Japan Table of Contents

Japan's geography--particularly its insular character, its limited endowment of natural resources, and its exposed location near potentially hostile giant neighbors--has played an important role in the development of its foreign policy. In premodern times, Japan's semi-isolated position on the periphery of the Asian mainland was an asset. It permitted the Japanese to exist as a self-sufficient society in a secure environment. It also allowed them to borrow selectively from the rich civilization of China while maintaining their own cultural identity. Insularity promoted a strong cultural and ethnic unity, which underlay the early development of a national consciousness that has influenced Japan's relations with outside peoples and cultures throughout its history.

Early Developments

In the early sixteenth century, a feudally organized Japan came into contact with Western missionaries and traders for the first time. Westerners introduced important cultural innovations into Japanese society during more than a century of relations with various feudal rulers. But when the country was unified at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Tokugawa government decided to expel the foreign missionaries and strictly limit intercourse with the outside world. National seclusion--except for contacts with the Chinese and Dutch--was Japan's foreign policy for more than two centuries.

When the Tokugawa seclusion was forcibly breached in 1853-54 by Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States Navy, Japan found that geography no longer ensured security--the country was defenseless against military pressures and economic exploitation by the Western powers. After Perry's naval squadron had compelled Japan to enter into relations with the Western world, the first foreign policy debate was over whether Japan should embark on an extensive modernization to cope with the threat of the "eastward advance of Western power," which had already violated the independence of China, or expel the "barbarians" and return to seclusion. The latter alternative--although it appealed to many-- was never seriously considered. Beginning with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which ushered in a new, centralized regime, Japan set out to "gather wisdom from all over the world" and embarked on an ambitious program of military, social, political, and economic reforms that transformed it within a generation into a modern nation-state and major world power.

Modern Japan's foreign policy was shaped at the outset by its need to reconcile its Asian identity with its desire for status and security in an international order dominated by the West. The principal foreign policy goals of the Meiji period (1868-1912) were to protect the integrity and independence of the nation against Western domination and to win equality of status with the leading nations of the West by reversing the unequal treaties. Because fear of Western military power was the chief concern of the Meiji leaders, their highest priority was building up the basic requirements for national defense, under the slogan "wealth and arms" (fukoku kyohei). They saw that a modern military establishment required national conscription drawing manpower from an adequately educated population, a trained officer corps, a sophisticated chain of command, and strategy and tactics adapted to contemporary conditions. Finally, it required modern arms together with the factories to make them, sufficient wealth to purchase them, and a transportation system to deliver them.

An important objective of the military buildup was to gain the respect of the Western powers and achieve equal status for Japan in the international community. Inequality of status was symbolized by the treaties imposed on Japan when the country was first opened to foreign intercourse. The treaties were objectionable to the Japanese not only because they imposed low fixed tariffs on foreign imports and thus handicapped domestic industries, but also because their provisions gave a virtual monopoly of external trade to foreigners and granted extraterritorial status to foreign nationals in Japan, exempting them from Japanese jurisdiction and placing Japan in the inferior category of uncivilized nations. Many of the social and institutional reforms of the Meiji period were designed to remove the stigma of backwardness and inferiority represented by the "unequal treaties," and a major task of Meiji diplomacy was to press for early treaty revision.

Once created, the Meiji military machine was used to extend Japanese power overseas, for many leaders believed that national security depended on expansion and not merely a strong defense. Within thirty years, the country's military forces had fought and defeated imperial China in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), winning possession of Taiwan and China's recognition of Korea's independence. Ten years later, in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), Japan defeated tsarist Russia and won possession of southern Sakhalin as well as a position of paramount influence in Korea and southern Manchuria. By this time, Japan had been able to negotiate revisions of the unequal treaties with the Western powers and had in 1902 formed an alliance with the world's leading power, Britain. After World War I, in which it sided with the Western Allies, Japan, despite its relatively small role in the war (with little effort it gained possession of former German territories in the Pacific), sat with the victors at Versailles and enjoyed the status of a great power in its own right.

Between World War I and World War II, the nation embarked on a course of imperialist expansion, using both diplomatic and military means to extend its control over more and more of the Asian mainland. It began to see itself as the protector and champion of Asian interests against the West, a point of view that brought it increasingly into conflict with the Western powers. When its aggressive policies met firm resistance from the United States and its allies, Japan made common cause with the Axis partnership of Germany and Italy and launched into war with the United States and the Western alliance.

After Japan's devastating defeat in World War II, the nation came under an Allied occupation in which the United States, as the principal occupying power, was charged with the demilitarization and democratization of the state. Major changes were made in political, social, and economic institutions and practices. During the seven-year occupation, the country had no control over its foreign affairs and became in effect the ward of the United States on the international scene. It adopted a new constitution whereby, in Article 9, the "Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes".

Postwar Developments

When Japan regained its sovereignty in 1952 and reentered the international community as an independent nation, it found itself in a world preoccupied by the Cold War between East and West, in which the Soviet Union and the United States headed opposing camps. By virtue of the Treaty of Peace with Japan signed in San Francisco on September 8, 1951 (effective April 28, 1952), ending the state of war between Japan and most of the Allied powers except the Soviet Union and China, and the Mutual Security Assistance Pact between Japan and the United States, signed in San Francisco the same day, Japan essentially became a dependent ally of the United States, which continued to maintain bases and troops on Japanese soil.

