electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 2 in 2010
First Published in ejcjs on
29 January 2010

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Japan's Grand Strategy

Goldilocks and the Search for the Perfect Porridge


H.D.P. Envall

Postdoctoral Fellow
Department of International Relations
Australian National University

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Samuels, Richard J. (2007) Securing Japan: Tokyo's Grand Strategy and the Future of East Asia, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, hardback, ISBN: 9780801446122, 277 and xi pages.

Richard Samuels, a prominent scholar of Japan (e.g. see Samuels 1994, 2003), has written a detailed, nuanced and thoughtful work on Japan's approach to security policy. Securing Japan: Tokyo's Grand Strategy and the Future of East Asia has two major aims. First, it seeks to 'provide a historical understanding of the fundamental rationality of Japanese security policy and the constraints within which it has been exercised'. Second, it looks to 'explore the options Japanese strategists are creating for themselves today' (page 8). In addressing these issues, Samuels takes issue with three particular interpretations of Japanese security policy. All argue that Japan lacks and has always lacked 'a coherent grand strategy', what might be described as Japan's strategic deficit. The first interpretation puts the deficit down to an excessive idealism in Japan's strategic thinking, the second to a misguided attempt to achieve a multi-faceted strategy that merely 'ends up as porridge' (page 1), and the third to the overarching influence of the US alliance, which has 'left Japan with only a limited sense of external threat' (page 2). 'This is a lazy way to explain grand strategy' according to Samuels, and 'Japanese strategists deserve more credit' (page 2).

On the first issue, Samuels argues that since the 19th century Japanese strategists have developed three 'deeply coherent and widely embraced national security strategies'. These are the 19th century 'rich nation and strong army' consensus, the 'imperial Japanese hegemony' consensus of the first half of the 20th century, and the 'cheap riding trading state' consensus of the second half (page 6). On the second question, he argues that Japan has been heading towards a new strategy, what he calls the 'Goldilocks consensus' or a 'grand strategy that is not too hard but not too soft, not too Asian and not too Western'. According to Samuels, this strategy will 'strike a balance between national strength and national autonomy to create new security options for Japan' (page 9).

In order to develop his arguments, Samuels divides Securing Japan into three sections. The first part, entitled 'Historical Context', provides a lucid and comprehensive overview of the shifts in the security debate from the Meiji Restoration to the consolidation of the Yoshida doctrine following the Second World War. The section on how the military outmanoeuvred the other participants—through 'government by assassination' (Samuels cites Byas 1942)—is especially engaging. Having baked the 'pacifist loaf' in the previous part, Samuels then explains in the second part, 'A World in Flux', how this loaf was gradually sliced, initially in the 1980s and then with greater vigour after the Cold War. The big shocks that affected the debate were the 1991 Gulf War and the 1994 Korean peninsula crisis, though the rise of China and Japan's own domestic politics also played a part. Samuels then identifies the current participants to this debate. The final part, 'Threats and Responses', completes the book by examining Japan's current security environment and its most recent round of policy-making. In the conclusion, Samuels summarises the strategic context facing Japan, the constraints on its actions and the available strategic choices. Finally, he reflects on how the security debate might change in coming years and considers the implications for the United States.

Lying at the core of the book is the identification of two major forms of continuity in Japan's grand strategy. The first concerns the historical consistency of 'contending preferences' (page 110). In other words, Samuels argues that different generations of participants to this debate often repeat the positions of their predecessors, albeit in new forms. Nationalists and Asianists, he suggests, 'have long argued' with internationalists and liberals. Indeed, direct ideological lines exist between current figures, such as Ishihara Shintarō and Ozawa Ichirō, and past ones—the 1930s' Shōwa Kenkyūkai in Ishihara's case and the Meiji era's Fukuzawa Yukichi in Ozawa's. What differentiates their 'applications' is the 'changes in world order' (page 110). Asianism, for instance, has shifted from opposition to the state in the Meiji period to racialism in the 1920s, neutralism in the 1960s and finally to anti-US balancing today. A major contribution of Securing Japan, therefore, is the typology it presents on the contemporary contours of this discourse (pages 111–112). Samuels elegantly places the various participants—neo-autonomists, normal nation-alists, pacifists and middle power internationalists—along an axis based on their preferred distance from the US and their inclination to accept the use of force by Japan in international affairs.

