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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:03 03/09/2007
June 12, 2003

Rethinking Japan as an Ordinary Power: Abridged Version

Takashi INOGUCHI (Professor, University of Tokyo)

(Abridged Version of the Paper Prepared for presentation at the conference: The United States and East Asia: Old Issues and New Thinking, Yonsei University, May 30-31, 2003)
[Professor Inoguchi's Full Paper is available in the PDF form (54.9kb).]

It is not an exaggeration to say that Japan in the early years of the 21st century faces a major transition which it has not experienced since 1945. In popular parlance, it is a transition from a subnormal state to a normal state, from an extraordinary power to an ordinary power. The primary purpose of this essay is to clarify the nature of a transition and to suggest the way in which such a transition might be carried out.

I define an ordinary power as a major power which concerns itself with order and justice in its conducts of global politics. By order I mean the stability and predictability of global society and its components. By justice I mean that a set of values like freedom, equality and non-violence are to be achieved for humankind. Therefore by an ordinary power I mean a major power which is concerned about both order and justice and is seriously interested in bringing about order and justice to the extent to which it can. During the Cold War period, order was a primordial concern to many powers while justice tended to be set aside. But after the Cold War, global justice has been brought back to a primordial concern for many powers. Hence not only medicins sans frontiers but also justice without borders, duties beyond borders have been abundantly put forward in the 1990s and beyond. Two major problems in bringing about order and justice are: (1) it is not easy to define which is just, which is unjust, especially when the use and threat of force is necessary to bring about justice, however it is defined. (2) it is not easy to use force effectively to bring about justice, however it is define.

In what follows, I will examine both actor-level and systemic-level characterizations of Japan that have been presented for the last two decades. I will take up four faces of Japan, each more or less presuming the leading position and role of the United States. The following are some key concepts defining Japan's position and role in the world:

SUPPORTER David Lake, Takashi Inoguchi
Primary actor's level characterization in the 1980s; but its position and role are embedded in and derived from the international economic system; disorderly behavior is discouraged.

GLOBAL CIVILIAN POWER Hanns Maull, Yoichi Funabashi
Primary actor's level characterization in the 1990s; but its position and role are defined by the legacy of the past, Machtvergessenheit, alliance duties, and ambivalence between limits of nonmilitary power and pride in global civilian power;

WILLING PARTNER Francis Fukuyama, Takashi Inoguchi
Primarily actor's level characterization in the 2000's; but its position and role are defined by the post-Cold War gross convergence of values and institutions in which nurturing trust at times of risks is of primordial importance in building partnership; the issue of justice has become salient.

SYSTEMIC CROSS-CURRENTS Robert Cooper, Robert Kagan, Takashi Inoguchi
Primarily systemic level characterization in the 2000's; but how cross-currents determine actor's level orientation and policy needs more actor specific parameters to be well-identified; the justice issue is inexorably intertwined with the other issue.

First to appear was the characterization of Japan as a supporter of the United States in the international political economy in shaping and sustaining the norms and rules of trade, money, finance, development, and sometimes security. Its background is the fast rise of Japan's economic competitiveness, sometimes giving a menace to American stronghold in the 1980s and into the mid-1990s. There was apprehension about whether Japan acts as a supporter or a spoiler or a challenger of the whole American-shaped world political economic order. This characterization faded as the United States economy resumed its long business peak for much of the 1990s and beyond.

Second, reflecting the global raison d'etre of economic powers without teeth, Germany and Japan, came up with the concept, a global civilian power. While the supporter notion often tended to be confined to the international political economy, the global civilian power notion has encompassed more explicitly international security as well. There are two major roles for armed forces: war fighting and peace keeping. The global civilian power notion does not take care of the former, but does of the latter. Although they were the vanquished in the Second World War and have been most dependent on the United States militarily, accommodating the largest American troops on their soils in Europe and Asia respectively, their pride in their achievement of peace and prosperity led them to put forward this concept. Although both powers are unable and do not dare to build armed forces which could act on their own will, they are increasingly confident that they can act as peace keepers who help stabilize and re-build war-prone countries. The concept was triggered as their reaction to the end of the Cold War. Once the East-West confrontation is gone, the role of military power would be reduced. Therefore the role of such economic superpowers who can lend helping hands to those impoverished would be most worthwhile mission for Germany and Japan.

Third, since the September 11 events of 2001, what Francis Fukuyama said of the post-Cold War global politics has started to ring much truer than in the 1990s. In his view, alliance has ceased to exist; instead partnership has begot its extraordinary importance; partnership can be constructed on the basis of trust, which grows out of commitment-cum-compassion despite high risks. President George W. Bush's coalition of the willing since the September 11 events is partnership of the type Francis Fukuyama meant. Hence the extraordinary list of those willing to fight against terrorism. However, since alliance has been substantially watered down by the partnership concept and its underlying unilateralism concept of the United States, traditional allies have started to develop their diverging style and substance with respect to the alliance with the United States. The divergence has been most glaringly laid bare in the process of negotiating on the terms of resolution on Iraq at the United Nations. France underlined autonomy; the United Kingdom reaffirmed special relationship; Germany placed its fortune on regional embeddedness. Despite all the Ishihara-Gaullist temptation in Japan, despite all the seductive call to return to Asia, Japan crossed the Rubicon in the Iraq War in the British direction.

Fourth, more broadly, I have identified three major ideological currents of global politics, Westphalian, Philadelphian and Anti-Utopian. By Westphalian I mean the state-sovereignty focused conceptualization of global politics. By Philadelphian I mean the popular- sovereignty focused conceptualization of global politics. By anti-utopian I mean the loss of sovereignty focused conceptualization of global politics. This framework allows one to place Japan's position in a global context where three totally different currents influencing actors with a mix peculiar to each, at a given time point.

Naturally, the question arises: Is Japan becoming an ordinary power? The following four answers are given.

(1) It has been a solid supporter of the American-led international economic system although at times Japan was suspected as a spoiler or even a challenger in the 1980s. Assuming the dominance of the United States, Japan wanted to highlight its positive, constructive role and position, especially in non-security areas.
(2) It has been a global civilian power with high priority always given to human and economic development and peace keeping and other operations. The advent of the post-Cold War era meant that the world would be more peaceful and that the use of force would be restrained to lower levels.
(3) It has been a willing joiner of anti-terrorism. As of May 2003, President George Bush has been quite selective in allowing foreign heads to stay at Crawford, Texas, the list of which is Aznar, Howard, Koizumi and Putin (Nihon keizai shimbun, 24 May 2003). In terms of the amount of time for both heads to talk tête-à-tête, for instance, Koizumi's 10 hours, Rho's 38 minutes stand out.
(4) It has shifted from the rigid Westphalian mind-set to the mix in which the Philadelphian and anti-utopian mindsets have been injected. Systemic changes are visible and tangible since the 9/11 events. Not only joint war-fighting in the front but logistical actions in the rear but also those governance tasks that need to be shared such as intelligence sharing, policing, financing the government, legislation and economic reconstruction and development are now slowly in sight. Not only for the United States, but also for its partners, sharing vision and intelligence and sustaining global governance have been features of the Philadelphian and anti-utopian mind-sets and their implementation.

Is the above description of the four-stage historical evolution of Japan for the last two decades in harmony with the proposition that Japan is steadily becoming an ordinary power? My argument is that it is.

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