Japan´s English lessons

01.01.04 Publication:

North Korea´s nuclear threat is forcing Japan to choose between two strategic options: draw closer to the United States, or develop a more autonomous and assertive foreign policy. How to balance these competing visions? Look to another island nation, Britain, which has spent the last 60 years strongly allied to the United States yet maintaining its ability to act independently on the global stage.

As political figures, Tony Blair and Junichiro Koizumi have much in common, even though Great Britain´s prime minister leads a nominally left-wing party and Japan´s leads a conservative one. Both men have risen to be prime ministers on the back of personal popularity; both are good on television and skilled at retail politics; and both have put much of their foreign-policy store in a close relationship with the United States, leading both to support U.S. President George W. Bush during the 2003 Iraq war. Yet this last shared approach is now what divides the two leaders. Where Blair´s stance on Iraq is hurting him at home and abroad (except in Washington), Koizumi has, if anything, been helped by his support for the war-even at home, in famously pacifist Japan.

This difference raises an intriguing possibility. The controversy surrounding Britain´s involvement in the Iraq campaign, coupled with the war´s messy aftermath, could prove a turning point in British foreign policy, discouraging future prime ministers (even Blair himself) from again backing a U.S. military venture so ardently. But this period could also mark the beginning of a new, more active phase in Japanese foreign policy, in which Japan, shaking off some of the legacy of the Second World War, strengthens its own military and diplomatic stance, but does so in a way that aligns it even more closely to the United States.

Admittedly, Iraq is a frail reed on which to base such a proposition, and it is unlikely that Britain and Japan are genuinely going to swap foreign policies. Their starting points are too far apart for that: While Britain, a nuclear power and permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, contributed the largest number of troops to the Iraq war of any U.S. ally, Japan has a six-decade allergy against aggressive action overseas. Initially, the nation merely provided moral support; more recently, it pledged $5 billion for Iraqi reconstruction and offered up to 1,000 peacekeepers once the situation becomes more stable.

But the British and Japanese positions could begin to converge, and as they do, Japan, both in its dealings with the United States and its broader foreign policy, may have much to learn from the British experience since 1945. Britain offers lessons likely to come in handy as Japan grapples with the growing danger posed by North Korea.


Visitors to Japan can sometimes be forgiven for thinking it is less the land of the rising sun than the land of the tedious cliche. How often has one heard, in polite but uncomfortable small talk, that Japan is unique because of its four seasons, that its people have a deep love of nature, and-if you are British-that ours are two island nations united by a common love of fish and tea?

Superficially, there are indeed points of commonality between Britain and Japan, beyond a liking for tannin-flavored hot water. Each is part of a nearby continent, but not really of it. For hundreds of years, a central aim of British foreign policy has been to keep France and Germany from dominating Europe and threatening Britain´s interests, while Britain has sought to pursue those interests around the world as an independent entity. At least since its opening to the outside world in 1853, Japan has followed a similar path, keen to prevent China, Russia, or the European imperial powers from dominating Asia while mostly wishing to act alone or be left alone.

Since 1945, each has also forged what the British call a “special relationship” with the United States. Yasuhiro Nakasone, a Japanese prime minister in the 1980s, said that Japan, with its huge U.S. bases at Okinawa and on the principal island of Honshu, should be “an unsinkable aircraft carrier” for U.S. forces off the Asian mainland. Britain, home to scores of U.S. bombers and fighters, serves a similar function off the European mainland.

In a deep sense, these special relationships represent a defeat for old aspirations and self-images. In Japan´s case, a real defeat; in Britain´s, a moral and political defeat, for World War II brought an end to the country´s vast global empire, to its global network of military bases, to its capacity for independent action against other major powers, and to the belief that Britain was a shaper of world events.

But while postwar Britain and Japan both relied on the United States in many ways, they differed in their degrees of dependence. Britain never seriously contemplated an independent policy toward the Soviet Union, for example, but has shown a willingness to go it alone on regional or minor matters. It has sought to integrate its economy and even political identity more closely with continental Europe, while also pursuing its own military and diplomatic activities in Africa, Eatin America, and parts of Asia.

Japan, by contrast, has been much more servile in its relationship with the giant across the ocean, reflecting an almost total lack of an independent foreign policy, even for regional issues. Commentators differ over whether this subservience reflects a deliberate effort to take a free ride on U.S. defense spending and diplomacy, or whether it has simply occurred by default. The choice of explanation doesn´t matter much; the answer may well be a bit of both.