The second form of continuity concerns the persistent coherence of this debate, especially in its ideals and values. Samuels argues that Japan's leaders have consistently filtered their strategic calculations through the 'legitimating ideals of Japan's strategic culture' rather than simply have this culture 'bequeath' choices (page 189). The 'ubiquitous sense of vulnerability and propensity to hedge' are two such ideals, while informing the debate are the values of autonomy and prestige. 'Whether Japan was governed by oligarchs or by democrats, its strategists weighed their options with reference to autonomy and prestige' (page 188). It is in this sense that Japan's strategies have been coherent, according to Samuels: 'even when Japan's leaders were at their most reckless, the process by which they deployed these values in making strategic choices was rational c Japan's leaders, whether mainstream or antimainstream, have been persistent rather than "reluctant" realists' (page 189).

There is much to be said for shifting away from the oversimplified view that Japan lacks a security strategy and accepting instead that Japan has over a long period engaged in a largely rational debate on such issues. On the other hand, the view that the debate has always been rational, however reckless its participants, covers over other problems. Indeed, much depends on what is meant by rational. If rational debate requires space for reasoning and an informed exchange of ideas, Japan's security debates arguably deviated quite significantly from this ideal on different occasions in the 20th century. The threat and actual use of assassination as a debating tool in the 1930s, for instance, certainly made political analysis somewhat more hair-raising than would be the case today. In a different way, the growth of security taboos, such as the contradiction between Japan's non-nuclear principles and its reliance on America's nuclear deterrence, distorted the debate on the Yoshida doctrine in the late Cold War period and was arguably what made slicing the 'pacifist loaf' such a drawn out process in the 1990s.

How does Samuels view the current trends in this debate? He concludes that Japan is likely to continue pursuing a 'dual hedge' (an idea he developed with Eric Heginbotham, see Heginbotham and Samuels 2002). Here, he cites Japanese scholars such as Tanaka Akihiko (Yosan Iinkai 2005) and Soeya Yoshihide (2005), who argue for a hedging strategy that combines a US-led security community to balance against China and an Asia-led economic community to balance against the US and Europe (pages 199–200). Again, Samuels believes it most likely that a new consensus between the different participants will emerge. He notes, for instance, that there is considerable scope for agreement between the neo-autonomists and normal nation-alists given that they both support a greater security build-up, albeit based on different reasoning (e.g. see page 247, footnote 83). Even middle power internationalists, if they hope for Japan to become more active in the international community, such as through greater peacekeeping, may have to accept a further loosening of restrictions on Japan's defence forces. Only the pacifists, with their emphasis on economic development and neutrality, stand apart from such a consensus.

It remains unclear, however, exactly what kind of form a new consensus is likely to take. Much has changed in the brief period since Securing Japan was published. The push for security reform had stalled by mid-2007 as the Abe administration came unstuck at the upper house election, and the subsequent Fukuda and Asō administrations were more worried about economic and electoral challenges than security. Now that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has lost power and many of the neo-autonomists and normal nation-alists are being forced to acclimatise to life in opposition, the likelihood of continued reform would seem less likely. Yet the new administration led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), while in some disarray on security policy, especially in terms of Okinawa and Japan's three non-nuclear principles (Oriental Economist, November 2009), seems to be moving in some familiar directions. Once more, a key theme seems to be autonomy.

Two key politicians typify this trend. First, Hatoyama Yukio, Japan's new prime minister, is the grandson of Hatoyama Ichirō, a former prime minister who tried to develop a more autonomous diplomacy in the 1950s by attempting to negotiate a peace treaty with the Soviet Union (Pyle 1996). In an article he wrote for Voice before becoming prime minister, Hatoyama (2009) borrowed the hedging strategy of Soeya and Tanaka by balancing an acceptance of America's important role in Japanese diplomacy with a desire 'not to forget our identity as a nation located in Asia'. The other key figure is Ozawa Ichirō, who in 1994 authored Blueprint for a New Japan in which he argued that 'Japan must become a "normal nation" ' (Ozawa 1994, 94). As Samuels notes, Ozawa was highly critical of Koizumi Jun'ichirō in 2006 for visiting the Yasukuni Shrine and getting too close to the US. 'Sounding like Goldilocks herself', according to Samuels (page 204), 'Ozawa insisted that Japan needs to mend its relationships with Asia and that it must distance itself from the "hegemonic tendencies" of both China and the United States'. The question is whether the DPJ can resolve some of the contradictions between such a policy and its electoral agenda. A more autonomous, normal nation requires a more flexible military capability; yet the DPJ currently relies on some of the few pacifists in the Diet for its upper house majority, and they are naturally opposed to such a move. The 2010 upper house election will therefore be widely watched.

Securing Japan is an excellent book. The writing is polished and elegant and presents what is a long and complicated picture in an extremely accessible way. As always, Samuels' footnotes are in themselves a fantastic read. They are a testament to his extensive research and wide knowledge of Japan, its politics and security policies; they also provide for the student of Japan a valuable resource for further study. Some (e.g. Leheny 2008) have expressed minor disappointment that Securing Japan does not take a more theoretical approach, albeit while acknowledging that 'a more focused theoretical claim c might have streamlined the narrative at the cost of excluding some of Samuels's most surprising findings' (Leheny 2008, 871). Yet it is the absence of all the baggage that comes with more theoretical writing and the inclusion of these 'surprising findings' that make Securing Japan a work of the highest quality.

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Byas, Hugh (1942) Government by Assassination, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Hatoyama, Yukio (2009) 'My Political Philosophy', Voice, September, English translation from Hatoyama Yukio website, 10 August.

Heginbotham, Eric and Richard J. Samuels (2002) 'Japan's Dual Hedge', Foreign Affairs, September/October, 81(5): 110–121.

Leheny, David (2008) 'A review of Securing Japan: Tokyo's Grand Strategy and the Future of East Asia, by Richard J. Samuels', Perspectives on Politics, December, 6(4): 870–871.

Ozawa, Ichiro (1994) Blueprint for a New Japan: The Rethinking of a Nation, Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Pyle, Kenneth B. (1996) The Japanese Question: Power and Purpose in a New Era, second edition, Washington: The AEI Press.

Samuels, Richard J. (1994) 'Rich Nation, Strong Army': National Security and the Technological Transformation of Japan, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

———(2003) Machiavelli's Children: Leaders and Their Legacies in Italy and Japan, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Soeya, Yoshihide (2005) Nihon no 'Midoru Pawaa' Gaikō: Sengo Nihon no Sentaku to Kōsō, Tokyo: Chikuma Shinsho.

Yosan Iinkai (2005) 'Dai 162-kai Kokkai: Yosan Iinkai Kōchōkai, Dai 1-gō', Shūgiin, website of the House of Representatives, 23 February.

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About the Author

David Envall received his BA (Hons) and PhD from the University of Melbourne and his MA from Hitotsubashi University. In addition to having worked as a copy editor and corporate editor/writer, he has taught on Japan's international relations at Tokyo International University and on politics and Asian studies at La Trobe University. Currently, David is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University, as well as a book reviews editor at ejcjs. His research interests include Japanese political leadership, Japan's post-war security politics, and security in the Asia Pacific.

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Copyright: H.D.P. Envall
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