Guest Blog: Japan’s Quest for a Leadership Role in Asia

On 11 March, the Japan Foundation hosted a lecture at Blake Dawson’s offices in Sydney entitled ‘Japan at a Foreign Policy Crossroads: New Direction or More of the Same?’ by Kyoko Hatakeyama, a former official in Japan’s Foreign Ministry who recently completed her doctorate under the supervision of Professor Craig Freedman at Macquarie University. She discussed the possible changes in Japanese foreign policy under the new government led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), and the lecture included the launch in Australia of ‘Snow on the Pine: Japan’s Quest for a Leadership Role in Asia’, a book based on her thesis and co-authored with Dr Freedman. Here are some notes subsequently provided by Dr Hatakeyama, setting a broader context for many postings and comments on this Blog.


Snow on the Pine: Japan’s Quest for a Leadership Role in Asia (Singapore: World Scientific, March 2010), by Dr Kyoko Hatakeyama (Kansai Gaidai University) and Dr Craig Freedman, presents a view of Japanese foreign policy that runs counter to the common wisdom that reduces Japan’s post-war efforts to the pursuit of purely commercial interests. In the book’s approach, the defeat of the Second World War did not transform Japan into an ‘exceptional state’ which seeks only economic interests. Like any other nation, economic issues have always played a crucial role in policy decisions. But this has only formed one amongst a number of threads determining foreign policy decisions. In the authors’ eyes, what characterizes Japan’s policy is the drive to dominate and influence the East Asia region as a leader. This has provided a consistent motivation since the days of the Meiji restoration of 1868, even if the means of achieving its goal have changed.
In the pre-war period, Japan attempted to gain hegemonic power through military means. The result was a devastating defeat in the Second World War. With the end of the long American-led Occupation, Japan once again embarked on a process to capture a similar objective. This time however, Japan employed a different route. The safest course was to portray Japan as a peaceful nation with no aspiration to power. No other realistic alternatives existed than to eschew military force as a means of advancing its goals.
Lacking military strength, the idea that Japan has been pursuing influence like any other state sounds unreasonable. However, once we focus instead on the various constraints operating behind the scenes of the decision-making process, Japan’s behaviour becomes much more comprehensible. Contrary to its desires, Japan’s behaviour has often been constrained by international and domestic constraints, which resulted in low-profile foreign policy. This characterization seems directly at odds with the strong suggestion that Japan has been pursuing regional influence. But failure to achieve a set of given goals does not imply that Japan ever turned away from pursuing a dominant position in Asia. Like other states, Japan has been seeking a leadership role, to create a climate conducive to its economic and national security ambitions. In all cases, deployment of the power base has been consistently non-threatening, promising and assuring, which is in fact what makes the Japanese approach quite distinctive. Out of experience in the past, the Japanese have come to suspect that threats can be rather counterproductive in gaining a leadership position.
The post-war period in this analysis becomes a continuation rather than a break with the country’s previous history. Tactics and even strategies over time have of course changed to meet the ever-evolving economic and political environment but the overall objective has remained constant.
Specifically, the book provides:
• A comprehensive new approach to Japanese foreign policy;
• Five Case studies (Peace-Keeping Operations in Cambodia, PKO in East Timor, North Korea policy, the Asian Economic Crisis, Aid towards Vietnam) creating a clear and systematic explanation of Japan’s apparently ‘exceptional behaviour;
• Economic appendix (written primarily by Dr Freedman) providing a wider context for Japan’s foreign policy.
Although the book does not examine Japan’s foreign policy under the new Democratic Party of Japan led government, Japan’s behaviour is comprehensible if we look at constraints operating behind the scenes. PM Hatoyama’s new initiatives, such as creation of the East Asian Community, certainly illustrates his appetite for a leadership role in the region and represents again a continuation rather than a new direction in foreign policy. However, the Hatoyama administration cannot afford to pursue a grand strategy since the inexperienced government is losing public support due to a lack of consistency (support rates went down to 24% in May 2010) [parallels with PM Rudd’s government in Australia recently?! Ed.]. This is well exemplified by its treatment of Futenma Air base issue in Okinawa and Hatoyama’s weak leadership. Political turmoil after a coming (northern) summer election may further constrain Japan’s pursuit of leadership in the region.

Author: Luke Nottage

Prof Luke Nottage (BCA, LLB, PhD VUW, LLM Kyoto) is founding co-director of the Australian Network for Japanese Law (ANJeL), Associate Director (Japan) of the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law at the University of Sydney (CAPLUS), and Professor of Comparative and Transnational Business Law at Sydney Law School. He specialises in international dispute resolution, foreign investment law, contract and consumer (product safety) law.

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