Post-1945 Japan, forbidden by its U.S.-imposed constitution from developing military capability beyond basic self-defense needs, cuddled up to the United States for security during the Cold War. The Cold War threats came from the Soviet Union and perhaps China, and in both cases, the United States could be depended upon to provide the protection Japan needed. In turn, successive Japanese governments permitted U.S. forces to do more or less what they liked on their Japanese bases and took a blind-eye approach to the use of Japanese ports by nuclear-armed U.S. naval ships, an obvious sore point with the Japanese public.

To be sure, almost from the day the ink dried on Japan´s pacifist constitution, governments sought to bend its rules in order to build up some military strength, and with annual defense spending of about 1 percent of Japan´s gross domestic product, that strength became considerable. But it still would have been inadequate to thwart a Soviet invasion during the Cold War. Even today, Japan´s armed forces suffer from a chronic lack of operational experience.

Likewise, in recent decades, Japanese defense and industrial bureaucrats pursued a technological insurance policy of sorts-making sure, for instance, that Japanese firms had the ability to build modern fighter planes or even construct nuclear weapons. However, these efforts have been made without any sense that such armaments might actually be needed someday.


But that attitude is changing, a transition prompted by the growing threat North Korea poses to Japan. While North Korea is pushing the Japanese even closer to the United States, it is also pushing them to develop independent military and diplomatic capabilities. Increasingly, right-wing Japanese figures have become willing to declare openly that if North Korea should become a nuclear state, Japan should do so as well. Such views are still on the margins, but hawkish talk is approaching the mainstream.

Early in 2003, Japan´s defense minister suggested that Japan should be willing to contemplate a preemptive strike on North Korea if it saw evidence that a devastating attack against Japan was being prepared. The notion of preemption, made fashionable, of course, by the Bush administration, would have been unmentionable in the past but is now widely discussed in Tokyo.

The change in attitude has been fueled by three specific events: the 1994 crisis, when evidence first emerged of a North Korean nuclear program and war on the Korean peninsula looked like a real possibility; North Korea´s testing in 1998 of a medium-range ballistic missile, which flew over Japan en route to a landing in the Pacific Ocean; and North Korea´s admission in 2002 that it had a covert nuclear weapons program.

These developments, coupled with confirmation in 2002 that North Korea had, as suspected, kidnapped a number of Japanese citizens over the years, have hardened Japanese public opinion. There is now a desire to see the government take a tougher line with North Korea, and this has made it possible for politicians to openly contemplate preemptive strikes and nuclear deterrence.

From the Japanese perspective, North Korea is no longer merely a nasty irritant but a potentially lethal threat. This realization has not yet produced a clear strategy. It may never, given that Japanese politics tends to mitigate against the production of clear strategies. But it has shifted the balance of Japanese politics away from pacifism, enabling a slow but steady dismantling of some of the legal obstacles preventing the country from having a normal defense stance.

Those obstacles are of a tedious, technical nature and obstruct Japanese participation in U.N. peacekeeping activities and U.S.-led military operations. In 2001, for example, Japan´s parliament passed a bill that enabled a supply ship and escorts to go to the Indian Ocean to provide indirect support to the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. As such laws are passed, Japanese defense forces are given greater freedom of action. Arguably more important in the immediate term, however, is new Japanese investment, totaling more than $2 billion, in a surveillance program that included the launching of two spy satellites in March 2003, with two more scheduled for orbit before March 2004.

Such surveillance could be done on Japan´s behalf by the United States, and of course it is. So why launch the satellites? One reason is that Japan simply wants to pull more of its own weight in intelligence-gathering. But this program also indicates that Japan is no longer sure close ties with the United States are enough and is beginning to cover itself for the possibility that Washington might be too preoccupied elsewhere in the world to pay sufficient attention to Japan and the Koreas.

Koizumi´s firm support for the war in Iraq, and his offer of peacekeeping troops and financial support for reconstruction efforts, are intended to help ensure that the United States does keep a clear eye on East Asia, even as it is engaged elsewhere. In its effort to make progress with North Korea through multilateral talks involving China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan, the Bush administration is now standing shoulder to shoulder with Koizumi´s government on this issue in a way that former U.S. president Bill Clinton never did with the Japanese governments of the 1990s. Koizumi hopes to keep it this way.

One reason for this strategy is that Japan still relies on the United States for many defense needs. For instance, those in Japan who are keen to put preemption on the table readily acknowledge that the country is not yet capable of carrying out a successful preemptive strike. The United States could do it, of course. Indeed, it is now well known that in 1994, the Clinton administration drew up plans for just such a strike on North Korea´s nuclear installations, even involving some Japanese security and intelligence officials in the discussions, but ultimately rejected the plan as too dangerous.

In the long term, Japan´s best hope of protection against missile attack from the Korean peninsula will be participation in the theater and national missile defense systems currently being developed in the United States. For Japan, a close relationship with Washington is thus made more important than ever by Kim Jong Il´s nuclear saber-rattling.

The question, though, is whether close U.S. ties remain enough. Can Japan entirely depend on the United States? Might there be circumstances in the future in which the United States might not intervene to prevent a Korean attack on Japan? Or in which the United States might provoke one? Or where the United States no longer has such an extensive deployment of forces in East Asia?

Such questions have always existed in theory, but they were of little concern during the Cold War. It is hard to envision any of these scenarios playing out now, but they have become less implausible. And the North Korean threat has become distinctly un-theoretical.

Japanese political and bureaucratic leaders are realizing that preparations ought to be made for other, perhaps less favorable outcomes, both long and short term. What effect might unification of North and South Korea have on U.S. policy? What deal might Washington make to keep China on its side against Kim Jong Il, or in the aftermath of Korean unification? Might the United States pull back from East Asia following a debacle in Iraq? There are imponderables galore, and no responsible Japanese government should ignore them.


Japan needs to develop a capacity for independent knowledge, thought, and action that does not cut across or undermine its close alliance with the United States. The challenge facing Japan is a seemingly contradictory one: Be dependent but also more independent. Yet, during most of the last 60 years, that has been precisely Britain´s position-or, if you like, predicament.

The title of a thoughtful new book by Peter Riddell, political commentator of the Times of London, sums it up well: Hug Them Close: Blair, Clinton, Bush, and the “Special Relationship” (London: Politico´s, 2003). Riddell sets out to explore how a Labour Party prime minister, Blair, sought to be a close ally to both Clinton and Bush and sent British armed forces into battle alongside U.S. troops under these two very different U.S. presidents. In the more leftwing parts of the British media, Blair is described as an American “poodle,” and there has been much hand-wringing over his failure to develop an independent foreign policy.

Yet, as Riddell points out, this embrace is far from new. Every British prime minister since Churchill, with the exception of Sir Edward Heath in the early 1970s, has made a close relationship with the United States the centerpiece of his foreign policy. That has not always meant participation in U.S. wars; during the 1960s, another Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, refused American requests to send British forces to Vietnam. But even then, Britain offered moral support.

However, while maintaining the strong bond with the United States, successive prime ministers have also sought to uphold and enhance Britain´s capacity for independent military action and to bolster the country´s diplomatic and economic ties within its region, chiefly though membership in the European Union (EU).

This independence has been of practical importance at times. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher could not have recaptured the Falkland Islands from Argentina in 1982 without it, for her close ally, U.S. President Ronald Reagan, limited his support to offering intelligence cooperation and expediting the delivery of sidewinder missiles. Likewise, Britain´s role in peacekeeping and peacemaking operations in the Balkans and in Africa has probably conferred diplomatic benefits. But perhaps the biggest benefit is the symbolic one-the notion that Britain has some choice in whether it supports or depends upon the United States, and that it can, if pressed, deliver its own punches.

Japan, with no permanent seat on the Security Council, no membership in a robust regional economic or diplomatic entity comparable to the EU, no nuclear deterrent, and no reputation for independent action, is in a very different position. If it is to respond to the threat posed by North Korea and to possible changes in East Asia and U.S. policy in the region, it would do well to move closer to Britain´s position.

Japan´s Ground Self-Defense Force is almost one and a half times the size of the British army. More hardware and software investment, as well as a declared intention to establish a nuclear deterrent, if necessary, would bring Japan´s military posture more in line with Britain´s. But Japanese troops are completely untested in warfare, and the country lacks the ability to project military power far from its shores. Tokyo needs to demonstrate it is willing to deploy forces in the cause of local or regional security and that those forces can be effective.

To do so, Japan will need to overcome historical enmities in the region and pacifist opposition at home. Offering forces to help sort out international crises such as the one in East Timor several years ago will seem like a huge step. In fact, though, it will simply be an indication that Japan has truly cast aside its imperialist past, is now willing to take responsibility for regional problems, and is dedicated to peace, democracy, and human rights.

Will Japan be willing to act this way? Probably the more appropriate question: Will it have to act this way? The answer lies among the many mysteries of Pyongyang.