Japan’s search for a new regional vision

Author: Peter Drysdale, Editor, East Asia Forum

To many inside and outside Japan, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe brings both hope and a breath of fresh air to an economy and society that has been in relative retreat in recent times. Abenomics, with its enthusiastic adoption of unconventional monetary policy under the skilful leadership of Haruhiko Kuroda at the Bank of Japan, its commitment to continuing fiscal stimulus and its promise, as yet not fulsomely delivered, of deep structural reform — is just the mix of tonics that the Japanese economy needs. The reversal of price deflation is an early harbinger of better times to come. Certainly Abe’s clear articulation of his economic agenda was a decisive factor in his electoral success and appears to be a critical element in his continuing popularity.

But Mr Abe embodies much more than a well-crafted if yet-to-be-fully-executed economic vision for Japan’s economic future. Love him or hate him, if you’re an average Japanese punter, you know that this guy is trying to find a place for Japan that has been somehow, somewhere lost over the past few decades. That’s a feeling that deep down is gnawing at your soul too, even if you haven’t had cause to be too worried about it. So while you may not be altogether comfortable with the non-economic parts of where Mr Abe appears to want to take Japan, his ambition for the country strikes a sympathetic chord.

As Thomas Berger says in his interesting analysis of Abe’s visit to Australia the week before last ‘one of the root causes of Japan’s current difficulties is a loss of self-confidence. They [conservative politicians] see restoring Japan’s “confidence” as vital to getting the country back on track. Much like Ronald Reagan when he famously declared “its morning in America”, Abe wants to convince Japan — and the world — that “Japan is back”. From Abe’s perspective, this requires the promotion of a healthy sense of patriotism, which is free from both the psychological baggage of Japan’s pre-1945 past and the institutional restrictions that were imposed on Japan in the post-war period. First among these restrictions is the American imposed Japanese constitution and in particular its pacifist clause, Article 9. This central tenet of modern Japanese conservatism is widely believed by Abe’s supporters in the Liberal Democratic Party and, by all indications, Abe himself’.

The loss of self-confidence, of course, not only has to do with the genteel relative decline of the Japanese economy but also the relative rise of its neighbours, spectacularly China but also South Korea and the other Asian economies.

Looking back at the post-war history of Japan in Asia, the most remarkable retreat has not been on the economic front — the dynamism of Japanese business networks right around the region, including in China, continues to be one of its distinguishing features — but of Japan’s conception of its role and its vision for the region, a role and a vision that was widely shared among the Japanese public and policy leaders in the years through the end of the Cold War, It was a vision of region-wide economic dynamism, with expanding frontiers stretching from its Northeast Asian neighbours through Southeast Asia and, of course, into China. It was a vision that took Japan’s leadership and role in the region’s economy for granted, as an assumption. What made the vision so attractive, as Takashi Shiraishi has remarked, is that for ‘the first time in its modern history, Japan could be both Asianist and internationalist at the same time…it could play a role in the creation of an open regionalism in the Asia-Pacific while harmonising Japanese economic expansion with the maintenance of the Japan–US alliance’.

The scale of what has happened in China, of course, has seen the partial, perhaps almost total, eclipse of this vision of Japan’s role in the region. It is not yet clear what alternative vision has emerged, one that has been thought through and its logical consequences digested and accepted by the majority of the Japanese people today. Certainly Mr Abe has a sense of a vision of Japan’s place in the region and the world, but it is one that is yet to be fully embraced by the Japanese nation.

Hitoshi Tanaka, in another of our leads this week, describes Japan’s current approach to China under Abe as ‘to talk tough’ while insisting that the door for dialogue is always open. ‘But’, he says, ‘what is sorely needed is a comprehensive China strategy that is both firm on security and bold on engagement’.

Moves to reinforce Japan’s security should be welcomed, Tanaka argues, and it is necessary for the Japanese public to work through the issues of collective self-defence, the role that the Self-Defence Forces should perform, and how Japan can contribute to the maintenance of peace. ‘At the same time, Japan must boldly build constructive relations with China in order to promote regional stability’. The two issues that remain obstacles to rebuilding meaningful and cooperative government-to-government relations, of course, are the tensions surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute and the question of Japan’s past. They are both issues on which Mr Abe has deep visceral difficulty in grasping the initiative, but for which his pedigree makes him uniquely equipped to be the statesman.

As Amy King observes in another of this week’s leads, Japan’s inching away from its collective security constraints also poses problems for Chinese engagement, of which there was hint in China’s cautiously critical official response. Hopefully it’s now a time for ‘creative thinking’ on both sides of the China–Japan relationship.

Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.