Japan’s Search for Meaning


One of the most destabilising factors to regional peace is the preeminent rise of one country. When the balance of power breaks down, there is an increased risk of conflict. This is the reality confronting East Asia with the ascent of China. In regaining the balance, the strength of the network of other Asian countries is important – and Japan may be a significant player in constructing and strengthening these ties. Perhaps it is the case that Japan has been startled by the precipitous rise of China and its emerging presence in East Asia. Many analysts talk of Japan becoming increasingly isolated in the region with historical revisionism and disillusionment of the Japanese people with a plateauing economy. However, Japan is still an economic powerhouse and through nurturing its alliances in East and South East Asia it will be able to provide effective checks against the emerging Chinese threat.

Japan was once deemed as the ‘land of the rising sun’, being one of the first countries in East Asia to open borders and trade with the Westerners in the 19th century. Even after its defeat in the Second World War, the country remained internationally competitive in the electronics and motor industries and has maintained its place as the world’s second largest economy since 1968 until 2010, overtaken only by China. In fact, the last few decades have posed many challenges for Japan, not least the ‘Lost Decade’ where low inflation, stagnant economic growth and a weak employment rate – following an asset price bubble puncture – crippled the Japanese economy. Moreover, the country confronts chronic problems such as a rapidly ageing population and relative decline in political influence in the Asia Pacific region. Some have used metaphors such as the popular cartoon series, Attack on Titan, where the protagonists enlist in the military to fight against Titans invading their town. The looming presence of Titans was understood as capturing Japan’s perception of mainland China and military involvement seemed to signal Japan’s militaristic message against the threat. However, such a depiction of Japan may be too simplistic and its recent military posturing is less effective compared to its more interesting economic and political strategy to build a diverse alliance.

Japan’s economy is finally growing – albeit by a modest amount – after the implementation of Abenomics policies, characterised by fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms. The country’s GDP per capita is still greater than that of China and it is forming new ties with other economic partners in South East Asia. Japan has consistently engaged with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), increasing its investment over the last decade. Many Japanese businesses are thinking twice about investing in China due to anti-Japanese sentiments and rising wages. South East Asia, on the other hand, offers relatively lower wages and Japanese firms are increasing their presence in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand as a result of a squeeze in the domestic market.

However, Japan is not just seeking economic ties but also diplomatic alliances. Since Shinzo Abe was elected as the Prime Minister, a number of his ministers have visited South East Asian countries to cement relatively good ties and to cooperate on naval training and even sales of military equipment. Through diversifying its partnership with other democratic countries, Japan plans to cooperate on maritime security, military preparedness and securing human rights. This outreach has been an ongoing project for over a decade.  More recently, Japan has cancelled Myanmar’s $1.8 billion of debt and promised $500m in aid loans; Mr Abe also visited the country’s President Thein Sein as well as the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, promising support for major reforms to the former British colony.

Moreover, the country is the key provider of security assistance for many ASEAN countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Despite tensions between Tokyo and Seoul over historical issues, the Japanese and South Korean armed forces continue to pursue quiet security cooperation. Considering China’s long-seated territorial disputes with many ASEAN members, including Vietnam, the alliance between Japan and ASEAN could potentially develop as a check against China’s dominance in the region.

However, Japan’s foreign policy is grounded in its domestic politics. Mr Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) enjoyed a rare majority support for the coalition government in two successive elections in 2012 and 2014. As a result, the Japanese domestic politics has experienced a strong right-ward shift. Recent statements and public comportment of the Prime Minister has led to the indignation of many neighbouring countries. His visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on several occasions to respect the war dead, including several notorious war criminals, was met with disapproval in South Korea and China. More serious is the party’s move to amend the country’s pacifist constitution that would rule out military aggression to settle international disputes, a policy deemed counterproductive in terms of forming democratic alliance with other Asian nations.

Shinzo Abe visits the controversial Yasukuni Shrine 

Shinzo Abe visits the controversial Yasukuni Shrine 

One can speculate as to the cause of such a veer towards nationalist right-wing tendencies. Many of Abe’s cabinet members are also members of the Nippon Kaigi or “Japan Conference,” a nationalistic right-wing group whose members believe that Japan should be applauded for liberating much of East Asia from Western colonial powers; that the 1946-1948 Tokyo War Crimes tribunals were illegitimate; and that the killings by Imperial Japanese troops during the 1937 ‘Nanjing massacre’ were exaggerated or fabricated. Some commentators have compared the Nippon Kaigi to the Tea Party in the United States; both movements which claim to represent grassroots and traditional values but are products of deep conservative anxieties about the future.

Yet, these groups are growing in influence and they recognise Japan as an international power matching both that of the US and China. Hence, Japan has increased its military expenditure to become more independent from the American defense umbrella and engaged in territorial disputes with China regarding the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, and with its more adjacent neighbour South Korea over sovereignty of the Dokdo/Takeshima islets. This is not to say that a more militarist Japan would necessarily be followed by more hostile Sino-Japanese relations. In fact, both nations are well aware the high costs entailed in engaging in warfare; the two nations’ ties may indeed be closer than media depicts them to be. Having an unfriendly neighbour is mutually beneficial for the politicians of these two countries as their populations can vent anger outwardly against such a perceived threat, rather than inwardly to the government. Thus, as long as the two countries are careful not to escalate the tension, the likelihood of military conflict in East Asia may be low. Nonetheless, Japan’s increasingly belligerent attitudes have left many countries suspicious of its motive and acts as a hindrance to constructing stronger international ties.

Japan is a country searching for meaning: reverting back to its imperial past and military doctrine is not the answer. Instead, it should look towards the future of the multi-polar world where the cooperation of smaller countries can go a long way to provide checks on larger powers. Therefore, continuing its project to diversify its alliances in East Asia, the Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asia will be more fruitful in allowing Japan to find its new place as an indispensable player in international cooperation. It goes without saying that Japan’s role in maintaining the American alliance and healthy relations with other Asian countries is crucial in maintaining the balance of power the region sorely needs.