electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Discussion Paper 1 in 2002
First published in ejcjs on 20 March 2002

Search the Web Search ejcjs

How to contribute to ejcjs

Defining Japan's Role in the Post-Taliban World Order

Tokyo's Path to Great Power Status


Kazufumi Hamai

Kyoto University Graduate School

e-mail the Author


Peter Mauch

PhD Candidate
University of Queensland
Monbusho Scholar
Kyoto University

e-mail the Author

  About the Authors


On 7 December 2001, opposition Afghan forces informed the world that the Taliban had surrendered its last stronghold in Kandahal. Weeks of intensive United States bombing coupled with a renewed and reinvigorated ground offensive by Afghan opposition groups have routed the Taliban regime. The Taliban may continue as a militia in the rugged Afghan countryside, and the United States may not yet have achieved its principal war objectives, namely the capture of either Osama Bin Laden or Mohammed Omar, but for all intents and purposes we now live in what might be termed the post-Taliban world. Although its ultimate shape remains uncertain, that the post-Taliban order differs from that which went before it was confirmed on September 11 when the World Trade Centre buildings collapsed in on themselves. The world, to borrow the words of the New York Times, "has changed." Across the Pacific, Japan remains physically untouched by the terrorists and yet has emerged as a key player in the reshaping of the world order that is now taking place. How has Japan perceived these momentous events? How has it responded to them? Has its response reflected historical constraints upon Japanese foreign policy? Has its response been commensurate with its burgeoning power? Has its response compared favourably with that of other nations? It is to these questions, then, that this essay addresses itself.

Prime Minister Koizumi Jun'ichiro has been the driving force behind Japan's response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. He swept to power in April 2001 intent on reforming Japan's ailing economy and renovating its faction-driven political scene. Thus tapping popular discontent, his approval ratings (until a recent steep decline) have consistently topped eighty percent. Aside from its popularity, a major feature of his Cabinet has been the bitter feuding between Foreign Minister Tanaka Makiko and the ministry over which she presided (until her recent sacking). The antagonism was such as to preclude Tanaka from any real decision-making role, and in her stead Koizumi took control of the foreign policymaking process. Under his surrogate leadership, Japan's foreign ministry has fashioned a response to September 11 that has been unexpectedly swift and active.

Before the dust had settled from the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Koizumi extended his "heartfelt sympathies" to the people of the United States, characterising the events of the previous day as "extremely vicious and unforgivable acts of violence." The same day, following a meeting of Japan's Security Council, Koizumi described the terrorist attacks as a grave challenge not only to the United States, but also to "international society." In this fashion, he indicated that the terrorist attacks were not merely attacks on the United States, but were rather, as expressed by his Cabinet on 16 November, an "unforgivable act against all humankind." Herein lay the intellectual milieu in which Japanese policy was wrought: the terrorist attacks were perceived to constitute an act against humanity insofar as they sought to retard international society's steady progression toward a world characterised by cross-national trade, investment, and migration, and cultural inter-penetration as well as multiculturalism. In this sense, Tokyo's ready identification of its interests with the forces of globalisation dovetailed neatly with its responsibilities as an alliance partner of the United States.

The perceptions driving the Japanese Government have reflected those of the wider world community. On 12 September, the United Nations Security Council approved a resolution condemning the terrorist attacks, and expressed its determination to combat terrorist threats to international peace and security. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder immediately declared a "war for civilisation," while French President Jacques Chirac pledged his nation's "solidarity with the Americans." Moreover, for the first time in its history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) invoked its mutual defence clause to provide "collective security" against the terrorist menace. Rhetoric aside, however, the response of Washington's European allies has been almost universally disappointing. France dispatched a lone carrier on 1 December, which then spent two days cruising off the French coast to give land-bound naval aviators practice in carrier takeoffs and landings. Germany pledged 3,900 troops, yet Schroeder's ruling coalition insisted on a United Nations mandate and a Bundestag majority before authorising the dispatch of so much as a brigade. Italy offered a carrier and air group, only to discover that its aeroplanes could not land on the carrier with unused munitions on their pylons. NATO remained quiescent.

Great Britain was the one European nation whose assistance went beyond rhetoric. Offering President Bush and the American people "our solidarity, our profound sympathy, and our prayers," Prime Minister Tony Blair went one better: he offered concrete British support. On 7 October, United States troops alongside their British counterparts opened the war in Afghanistan. Britain also contributed an amphibious task force, maritime patrol aircraft, transport aircraft, missile-capable submarines, and air-to-air refuelling support to United States' aircraft. In the meantime, Great Britain has also assumed leadership of the international peacekeeping force that is designed to assist the new Afghan interim authority.