Japan's foreign policy goals during most of the early postwar period were essentially to regain economic viability and establish its credibility as a peaceful member of the world community. National security was entrusted to the protective shield and nuclear umbrella of the United States, which was permitted under the security pact that came into effect in April 1952 to deploy its forces in and about Japan. The pact provided a framework governing the use of United States forces against military threats--internal or external--in the region. A special diplomatic task was to assuage the suspicions and alleviate the resentments of Asian neighbors who had suffered from Japanese colonial rule and imperialist aggression in the past. Japan's diplomacy toward its Asian neighbors, therefore, tended to be extremely low-key, conciliatory, and nonassertive. With respect to the world at large, the nation avoided political issues and concentrated on economic goals. Under its omnidirectional diplomacy, it sought to cultivate friendly ties with all nations, proclaimed a policy of "separation of politics and economics," and adhered to a neutral position on some East-West issues.

During the 1950s and 1960s, foreign policy actions were guided by three basic principles: close cooperation with the United States for both security and economic reasons; promotion of a free-trade system congenial to Japan's own economic needs; and international cooperation through the United Nations (UN)--to which it was admitted in 1956--and other multilateral bodies. Adherence to these principles worked well and contributed to phenomenal economic recovery and growth during the first two decades after the end of the occupation.

In the 1970s, the basic postwar principles remained unchanged but were approached from a new perspective, owing to the pressure of practical politics at home and abroad. There was growing domestic pressure on the government to exercise more foreign policy initiatives independent of the United States, without, however, compromising vital security and economic ties. The so-called Nixon "shock," involving the surprise United States opening to China and other regional issues, also argued for a more independent Japanese foreign policy. The nation's phenomenal economic growth had made it a ranking world economic power by the early 1970s and had generated a sense of pride and self-esteem, especially among the younger generation. The demand for a more independent foreign policy reflected this enhanced self-image.

Changes in world economic relations during the 1970s also encouraged a more independent stance. Japan had become less dependent on the Western powers for resources. Oil, for example, was obtained directly from the producing countries and not from the Western-controlled multinational companies. Other important materials also came increasingly from sources other than the United States and its allies, while trade with the United States as a share of total trade dropped significantly during the decade of the 1970s. Thus, political leaders began to argue that in the interests of economic self-preservation, more attention should be paid to the financial and development needs of other countries, especially those that provided Japan with vital energy and raw material supplies.

The move toward a more autonomous foreign policy was accelerated in the 1970s by the United States decision to withdraw troops from Indochina. Japanese public opinion had earlier favored some distance between Japan and the United States involvement in war in Vietnam. The collapse of the war effort in Vietnam was seen as the end of United States military and economic dominance in Asia and brought to the fore a marked shift in Japan's attitudes about the United States. This shift, which had been developing since the early 1970s, took the form of questioning the credibility of the United States nuclear umbrella, as well as its ability to underwrite a stable international currency system, guarantee Japan's access to energy and raw materials, and secure Japan's interests in a stable political order. The shift therefore required a reassessment of omnidirectional diplomacy.

Japan's leaders welcomed the reassertion of United States military power in Asian and world affairs following the Islamic revolution in Iran, the United States hostage crisis, and the Soviet military invasion of Afghanistan, all of which occurred in 1979. Japanese leaders played a strong supporting role in curbing economic and other interaction with the Soviet Union and its allies in order to help check the expansion of Soviet power in sensitive areas among the developing world countries. Under Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro, Japan built up a close political-military relationship with the United States as part of a de facto international front of a number of developed and developing countries intent on checking Soviet expansion. Japan's defense spending continued to grow steadily despite overall budgetary restraint. Japan became increasingly active in granting foreign assistance to countries of strategic importance in East-West competition.

The realignment of United States and Japanese currencies in the mid-1980s increased the growth of Japanese trade, aid, and investment, especially in Asia. It also accelerated the reversal of the United States fiscal position, from one of the world's largest creditors in the early 1980s to the world's largest debtor at the end of the decade. Japan became the world's largest creditor, an increasingly active investor in the United States, and a major contributor to international debt relief, financial institutions, and other assistance efforts.

The crucial issue for the United States and many other world governments centers on how Japan will employ this growing economic power. The strategic framework of the Japan-United States alliance also was called into question by the ending of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union. Could a new rationale be found to sustain the active security tie that had been the basis for Japan's foreign affairs in the postwar period? Had Japan's foreign interactions become so broad and multifaceted that new mechanisms were needed? Were new ways of thinking about Japan's foreign policy being formulated and implemented in Japan? It appears clear to observers in Japan that the majority of the Japanese public and elite are satisfied with the general direction of Japan's foreign policy. That policy direction is characterized by continued close ties with the United States to sustain world stability and prosperity that are so beneficial to Japan, and incrementally more assertive Japanese policies, especially regarding international economic and political institutions and Asian affairs. Yet the world order ias changing rapidly, and there are deep frustrations in some quarters in the United States, China, and Western Europe over Japanese practices. There also is some evidence of deep frustrations in Japan over Tokyo's seeming slowness in taking a more active world role. The possibility of more radical change in Japan's foreign policy, perhaps in directions more independent of the United States, remains a distinct possibility.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress