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     Jun 16, 2007
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 conservative elites.

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 Japanese strategists.

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 and purpose.

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 pages.

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