Like Great Britain, and in contrast to its European counterparts, Japan has shown a proclivity for both backing its words with action, and supporting the war effort in ways that are appreciated in Washington. This is not merely a departure from European ineptitude, but is a real and radical departure from post-World War II Japanese diplomacy. In this regard, Tokyo has overcome several factors which for decades have hindered Japan's assumption of a role befitting a nation of its economic clout. First, the nation's oft-quoted Constitution has committed Japan to an unarmed foreign policy. Promulgated in 1947, Article IX of the Constitution "renounce[s] war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat of use of force as a means of settling international disputes." The language of this clause seems unequivocal. Furthermore, it has struck a chord with a populace that remains unwilling to revisit the horrors of World War II. The second obstacle that has stood in the way of Tokyo's assumption of a greater role internationally is closely linked to the first. The so-called Yoshida doctrine, named after Japan's pre-eminent postwar statesman Yoshida Shigeru, committed Japan to a military alliance with the United States. This in turn reduced Japan's military role to a minimum, allowing the nation on the one hand to adhere to the no-war clause in its Constitution, and on the other hand, to devote its energies to economic recovery. Conceived at a time when Japan's recovery from calamitous defeat in war was uncertain, and when the world was divided by cold war tensions, the Yoshida doctrine served the nation well. Throughout the postwar era Japan has remained more or less unthreatened militarily, and in spite of its economic woes over the last decade, it still commands the world's second-largest economy.

The very success with which the Yoshida doctrine has met however has given rise to paradoxes that have proven painful in their solution. Foremost among these paradoxes has been Tokyo's continued diplomatic quiescence in spite of its ever-widening economic reach. Content with their new found affluence, the Japanese people by the 1970s had come to ignore the fact that the peaceful conditions which gave rise to their affluence were neither automatic nor free, and Tokyo eschewed adopting any foreign policy initiatives. In other words, the discussion of Japanese security became mired in domestic politics rather than being based on international realities. This became glaringly obvious during the Persian Gulf War of 1991, which might be considered Japan's "second defeat" in war of the twentieth century. In spite of its dependence on Middle Eastern oil for its economic existence, and although it remained Washington's alliance partner throughout, Japan contributed neither troops nor non-combatant military personnel to a war in which the United States and its allies defeated Iraqi forces for having invaded oil-rich Kuwait. Japan's contribution instead took the form of an at times grudging 13 billion dollars as well as minesweeping ships to help detonate or remove seaborne mines from the Persian Gulf. Despite being the single largest contributor of funds to the war, Japan's contribution was not deemed sufficient. The international (and particularly American) evaluation of Japan's role was not favourable. As President George Bush later noted, there was "a Japan-bashing mood around the country." The extent to which Japan was criticised in the wake of the Gulf War was a traumatic experience for officials in Tokyo, who determined in the aftermath of September 11 to eliminate the negative impressions of Japan's much-maligned "chequebook diplomacy."

Mindful of past failures as well as present opportunities, Koizumi determined that Japan would play a role befitting a nation of its economic clout. Certainly the means were at his disposal. Japan's so-called Self-Defence Forces are technologically first-rate. The Maritime Self-Defence Forces, in particular, have developed into a world class navy. Yet in declaring on 19 September that Japan would "promptly take measures necessary for the dispatching of the Self Defence Forces for providing support…to the US forces," Koizumi remained mindful of the probable impediments that lay ahead. In anticipation of domestic criticism of this policy Koizumi turned to the very document which would otherwise have formed the basis of that criticism:

As is written in the preamble of the Constitution of Japan, Japan desires to occupy an honoured place in international society. At the same time, I give due regard to the fact that Article 9 of the Constitution renounces the use of force as a means of settling international disputes. While deliberating what kind of assistance will not constitute an integral part of the use of force, I will consider Japan's utmost assistance and co-operation in concert with the United States and other countries concerned.

Having deftly pre-empted domestic criticisms of his basic policy of proactive support for the United States, Koizumi then acted swiftly. He introduced the so-called Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Bill to the Diet on 5 October. It was passed on 29 October and on 9 November two destroyers and a supply ship departed for the Indian Ocean. They were charged with transporting and supplying fuel for American ships, the transportation of personnel and goods, repair and maintenance, medical activities, and providing seaport services. As American Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage commented recently, the enactment of the antiterrorism law and the dispatch of Japan's Self Defence Forces under that law took place with "remarkable" speed. In reference to an earlier comment attributed to him, Armitage noted that Japan indeed had "shown the flag." For the first time in post-WWII history Japan acted as a Great Power.

