Japan’s discovering that being a ‘normal’ state in international relations isn’t all beer and skittles. The brutal death of two Japanese hostages at the hands of Islamic State is, in an ugly back-handed way, confirmation of Abe’s success in growing Japan’s international role. Other players are increasingly seeing Japan as an international actor and have begun feeling out what sort of actor it is. Is it susceptible to coercive pressure against its citizens? Against its territorial claims? Will its international role be primarily that of a follower or a leader? When and how might it resort to use of force? Do remnants of the old ‘Yoshida doctrine’—named after post-WWII prime minister, Yoshida Shigeru—still remain and, if so, in relation to which issues?
Most of those questions don’t have neat answers. Japan’s confronting a problem of strategic identity. Since WWII it’s lived principally on a strategic diet of an alliance relationship with the US coupled—under the Yoshida doctrine—with a low-profile role in international affairs. That doctrine didn’t say Japan would be a recluse, but emphasised its international role as a merchant state and not a samurai one. That role could still have important strategic effects, including by helping other regional countries—like Australia—to grow their economies. But in the harder security realm, the Yoshida doctrine pulled Japan towards non-involvement; in particular, use of force was off the table. In the international response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, for example, Japan contributed a substantial sum of money towards the liberation effort—but no troops.
Now that the pace of change has begun to quicken in Asia, Japan seems to be heading towards a different identity: an alliance relationship with the US coupled with a higher-profile role for itself in international affairs. Japan’s looking for a new strategic saddle-point where it can be less dependent on the US and—simultaneously—less vulnerable to the growth of Chinese power. With Australia now often touted as Japan’s second strategic partner (after the US) and with a new strategic relationship blossoming between Tokyo and Delhi (possibly also including submarines), plus a new level of engagement in collective security tasks, Japan’s strategic identity is changing. Recent events in the Middle East, though, are stretching an already fraught consensus in a new and unexpected direction, requiring Japanese policymakers to contemplate a more proactive role against terrorist groups like IS, and not merely a more muscular regional presence.
Part of Japan’s strategic evolution seems to be an implicit understanding that use of force is no longer off the table. True, it’s not clear whereabouts on the table it is—probably not in response to the beheading of hostages, despite Abe’s vow to retaliate against their killers—but it now seems to be there, somewhere, amongst the other options. Still, that’s an exceptionally delicate topic for most Japanese; and Tokyo isn’t rushing to deploy its soldiers into conflict situations.
Will the deaths of the hostages prompt a renewed—and possibly intensified—debate about Japan’s strategic identity? Probably. But, as Richard Samuels argued back in 2007, that debate never really stopped in the 20th century. In recent decades it’s swirled between what Samuels identifies as pacifists, Asianists, mercantilists, globalists, realists, neo-revisionists, and new autonomists. Each of those groups will probably have its own views about the hostage crisis, and about how Japan can best address the challenges that lie before it. While there’s already a debate within Japan about the extent to which Abe’s policies—and recent funding decisions—might have incited IS’s demands and actions, that’s only the surface eddy of a much more important set of changes unfolding in the deep ocean currents of Japanese strategy. It’s how those currents change that matters in the long run.
The task for Shinzo Abe—and his successors—will be to guide his country through this transition in a moderate and non-alarming way. Over time, we might reasonably expect a new mainstream to coalesce around an evolved foreign and strategic policy doctrine. I expect that doctrine still to turn upon a liberal internationalist world-view, and don’t believe that Japan, even after the hostage crisis, is about to slide backwards into a new period of ‘small Japanism’. The forces pulling Japan out into the world are stronger than those pushing it towards cocooning.