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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (November 13, 2003)

Is Japan to mainland Asia what Britain is to Europe?

Ramesh Thakur (Senior Vice Rector, United Nations University) and Takashi INOGUCHI (Professor, University of Tokyo)

The European landmass lies to the south and east of Britain, the Asian landmass to the north and west of Japan. A newspaper headline in Britain once famously declared: "Fog over the channel, continent isolated." Japan may lack such endearing chauvinism, but is far more homogeneous and closed as a society than Britain, especially modern Britain. Japan is geographically more distant from the Asian mainland, yet metaphorically closer to Asia than is Britain is to Europe.

After World War II, Britain lost an empire but gained a role. Before that war, Japan gained an empire but lost its international role in the aftermath of a bitter and complete defeat. The British empire, on which the sun never set, was in other parts of the world, never in Europe. The Japanese empire, on which the sun set very quickly indeed, was only in Asia. The British attitude of superiority toward all things continental is therefore based on factors other than having been the colonial master. Japan's relations with much of Asia is still heavily colored on both sides by the history of colonial enterprise and the brutal policies that often accompanied it.

The politics of identity is complex and volatile, as we discovered in the Balkans and East Timor during the last decade. So much of modern Japan has its origins in things borrowed from Asia over many centuries, not just China as is most obvious, but also India (for example, the influence of Buddhism). Yet Japan's drive to modernization and industrialization was so successful that Japanese could be forgiven for thinking that they had left their continental identity far behind and were really part of the industrial West rather than pre-industrial Asia.

By identity we mean something with which one's heart is at ease and something for which one is ready to sacrifice a lot. In determining one country's foreign policy direction, identity often matters.

In an 18-country (nine Asian, nine European) international survey in 2000, conducted by University of Tokyo professor Takashi Inoguchi, two-thirds of respondents here identified themselves as Japanese when asked about their nationality, compared to 88 percent South Koreans. But only 26 percent described themselves as Asian when asked about the larger grouping to which they belonged, compared to 80 percent South Koreans. Interestingly, the Chinese identified themselves as "Asian" and "Chinese" in equal measure as their larger grouping of choice, some 30 percent each.

The reason for this is simple. The Asian identity of Japanese has traditionally been weak. Japan is very much like Britain vis-a-vis their respective continents. Keeping the continent/mainland at arm's length is the best phrase to characterize their relationships with the continent. To both, the continent is a potentially troublesome place. It is important to stay engaged with them for economic, political, cultural and security reasons. At times it is also necessary to discourage them from attempting awful things.

But in the end they are, well, continentals. By God's grace, in happy contrast, the English and Japanese are maritime and global trading nations. Both were previously firmly mercantilist and are now strongly free traders.

Among sections of Japan's homogeneous and strongly exclusionist society, professor Samuel Huntington's thesis of a clash of civilizations resonated quite powerfully. But many Japanese felt relieved to read that Huntington had distinguished Japanese civilization from Chinese.

As is the case with Britain, however, Japan cannot help but be influenced by developments on the continent. Both London and Tokyo try to balance a close and vital security alliance with Washington against the cross-currents of political moods in their respective continents. The London-Washington "axis of virtue" has to be manifested concretely within the larger context of the state of relations in the London-Paris-Berlin triangle. The Tokyo-Washington axis has to evolve and be interpreted in the context of the state of play between Tokyo-Seoul-Beijing.

The British and Japanese governments were equally at odds with the dominant antiwar sentiment in their own countries in firmly supporting the U.S. policy against former President Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and supporting the war even outside the United Nations framework. Britain was only one of two allies to send troops to fight alongside the Americans in Iraq (the other being Australia). Japan sent no troops during the war itself, but the government has paved the way by appropriate legislation to send Japanese Self-Defense Forces to Iraq for the postwar stabilization and peacekeeping phase. In both cases, strategic calculations about the importance of the bilateral alliance with the U.S. -- and about the practicality of being able to influence U.S. decisions from inside instead of criticizing it ineffectually from the outside -- may have been at least as important as convictions about the need to go to war against Hussein in order to disarm him or liberate his people.

In other words, both Japan and Britain choose to identify themselves more strongly with their U.S. ally than with their continental neighbors. As Asia begins the search for greater regional economic integration, will Japan repeat the history of Britain vis-a-vis European integration?

The differences between Japan and Britain may be more relevant in determining the answer to this question. While Britain is one of Europe's big economies, the largest is Germany. By contrast, Japan is the overwhelmingly dominant economy of Asia. Tokyo differs sharply from London's relations with Europeans also in its role as the chief aid donor to so many Asian countries. London was a latecomer to European economic integration. Economic integration in Asia, either across the continent or even just restricted to East Asia, would not be feasible without Japan being at the center of it from the beginning.

By the same token, the economic disparity between Japan and most other Asian countries makes even bilateral free-trade agreements vastly more complicated. Such agreements are useful tools for efficiency and productivity gains, but chiefly through rationalization of complementary economies at similar levels of development, industrialization and sophistication. And the knowledge that Japan is so much bigger and more advanced than its neighbors has also shaped the attitude of Japanese executives and officials in their dealings with fellow Asians. If some anecdotes are to be believed, the British, too, may have similar attitudes toward continentals, though with a lesser basis in observable and objective facts.

(This article originally appeared in the November 9, 2003 issue of The Japan Times. Do not quote without the author's permission.)

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