Japan continued its steps toward a proactive foreign policy following the defeat of the Taliban. On 21 and 22 January, Tokyo hosted an international conference on Afghan reconstruction. Koizumi noted in a Newsweek article, which coincided with the opening of the conference, that conditions in Afghanistan today resemble those that beset Japan at the end of World War II. Noting that the support of the international community was essential to Japan's rebuilding, he evinced Tokyo's determination to ensure that, "the international community…avoids the temptation to accept a halfway solution for [Afghanistan] which slaps a bandage on its worst problems and gives up on the rest." In this connection, he appointed internationally known and respected Ogata Sadako, who served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from 1990 to 2000, to chair the conference. With gentle prodding from Ogata, the conference secured pledges of more than $4.5 billion in foreign assistance to help rebuild Afghanistan. Japan pledged $500 million in aid over a two-and-a-half year period, second in amount only to the United States.

Defining Japan's role in the post-Taliban world order is of course an ongoing process. Whilst Japan has taken a positive step towards a proactive role in international politics, much remains to be done. The first point of contention that Tokyo must squarely face is its economic woes. The Economist recently listed the depreciation of the yen, monetary expansion by the Bank of Japan, fiscal reform, nationalisation of the banks, privatisation, deregulation, and mass bankruptcies of "zombie" companies as amongst those measures that Japan must adopt if its economy is to revive. Mired in a long and deep recession, the Japanese economy certainly needs nothing less than a complete overhaul. Koizumi has acknowledged as such, promising to provide "reforms without sacred cows." Whilst he has surrounded himself with an innovative economic team, including State Minister in Charge of Economic, Fiscal and IT Policy (and Keio University Professor) Takenaka Heizo, it remains to be seen how much the Koizumi administration can accomplish. In any case, there can be no retreat from the reforms to which Koizumi has publicly pledged himself, and it is fair to ask of him in implementing those reforms the same leadership qualities that carried the nation's foreign policies in the wake of September 11.

Second, Tokyo must face its previous inability to devise a reasoned and judicious response to world events. In other words, Tokyo needs to ensure that its rapid response to September 11 was not a phenomenon restricted to Koizumi's leadership. Short of recommending that the foreign minister's position become redundant (as was largely the case with Tanaka), future prime ministers must be prepared to place themselves at the centre of the nation's foreign policymaking process and exert those leadership qualities that have characterised Koizumi's premiership. It is furthermore essential that Tokyo's foreign policymaking bodies - the Foreign Ministry, the Self Defence Agency, the Prime Minister's office, among others - continue to make use of those bureaucratic processes which have led to a synthesis of their varying strategic and diplomatic objectives in the wake of September 11. In this regard, the so-called Cabinet Office for National Security Affairs and Crisis Management (established 1998) ought to provide a bridge between the twin concepts of strong prime ministerial leadership and bureaucratic policy co-ordination.

At the same time, if Japan is to fulfil its responsibilities as a great power it must eliminate the excessive self-consciousness that heretofore has characterised its faltering steps on the diplomatic stage. If this is to be achieved, Japan needs to address its colonial past, and in so doing, it must gain the confidence of its neighbours. Whilst there is no ready solution to this particularly thorny issue, it is in Japan's interests to seek a more balanced view of its imperial past which is removed from the polemics that define the debate at present.

Furthermore, Japan's role as a great power needs to be reinforced and augmented by the nation's continuing and expanded co-operation with the rest of the world. In short, Japan needs to be a fully functioning member of the international society. This co-operation can take many forms, and need not be restricted to the traditional state-to-state diplomatic realm. Ozawa Seiji heads the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and (Suzuki) Ichiro was recently crowned Most Valuable Player in the American Baseball League. These individuals help define Japan's role in the emerging world order, as does the Japanese-Korean hosting of the upcoming soccer World Cup.

Girdling that co-operative spirit must be a determination to see the Japanese-American post-World War II partnership reach maturity. Given that the alliance partnership on the one hand provides the basis of Japanese diplomacy, and on the other hand provides the basis of American diplomacy in Asia, both nations have a real interest in ensuring its continued vitality. Is such a prescription possible? Evidence to the contrary abounds. The Bush Administration, as it demonstrated when it withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, seems intent on pursuing multilateral objectives only insofar as they suit its own, narrowly defined objectives. Japan, notwithstanding its recent strides under Koizumi, has shown an oftentimes-exasperating proclivity for eschewing diplomatic initiatives. Yet the past fifty years, over which the two nations' relationship has proven itself to be remarkably adaptable to changing circumstances, would suggest that the alliance relationship's continued vitality is indeed possible. In the post-Taliban world order, this can best be realised by the encouragement and the enhancement of the increasingly symbiotic nature of their partnership in each of the economic, military, and political realms.

