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August 28, 2023

Hollowing-out of the Japan-US Alliance: Is Japan able to manage its independence?

(This is from my own column in Newsweek Japan, published on Aug. 22)

On August 18th in Camp David the first-ever Japan-US-South Korea summit has taken place. At first glance, it seems that the security framework in the Western Pacific is becoming more solidified. However, in reality, there are tensions accumulating within the Japan-US security relationship.

For instance, defense of Taiwan. In case of a crisis involving Taiwan, there have been simulations conducted by think tanks on how Japan and the US would coordinate militarily.

Looking at these simulations, it becomes evident that both Japan and the US are uncertain and seem to be pushing responsibilities onto each other.

For example, the US operates under the fundamental premise not to attack mainland China's bases. As a result, Chinese naval vessels and fighter aircraft would relentlessly target and inflict significant damage on US and Taiwanese forces.

On the other hand, Japan would find it very hard to deploy its Self-Defense Forces for a Taiwan contingency, because such an act would require classifying it as a "situation endangering Japan's survival," obtaining approval from the parliament, a task far from easy.

In terms of sales of weaponry to Japan, the US has become more inward-looking, which casts a shadow on future relations with Japan. The cause of the crash of an F-35A fighter jet off the coast of Aomori Prefecture in April 2019 remains unclear to this day, largely because the US hesitates in disclosing technological data. This situation has led Japan to explore the development of successor aircraft for its main fighter, the F-2, in collaboration with the UK and Italy.

Economically, too, the US has been increasingly adopting inward-focused policies. Beyond providing substantial subsidies in the billions of dollars for infrastructure building, semiconductors, and electric vehicle production, there is an occasional stance of excluding foreign companies. Subsidies for electric vehicles, for instance, ultimately benefit only US companies.

While these changes won't happen immediately, Japan must consider a future without the United States as its guardian. In such a scenario, Japan could find itself returning to the international environment of the early Meiji period (Meiji period from 1868 broke with feudalistic Edo era).

During that time, the United States had just concluded its Civil War and was relatively inactive, while the Qing Dynasty of China purchased modern Western warships and encroached on Nagasaki in 1886 under the pretext of repairs, committing acts of aggression and violence. European powers continued to exploit Japan through unequal treaties.

Though Japan has become much more powerful since then, it remains surrounded by major nations, most of which possess nuclear capabilities. If Japan misjudges the situation and mishandles diplomacy, it might find itself subjected to the humiliation of the Triple Intervention of 1895, being forced to relinquish gains from the First Sino-Japanese War.

Since the Meiji era, Japan has struggled to master the art of effectively managing the behemoth, nation-state. In the pre-war period, powerful figures from Satsuma and Choshu domains used the Emperor as a figurehead while overseeing the country with recruited bureaucrats.

After the military seized power and lost the Pacific War, the Emperor was stripped of his political power. American occupation forces guided post-war Japan using the service of the pre-war bureaucrats.

Even when the occupation ended in 1952, Japan's sovereignty was limited; the foundation of Japan's foreign policy, security, and financial matters was informally determined in Washington. I would name this status as "temporary state."

The leviathan of nation-state is hard to manage not only for Japan, but also for established powers like the United States, the UK, France, and Germany. But Japan stands out for its lack of Western liberalist tradition at the core of its political ideology.

In the absence of a liberal humanism, Japan's national discourse has been divided between two radical poles: pre-war jingoism and Marxist movement. As a result Japan lacks fundamental values that should underpin the Japanese people's identity and align with modern society.

Bureaucrats driving policies are overwhelmed by procedures and the relentless coordination of various forces to reach a consensus, lacking the mindset to create strategies and policies. Academics and experts, who follow international developments and create strategies, lack practical experience, leading to a deficiency in the know-how required to drive policies.

As a result, Japan, an entity without direction and backbone, swims in the world of rogues, capitalizing solely on its feelings and sensibilities like manga, anime, and J-Pop.

In 1969, during the height of rapid economic growth, Japanese singer Carmen Maki sang, "At times, I want to set out on a journey like a child without a mother" ... Breaking free from dependence on the United States. It's a dream of the Japanese people.

Today, whether desired or not, Japan might be compelled to embark on this journey. Can an entity without direction and backbone endure this? Probably not.

The current situation reminds one of Japan 160 years ago. The Edo feudalistic era was in its death gasp, being forced to open up the country by the Western powers. People danced frenzily on the streets, chanting "Ee ja nai ka (anything goes)", and Samurais endlessly and meaninglessly killed each other with sharp swords and polarized political views: open up the country or expel foreigners.