Is America still willing to do so?

On the other hand the result of the Japanese economic diplomacy, the only possible for the military restrictions, pursued through the years, has seen Japanese investors as main protagonists in the Southeast Asia. Japan’s strategic role has become central. Thus another, but similar question: is America ready to leave behind the most important ally in the Asian peninsula?

In conclusion, America has been bounded to Japan since 1960 by the Treaty of mutual cooperation. Pacta sunt servanda, in the case of external attack on Japan, Americans must support their allies.

This has made the Japan-U.S. block the strongest pawn in the regional scenario of Southeastern Asia, notwithstanding Trump’s tweet, Kim’s rockets launch and China’s aggressive behavior.



L. Caracciolo, “Il sole sorgerà” in Limes “La Rivoluzione giapponese”, pp.7-30

BUSINESS INSIDER: http://www.businessinsider.com/us-military-personnel-deployments-by-country-2017-3?IR=T

R. Caroli, F. Gatti, “Storia del Giappone”, pp.232-266

DBS Group Research, Japan: rising direct investments in the southeast Asia (https://www.dbs.com/aics/home.page)

D. Fabbri, “L’importanza di essere Giappone” in Limes “La Rivoluzione giapponese”, pp.33-46

D. Fabbri, “Stati Uniti e Giappone, destini intrecciati” in Limes “La Rivoluzione giapponese”, pp.157-172

T. Inoguchi, G.J. Ikenberry, Y. Sato, “The U.S.-Japan security Alliance”, pp.1-53.

M. Mazzucato, “Lo stato innovatore”, pp. 45-80.

P. Orchard, “ Il Giappone dovrà tornare a dominare l’Asia” in Limes “La rivoluzione giapponese”, pp.151-156

N. Puorto, “Abe punta al cielo, con l’aiuto della lobby scintoista” in Limes “La rivoluzione giapponese”, pp.79-82

Japanese Time- https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2017/10/30/language/lets-discuss-donald-trumps-popularity-japan/#.WrOTQyOh1-U)

Japan government project: https://www.japan.go.jp/abenomics/about/)

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