To conclude then, Japan's foreign policy community in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States has played its hand well. It has fashioned a response that in one sense responds to lessons of Japanese history, that in another sense derives from a discerning reading of the international situation, and in yet another sense has reflected a judicious use of the resources available to officials in Tokyo. In so doing, Japanese foreign policymakers have shown signs of overcoming not only Japan's post-WWII foreign policy inertia, but also the trauma of the Gulf War. For these reasons, September 11 has indeed proved a turning point in Japanese diplomatic history. It is a turning point not only because this is the first time in Japan's postwar history that it has sent its Self-Defence Forces abroad in a time of war, but also because of the proactive approach Japan has adopted in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. In short, in a development long overdue, Tokyo has emerged as a player on the international stage.

Of course, the responsibilities that accompany great power status are large. Principal amongst these responsibilities is the need for Japan to tackle the widespread perception that its foreign policy is merely a series of makeshift responses to issues as they arise. In any case, the formation of the post-Taliban world order has begun, and it remains for Japan to seize its opportunities and search for a more sophisticated great power role in the framework of international co-operation.

Recommended Readings

Roger Buckley, US-Japan Alliance Diplomacy, 1945-1990, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
Roger Dingman, "Enduring Partnership," Diplomatic History, vol. 23 no. 4 (Fall 1999): pp. 687-92.
Michael J. Green, Arming Japan: Defence Production, Alliance Politics, and the Postwar Search for Autonomy, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).
Michael J. Green & Patrick M. Cronin, eds., The US-Japan Alliance: Past, Present, and Future, (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1999).
Akira Iriye, Japan and the Wider World: From the Mid-Nineteenth Century to the Present, (London: Longman, 1997).
Akira Iriye & Robert Wampler, eds., Partnership: The United States and Japan, 1951-2001, (Tokyo: Kodansha, 2001).
Walter LaFeber, The Clash: US-Japanese Relations Throughout History, (New York: WW Norton, 1997).
Mike M. Mochizuki, ed., Toward a True Alliance: Restructuring US-Japan Security Relations, (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1997).
Edwin O. Reischauer, The Japanese Today, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986).
Michael Schaller, Altered States: The United States and Japan since the Occupation, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

About the authors

Kazufumi Hamai is currently enrolled in the Graduate School of Kyoto University. He gained his Master of Letters in the paper titled, "Twisted Conclusions of the Security Treaty: The Origin of the United States-Japan Security Dilemma, 1945-1951." His current thesis examines multilateral relations in the Pacific throughout the 1950s with particular emphasis on the emergence of the regional security system.

e-mail the Author

Peter Mauch is a Ph.D. Candidate at The University of Queensland, Australia, and is currently enrolled as a Japanese Government-sponsored researcher at Kyoto University. His thesis, titled "Prelude to Partnership: The United States and Japan, 1940-1951," is an examination of the ideas, beliefs, and assumptions that informed policymakers in both Japan and the United States through that turbulent era. He is a contributor to the Greenwood Press's forthcoming Encyclopaedia of US-East Asian Relations (ed. James I. Matray).

e-mail the Author

Back to Top

Copyright: Kazufumi Hamai and Peter Mauch.
This page was first created on 20 March 2002. It was last modified on 30 January 2006.

ejcjs uses Dublin Core metadata in all of its pages. Click here to enter the Dublin Core metadata website The Directory of Open Access Journals includes ejcjs within one of the most comprehensive online databases of open access journals in the world. Click here to enter the DOAJ website.

The International Bibliography of the Social Sciences includes ejcjs within one of the most comprehensive databases of social science research worldwide. Click here to enter the IBSS website

The electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies is permanently preserved at research libraries worldwide by the LOCKSS electronic data storage system. Click here to be taken to the LOCKSS homepage.

This website is best viewed with a screen resolution of 1024x768 pixels and using Microsoft Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox.
No modifications have been made to the main text of this page since it was first posted on
If you have any suggestions for improving or adding to this page or this site then please e-mail your suggestions to the editor.
If you have any difficulties with this website then please send an e-mail to the webmaster.





Search Now:
Amazon Logo
Search Now: