Tokyo — The Japanese are nothing if not deliberate. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe showed up at Trump Tower during the transition bearing the gift for the president-elect of a driver — the present of one golfer to another — and the perfect opening line. He told Trump that they were a lot alike — they both had won despite the opposition of their respective countries’ liberal media.
With that, their friendship was practically assured.
This was clever personal diplomacy, but much more than that. For Tokyo, a strong bond with the United States is nearly an existential need. Japan is a small island nation with no natural resources to speak of that punched above its weight economically during much of the post–World War II era. Now, it has been eclipsed by a China that believes its rise is just beginning. Absent the alliance with the United States, Japan, whose population is aging and shrinking, will eventually be just a speed bump on China’s drive to preeminence in the region.
I traveled to Tokyo (with a side trip to Nagasaki) in May on a trip sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for U.S. journalists and policy experts. The Japanese officials and political observers we talked to are confident that their relationship with the United States is strong and proud of how the Japanese government has navigated the potentially disruptive advent of the Trump administration. But the long-term threat of China looms.
This is Prime Minister Abe’s second try in power. He failed after just a year about a decade ago, brought low by scandal in his cabinet and his own ailing health. His departure opened a chapter of major political disruption. Abe’s Liberal Democratic party (LDP), whose success had made Japan effectively a one-party democratic state since 1955, lost its grip. The center-left Democratic Party of Japan took over in a political revolution but proved unequal to the task. After Abe’s fall, a five-year period of one-year, lackluster prime ministers ensued — Japan’s Italian phase.
Then the LDP came roaring back and, shockingly, Abe ascended to the prime ministership again. He is fortified by a clear sense of mission. He sees himself undertaking a restoration of national self-confidence comparable to that of a Reagan or Thatcher, attempting to jolt Japan out of a funk brought on by two decades of economic stagnation and deflation.
Abe’s inspiration is his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi. A bureaucrat who served in the occupation of Manchuria during the war, Kishi almost was tried as a Class A war criminal. He spent three years in jail but probably wasn’t implicated in the worst abuses of the occupation and, besides, we realized that post-war Japan needed effective technocrats. Kishi embarked on a political career, becoming prime minister in the late 1950s. He was pro-American and strengthened the alliance while desperately wanting to restore Japan as a normal country unshackled by its pacifist constitution.
Abe’s version of the same, unfinished project begins with his deflation-fighting economic program, a.k.a. Abenomics. The program involves the “three arrows” — loose monetary policy, fiscal stimulus, and structural reforms. The first two are much easier than the third, although Japan has made progress on reform within the constraints of the country’s stultifying special-interest politics. So far, the results have been slow and incremental, as economic growth and inflation both still lag.
In terms of national security, Japan sees itself, correctly, as a status quo power, concerned with maintenance of the current rules-based liberal international order. Abe is prodigiously well traveled and meets with foreign leaders at an impressive clip. The strategic conception is to get closer to other seafaring powers invested in free navigation of the seas and current international norms. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia has called Japan a “special strategic partner” based on a common commitment to “the rule of law, free trade, and open markets.”
Obviously, no alliance is more important than that with the United States. Japanese officials paid close attention to Trump’s tweets (the adage “seriously, not literally” sank in among Japan’s America-watchers), and Abe carefully thought about how to get along with an American counterpart who has long criticized Japan for eating our economic lunch. Abe went out of his way to explain that Japan pays for 75 percent of U.S. forces based in the country. And the mutual affinity for golf helped — Abe cites it when asked how he manages to get along so well with Trump. After the warm meeting at Trump Tower during the transition, Abe spent two days at Mar-a-Lago and got a robust U.S.–Japan joint statement.
That said, Trump’s pullout from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement was a disappointment. Japan invested significant political and diplomatic capital in the TPP. A welcome by-product of that effort has been a diminishment in the domestic clout of Japan’s agricultural cooperatives. The talk now is of moving ahead with the deal without the U.S., in a so-called TPP-11, and hoping the U.S. eventually comes back in.
The problem with Japan as a leader in the region is what is called, rather euphemistically, “history issues.” Democratic South Korea should be a natural ally, but the relationship between the two countries is still dogged by contention over “comfort women,” the Korean women forced into sexual slavery for the use of Japanese troops during World War II. Japan has officially apologized, but the issue never goes away.
Another flashpoint is the Yasukuni Shrine. The Shinto shrine houses the spirits of Japan’s 2.5 million war dead, both military and civilian — think Arlington Cemetery, although with an added religious element. The shrine became controversial when the priests who run it decided to enshrine the spirits of about a dozen Class A war criminals in 1978. Abe visited the shrine after his return to office, causing a massive international backlash, especially in South Korea and China.
Abe wanted to make a statement that no one could dictate how he honors Japan’s dead; international critics, when they aren’t merely opportunistic, see the shrine as an emblem of Japanese revisionism. (The war museum maintained by the shrine relates a highly tendentious version of World War II, blaming the start of the war on the U.S. oil embargo and laughably portraying the post-war decolonization of Asia as a vindication of Japan’s war aims.)
The view in Japan is that on history the South Koreans are emotional while the Chinese are calculating. Ironically, there is a sense that China may be making the same mistakes Japan did in the run-up to World War II, when Japan was aggressively nationalistic, couldn’t control its armed forces, and challenged the U.S. in the Pacific.
China labors under a feeling of historic humiliation. It essentially wants to recapture its old glory before the British invented the steam engine. China has bucked the liberalizing trend in Asia since the 1980s. It modernized, but without embracing freedom. It now seeks to undermine international norms and make new ones that better serve its interests.
And it has resources to burn. One prong of the Chinese assertion is yuan diplomacy. For example, it funded a port in Sri Lanka that the South Asian country couldn’t afford. Then a Chinese company conveniently took a 99-year lease over the facility. This sort of tactic represents a modern iteration of the tributary system that the Ming Dynasty once upon a time used to extend its influence. Another prong is the military, in which China continues to make enormous investments, swamping everyone else in the region.
As nationalism replaced Communism as the animating force of the Chinese system, Japan became a target — a whipping boy on the history issues and a strategic obstacle. Historically, Japan has always been buffered from China’s reach by the Sea of Japan. Today, the Chinese can intimidate other countries in the region but not Japan, which hopes to encourage other Asian countries to be proud, independent, and responsible.
Based on straight-line projections, though, it is only a matter of time until Japan is overwhelmed by the Chinese material advantage. Ten years ago, the Chinese economy was smaller than Japan’s. Now it is three times larger. Japan’s military, the so-called Self-Defense Force (SDF), is smaller than that of Myanmar or the Kingdom of Thailand. Its coast guard, trying to fend off constant, low-level Chinese encroachments on the uninhabited Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, is under strain.
It’s with the Chinese threat in view that Abe seeks to make Japan a more normal country, the same ambition as his grandfather had decades ago. He created a national-security council, taking firmer control of the national-security apparatus from the bureaucracy, and in 2013 produced contemporary Japan’s first-ever (!) national-security policy. He has steadily pushed to loosen restrictions on the operations of the SDF. Now he wants to change Article 9 of the constitution, which renounces war and forbids the country to have a military (except for strict self-defense).
Abe’s proposed amendment to Article 9 is highly symbolic. It will make the SDF legal when everyone already believes it is legal. It’s mostly a way to create a precedent for amending the American-written post-war constitution, which hasn’t been touched in 70 years. Ideally, Japan would dump its official pacifism and allow itself to pursue the military and national-security policies of any other nation. Yet even Abe’s minor amendment is highly contentious and would have been unthinkable years ago.
The fundamental problem is that we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams in imposing a post-war regime on Japan, such that they are still committed to it when it doesn’t make sense anymore. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we bombed and nuked Japan into pacifism. We killed 100,000 people on one night of firebombing Tokyo in 1945. Anywhere in the capital where there seems to be an old building, it is assuredly a replica. A tour of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, with its carbonized rice bowls and melted rosary beads from the morning Fat Man detonated above the city at 11:02 a.m., tells you all you need to know about Japan’s attachment to its pacifist constitution.
But it isn’t the 1940s anymore. Japan is a lovely country whose history reaches far back into the mists of time and whose culture is highly cohesive and distinctive. Its sins should never be forgotten, but it has long been a bulwark of the liberal order at a time when that order needs all the friends it can get. China, a Communist kleptocracy with a chip on its shoulder, is not a “normal country.” The pressure of its rise will eventually force Japan to become one, and the sooner, the better.