How to Enliven Japan’s Foreign Policy Think Tanks

Nakayama Toshihiro [Profile]

[2012.09.07] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 |

In today’s dramatically changing international environment, Japan needs full-fledged foreign policy and national security think tanks more than ever before. Nakayama Toshihiro, an expert in this field, introduces the proposals of a recent advisory panel and sums up the issues involved.

On August 7, 2012, an advisory panel headed by Tanaka Naoki, president of the Center for International Public Policy Studies, submitted a set of proposals to Foreign Minister Genba Kōichirō based on its deliberations concerning foreign policy and national security think tanks in Japan and the relationship between such think tanks and the government.(*)

The submitted document states the reasoning behind the establishment of the panel as follows: “Now, with Japan’s national strength declining and its presence in international forums decreasing, unless we strengthen our diplomatic capabilities and enhance our ability to deliver visions, our country may have no future. Unless we build up corps of experts active on the global level, we may have to be prepared to see the further weakening of Japan’s diplomatic influence. Based on this sense of urgency, the panel has focused on the need to establish a Japanese-style think tank focusing on foreign policy and national security.”

By way of a concrete proposal, the panel called for the creation of a Japanese model that is internationally competitive—combining creative conceptual power, global networking power, and a funding capacity. If we consider the position in which foreign policy and national security think tanks in Japan currently find themselves, the very fact that this sort of document was put together and submitted to the foreign minister may be called a major landmark.

Ending the Negative Cycle of Failure and Denial

Many years have passed since people started calling aloud for the establishment of full-fledged foreign policy and national security think tanks in Japan. But up to now, what we have seen is a repeating cycle in which proposals are advanced but fail to be implemented. This has been going on for so long that recently some people have been reacting to the eager proponents with assertions that such think thanks are actually unnecessary. The advisory panel consistently took the view that we must break out of this negative cycle.

Japan is not completely without foreign policy and national security think tanks. These may be much less impressive than think thanks in the United States or elsewhere, but they have continued to provide the groundwork for the foreign policy and national security community in Japan on a quiet but persistent basis, and they have played the role of platforms for private-sector participation in security dialogue. Unfortunately, however, the activities of these existing think tanks have not been sufficient to respond to the sense of crisis expressed by the advisory panel.

One such think tank, mentioned by name in the proposal, is the Japan Institute of International Affairs, or JIIA, to which I belong. With its close ties to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the JIIA has functioned as a foreign policy and national security think tank representing Japan. But this status has also caused JIIA to become a frequent target of critical attention in discussions on the need to energize Japan’s foreign policy and national security think tanks. And in June 2012, after conducting a reassessment of its ongoing spending items, MOFA decided to halt payment of subsidies to the institute.

The Redefinition of JIIA’s Functions After the Cold War

The establishment of JIIA was the idea of Yoshida Shigeru (prime minister 1946–47, 1948–54); he saw this sort of institute as a pillar for Japan’s diplomacy in the open society of the post–World War II period. Yoshida had in mind institutions like Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and the United States’ Council on Foreign Relations. This was mentioned explicitly in the document setting forth the purpose of JIIA’s establishment. While this was the official line, in practice JIIA’s main task was to conduct research on the Communist bloc. At a time when the world was split between East and West, it was in Japan’s national interest to establish a locus for nonpartisan studies of the Communist countries. And JIIA responded to this mandate by conducting various activities on an ongoing basis, such as collecting, archiving, and analyzing materials from the Communist bloc, publishing the (now discontinued) periodical Roshia kenkyū (Russian Studies), which maintained a high standard, and inviting participation by first-rate researchers on the Soviet Union and China. These activities contributed, albeit in a limited way, to Japan’s policymaking process.

Naturally, however, the end of the Cold War made it necessary to redefine JIIA’s role. In the 1990s the institute’s mandate was expanded from its prior focus to include consideration of the issues facing East Asia in the post–Cold War period. The most prominent sort of activity that JIIA undertook under this broader mandate was “track-two diplomacy”—this refers to citizen diplomacy, conducted at meetings mainly attended by researchers from private-sector research institutes and universities, with selected government officials attending in a private capacity and conducting free exchanges of opinions untrammeled by the official positions of their respective governments. This was a field of activity in which initiatives sprung up in the post–Cold War years like mushrooms after a rain. During the presidency of the late Matsunaga Nobuo, JIIA operated both as a research institute and as a diplomatic actor, involving itself directly in track-two activities.

The Onset of Track-Two Fatigue

The track two euphoria, however, did not last long. Partly because of the Asian economic crisis of 1997–98, “track-two fatigue” set in surprisingly soon. The principal stage that JIIA adopted for its track-two activities was the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. This council was positioned as a private-sector counterpart of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and the intention was for it to function as a “brain” for the latter, but when the ARF fell into confusion over the definition of preventive diplomacy and lost speed, CSCAP also lost its momentum. That does not mean that Japan can pull out of this council, however. To do so could be taken as a symptom of Japan’s withdrawal from track-two efforts, further slowing down the council. Japan in fact has an obligation to work at reviving these activities.

JIIA is currently operating as an all-around think tank for foreign policy and national security. From its earlier days as a “boutique” operation with the limited objective of watching the Communist bloc, it has become a “department store” for diplomatic and security affairs. This is a reflection of the fact that we are no longer in an age when we can merely concentrate on the threats confronting Japan, and in that sense it is a development in keeping with the change in Japan’s security environment. But it has made it difficult for JIIA to focus its operations. We face the paradox that if we try to take up every issue, we end up letting many issues fall from our grasp. The constraints on the institute’s finances make this problem all the more serious.

Nurturing Ideas and Delivering Messages

To simplify a bit, we might say that Japan after World War II pursued a “reactive” foreign policy: Rather than seek actively to shape the international environment in a way advantageous to itself, our country sought to detect developments in the international environment as quickly as possible and respond to them appropriately. As I noted earlier, a sustained focus on the threats confronting Japan was in line with our national interests. But now the times are changing, and we find ourselves in a situation where we cannot hope to protect even our minimal national interests unless we undertake an active role in shaping the international environment. And the current state of international politics is not one that lends itself to energetic fist-waving as a means of achieving one’s objectives; often it involves a fierce struggle over the rule-making process that determines the shape of international society. Needless to say, ideas and message-delivery capabilities are of decisive importance in this connection. While relying on professional diplomats to take the lead, we must also bring Japan’s other intellectual resources to bear. If Japan’s foreign policy and national security think tanks are to have a future, it will surely be through the provision of the necessary intellectual infrastructure for this endeavor.

Unfortunately, none of Japan’s foreign policy and national security think tanks is currently capable of adequately responding to this sort of requirement. But the need has never been greater than it is now. The bulk of the problems that these think tanks face are structural in nature, and merely recognizing that these organizations have an essential role to play will not be enough to enable them to play it. But unless the need for these think tanks is widely acknowledged, they cannot even stand on the starting line. The proposals submitted by the advisory panel this summer include many ideas. I can only hope that they will lead to a new and lively debate.

(Originally written in Japanese on August 16, 2012.)

(*) ^ The panel’s proposal (in Japanese only) is available online at:

  • [2012.09.07]

Professor of American politics and foreign policy, Keiō University, and adjunct fellow, Japan Institute of International Affairs. Received his Ph.D from the Aoyama Gakuin University School of International Politics, Economy, and Business. Taught at Tsuda College and Aoyama Gakuin University before assuming his current post. Author of Kainyū suru Amerika: Rinen Kokka no Sekaikan (American Intervention: Creedal Nation and the World) and other works.

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