The adaptive power
Japan Rising by Kenneth Pyle
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia
Since the mid-19th century, Japan has witnessed dramatic
pendulum-like swings in national policy - from isolation to
eager borrowing from other cultures, from emperor worship to
democracy, and from militarism to pacifism. Its latest
swivel is from passivity and indecision in foreign policy to
activism in strategic struggles. The shifts have tended to
be abrupt and fast rather than cumulative and evolutionary.
An explanation of Japan's puzzling patterns of behavior
is highly relevant today when there is uncertainty in Asian
and world politics. American historian Kenneth Pyle sets out
to offer one in Japan Rising. His central thesis is
that Japan is a deft adapter to changes in the international
system and that its institutions and policies adjust to the
tides of the external environment. It is unusually sensitive
and responsive to new configurations of international order
because of feudal-era traditions of opportunism and the
prioritization of challenges from outside by its
The first unified Japanese state of the 7th century was
spurred by the rise of an expansive China and a hostile
Korea. The modern Meiji state also originated as an answer
to external threats. It was
based on rapid assimilation of the institutions of the
Western imperial powers. Pyle remarks that "the Japanese
alone among Asian peoples accommodated quickly to the norms,
principles and mores of the imperialist system" (p 75).
At the risk of forfeiting its cultural identity, Meiji Japan
wanted to "escape from Asia" and be seen as wholly different
from the "bad company" of other countries of its region.
Japanese imperialism in the Meiji era was prompted by
competitive dynamics of the international system and
imitation of Western gunboat culture.
The post-World War I Washington Treaty System created a new
regional order, wherein Japan grudgingly chose to
accommodate the principles of democracy and abstain from
aggression in China. With its innate realist conception of
international politics, Japan struggled to follow the
liberal Wilsonian world after 1918. As fascism appeared to
represent the wave of the future in the 1930s, it reworked
its domestic institutions along the German model and
embarked on brutal continental expansion.
From 1945 to 1988, Japan formulated a unique response to the
Cold War system known as the Yoshida Doctrine. It was a
strategy of depending on US security guarantees and
concentrating exclusively on rapid economic growth. Its
proponents sensed that disputes between the United States
and the Soviet Union over the postwar settlement might be
used to Japan's advantage and kept defense expenditures at
less than 1% of gross national product. The conservative
elites' pacifism was cynical and pragmatic, since they
cooperated with the US military and extracted maximum
benefit out of it.
Aspirations of Asian dominance did not disappear during the
Yoshida Doctrine's economic heyday. In the words of one
leading planner, "Scientific technology and fighting spirit
under a business suit will be our underground army" (p 233).
Government economists boasted of waging a "second 'total
war' called high economic growth" (p 247).
Through economic realism, Japan sought to re-create under
its leadership the Asian bloc, which had previously been
attempted by military force. Toward this end, it exploited
the liberal free-trade regime of the post-World War II era
with illiberal neo-mercantilist tactics. A highly successful
export-growth policy co-existed with elaborate protection
for domestic industries from imports.
Having lacked a large industrial economy in the pre-World
War II period, Japan's spectacular economic leap from the
mid-1950s was a feat of national motivation and
determination. Meiji-era replacement of hereditary social
hierarchy with a merit-based competitive ethic, nationalism
centered on the institution of the emperor, and
state-engineered "thought guidance" of the population
ensured that "everything was subordinated to national
greatness" (p 123).
After the Cold War order, the collapse of the predictable
bipolar international system paralyzed Japanese policymaking
and ushered in economic stagnation. Pyle reiterates, "It was
not coincidental that Japan suffered from drift and
immobility when the tectonic plates of the international
system were shifting" (p 284).
US dissatisfaction and threats from North Korea drove Japan
of the 1990s to approve new security measures that portend
military activism. Novel interest in precision-guided
munitions, missile-defense systems and long-range air
transport is evidence of "an impending end to long-standing
limits on military power" (p 367).
For 150 years, Japan was accustomed to a weak and passive
Asia that it could comfortably dominate. However, it is now
obvious that the regional order has vastly changed. Pyle
observes, "Psychologically, Japan was wholly unprepared to
deal with the dynamic, new, competitive Asia" (p 300). The
booming arrival of China is especially worrisome for
Mounting popular antagonism to Chinese actions and the
advent of the younger Heisei generation of politicians are
driving Japan away from constant deference to Chinese
demands. After decades of buckling under Chinese
preferences, "Japan is ready to confront pressure on many
issues" (p 373).
Territorial disputes, competition for energy, Chinese
resistance to Japan's permanent entry to the United Nations
Security Council, and demands for apologies cloud bilateral
ties. China's growing military might is now officially a
"source of concern" for Japan, and the massive decades-long
Japanese economic aid to China is being unceremoniously
wound down. Pyle observes that the new Japan will not be
deterred by Chinese objections from revising the pacifist
portions of its constitution.
Coping with China's emergence is going to test the
effectiveness of the US-Japan alliance. Japanese wariness
over Sino-US bonhomie is a significant element of the
complex triangular relationship. China often uses the
history of the Pacific War to put the Japanese on the
defensive. A reunified Korea that tilts toward China or even
stands equidistant between Beijing and Tokyo would
complicate Japan's future strategic position. Japan's ideal
scenario is of "a united Korea that is friendly to Tokyo and
Washington" (p 342).
Pyle deduces six persistent traits of Japan's national style
from its history. First is its attentiveness to maximizing
power as a condition of survival in the world. Japan always
allies itself with the dominant ascendant power, be it
Britain, Germany or the US. Second, Japan is a pragmatic
state with no great universal ideals or utopian visions. The
conservative upper crust of Japanese leaders invariably
rejects doctrinal approaches. Third, and most important, is
Japan's propensity to adapt to international conditions to
offset its vulnerability. Its rulers always read the global
"trend of the times" (jisei), not to change it but to
move alongside it to their own national advantage.
Fourth, modern Japan always pursues regional autonomy or
hegemony through differing means. Policies such as
diversifying energy suppliers and limiting foreign direct
investment are designed to shield the economy from foreign
dependence. Fifth, Japan best exemplifies the logic of
swiftly copying the successful practices of the great powers
such as China in pre-modern times and the West thereafter.
The Japanese lack "barriers of cultural and religious
self-absorption that impede learning from other
civilizations" (p 59). The final recurrent characteristic is
Japan's obsession with status and prestige in the
international system. This derives from the deep suffusion
of honorific samurai culture fused with nationalism. Rank
and standing in the world are essential to Japanese identity
Although some Japanese elites issue calls for a new
self-generated strategic vision, Pyle suggests that the
country is "more likely to take cues from the unfolding
international system" (p 353). For all the restlessness and
rebelliousness of the Heisei generation, Japan's national
purpose is still being defined as a reflex reaction to the
international environment rather than as an innovative
home-bred will that can mold the world order.
What this implies is that Japan can never be a true hegemon
that can spread its values and institutions to other states
or multilateral organizations. It looks destined to remain a
cautious adaptive power that receives more from the
international system but gives less.
Japan Rising: The Resurgence of Japanese Power and
Purpose by Kenneth Pyle. Public Affairs Books, New York,
March 2007. ISBN: 978-1-58648-417-0. Price: US$29.95, 448
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