Review: Securing Japan

Posted December 31, 2009

Categories: Asia, Book Reviews

Securing Japan: Tokyo’s Grand Strategy and the Future of East Asia. By Richard J. Samuels. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2007. ix, 277 pp. $49.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).


Grand strategy is all the rage in Tokyo these days. The Japanese political and military establishment senses a new world of possibilities now that it has shrugged off the more restrictive constraints of the “peace constitution” in order to support distant wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, participate in U.S. missile defense, and engage in peacekeeping missions. With so many new options available, Japan is on the verge of reinventing itself for the 21st century as a fully engaged state with a “normal” – i.e., offensive – military capability.

Scholars of Japanese foreign policy are divided on whether these changes in security policy are the result of an abrupt shift in the domestic and geopolitical terrain or have been long in coming. In his book Securing Japan, MIT professor Richard J. Samuels makes a case for gradual evolution. He carefully traces the succession of compromises that brought Japan from the pacifism of the immediate post-World War II era to the more hard-edged realism of today.

Although he locates origins of these compromises in the politics of the early part of the 20th century, Samuels focuses on the tactical maneuvers of Japanese politicians like Yoshida Shigeru, who served as prime minister for much of the first decade after World War II. It fell to Shigeru to mediate between pacifists who offered a strict interpretation of Japan’s peace constitution – and its war-renouncing Article 9 – and nationalists who still dreamed of achieving a global role for their country through alliance with the United States. As Samuels puts it, “Yoshida steered Japan brilliantly between Article 9 and the U.S. alliance, ‘squeezing it between’ (hasamiuchi) pacifism and traditional nationalism. He kept constitutional revision off the agenda and the Socialists out of power.” (35)  The Self-Defense Forces (SDF) were a supreme symbol of this compromise: defensive in name and yet considerable in size and quite powerful in strength.

This pragmatist consensus prevailed during the Cold War period, Samuels argues, even as it was assailed from the right and the left. The pacifist wing won some key public battles (around military spending, military exports, and non-nuclear principles). But it would be the revisionists, those who still aspired to great-power status, who so effectively employed “salami tactics” to alter the security consensus in their favor and prepare the ground for a more explicit move toward a “normal” security posture by the end of the 20th century. The 1990s, Samuels argues, were by no means a “lost decade” when it came to security policy. “Senior defense officials may still claim demurely that Japan is in a ‘rudimentary phase’ of determining its grand strategy, but Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo long ago declared that the SDF had passed into a new phase, from an institution being built to one being used.” [86]

According to Samuels’s narrative, the revisionists began applying their salami tactics in the 1980s when Japan began to integrate its maritime fleet into the larger U.S.-Japan alliance strategy, excluded defense technology exports to the United States from the overall arms export ban, and joined Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. After the end of the Cold War, the revisionists moved into high gear. They engineered the passage of the International Peace Cooperation Law that facilitated Japan’s participation in peacekeeping, increased Japan’s role in joint military exercises with the United States, and provided more than just financial support for U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

These shifts in Japanese policy have reordered the playing field. Pacifists are still present, but their influence has waned. “Neoautonomists” have championed a stronger military role for Japan, but one independent of the United States. Middle-power internationalists would prefer to maintain a more defensive defense posture and focus on shoring up Japan’s mercantile power. And “normal nation-alists” [124] have inherited the mantle of the revisionists in pushing for a conventional military capability but within the context of the U.S. alliance. The identification of a new set of threats – such as the rise of China, the loss of regional leadership, and the emergence of North Korea’s nuclear program – have provided the means to overcome the traditional pacifism of the Japanese public.

Securing Japan is one of a number of recent books that attempt to chart Japan’s new military and foreign policy trajectory. It succeeds admirably in its efforts to alert Japan watchers in the United States and interested policymakers who want to pierce the tatemae to get at the underlying honnae.

Journal of Asian Studies, August 2009

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