Follow Us




Features Reflections on Japan’s Post–Cold War Foreign Policy
Japan in Search of a New International Identity

Hosoya Yuichi [Profile]


Two decades have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Amid the enormous changes that have occurred since then, Japan has been seeking to forge a new identity for its foreign policy. This article is the first in a series that will examine the course of Japanese diplomacy during the post–Cold War era.

Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi (far left) in a cabinet meeting to iron out government recognition of the newly formed Russian Federation.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In the United States these days, under President Barack Obama, the term “war on terror” has gone out of common use, and the main concerns for the governments of major Western countries are now economic matters, such as the debt crises in the United States and Europe. Much has changed over the past two decades, and the Cold War era has already receded into the distant past.

When the Soviet Union unraveled in 1991, Miyazawa Kiichi was Japan’s prime minister and the Liberal Democratic Party had been in control of the government for well over 30 years. But two years later the LDP fell from power for the first time since its establishment in 1955. Hosokawa Morihiro became prime minister in August 1993, heading a coalition government from which the Liberal Democrats were excluded. This marked the start of a period of great instability in domestic politics. Since then prime ministers have changed with dizzying frequency; Kan Naoto is the twelfth man to hold the post since Miyazawa was voted out in 1993. And the Japanese economy, which grew at a rapid clip through the end of the 1980s, has seen its strength erode steadily over the subsequent two decades. Over this period, during which the Japanese have been caught up largely in their domestic troubles, the global scene has shifted dramatically.

How has Japanese diplomacy responded to these international changes? In what ways has it changed, and in what ways has it stayed the same? This is the first in a series of articles in which we will present an overview of Japan’s diplomatic performance since the end of the Cold War, shining light on it from various angles. I believe we need to pause at this juncture to consider the tremendous changes that have occurred in the past 20 years and ponder the future course of Japan. This will bring into relief the country’s search for a new identity to serve as the basis for its foreign policy.

All eyes on Yoshida Shigeru, Japan’s leader immediately after World War II. The Yoshida Doctrine named after him was the policy of positioning economic growth as the nation’s top priority, while adopting a low-profile foreign policy.

No Longer the Number-Two Economy

In a speech he delivered in December 1962, Dean Acheson (US secretary of state from 1949 to 1953) referred sardonically to the lack of direction in Britain’s post–World War II foreign policy, declaring, “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.” Post–Cold War Japan has similarly lost its earlier international identity. One could perhaps put it like this: Japan has lost its status as an economic superpower and has not yet found a role to replace it.

In 2010, after more than 40 years as the world’s second-largest economy, Japan was overtaken by China in terms of gross domestic product. With its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, its great military might, including a nuclear arsenal, and its long history as an imperial power, China is an overwhelming presence on the Asian scene. Japan, by contrast, has relied on economic power as its means of exerting international influence, given such constraints on its security policy as its war-renouncing Constitution and sense of responsibility for past belligerence. Japan’s loss of its number-two economic ranking, a status to which most Japanese people had become accustomed, clearly signifies a decline in the country’s international clout.

So what should Japan do? After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the bubble economy of the late 1980s, Japan entered a long tunnel of economic stagnation, and it has been questioning its own international identity. For several decades after World War II, Japan followed the so-called Yoshida Doctrine, focusing mainly on economic growth and arming itself only lightly. But this basic policy line, whose validity had been seen as self-evident since the days of Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru (1946–47, 1948–54), came to be challenged in the mid-1990s. The economy had lost speed, and the September 1995 rape of a Japanese schoolgirl in Okinawa by US servicemen sparked a widespread debate about the Japan-US security alliance. Some people argued that Japan should lessen its dependence on the United States and pursue an Asia-oriented foreign policy. Others appealed to Japanese nationalism and called for Japan to become a great military power. It seems fair to say that Japan at this point had lost sight of its path in the post–Cold War world.

The United Nations, Asia, and the United States

A look back at Japan’s diplomacy over the decades following World War II reveals that it was actually based on a broader identity than that set forth in the Yoshida Doctrine. The Diplomatic Bluebook published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in September 1957 identified three principles for Japan’s foreign policy: United Nations–centered diplomacy, maintenance of Japan’s position as a member of Asia, and cooperation with the free world. These principles were partial continuations of three major currents from Japan’s prewar foreign policy, namely, internationalism, pan-Asianism, and cooperation with Britain and the United States. And they may be said to have reflected the respective positions of three major organizational units within the Foreign Ministry, namely, the International Legal Affairs Bureau, the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, and the North American Affairs Bureau. For many years during the postwar period, Japan’s diplomatic posture was largely defined by these three elements, and considerable effort was devoted to reconciling them with each other.

The three principles reflected the situation in which Japan found itself as of 1957. Japan had gained admission to the United Nations in December 1956, and the previous year had called attention to its return to the Asian community by participating in the Asian-African Conference (Bandung Conference, April 1955). Also in 1955, Foreign Minister Shigemitsu Mamoru visited the United States and started the process of renegotiating the Japan-US Security Treaty. Japan regained its sovereignty and independence in 1952, and by the mid-1950s its foreign policy was broadening to include elements other than simple cooperation with the United States. The political leaders who succeeded Yoshida after he stepped down as prime minister in 1954 worked to broaden the scope of Japan’s foreign policy, and this produced the above three principles. So to sum up, Japan’s postwar foreign policy identity was expressed in the Yoshida Doctrine and the three principles.

With the end of the Cold War, Japan faced the need to come up with new approaches to the implementation of each of the three principles. With respect to the United Nations, Japan had to involve itself more actively in issues of global security. At the time of the Gulf War in 1991, Japan provided the considerable sum of $13 billion in funds to support the coalition that freed Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, but it came under international criticism for not contributing personnel to the campaign. This response was a shock to Japanese politicians and diplomats, and it brought home to them the need for Japan to make a greater contribution in the area of international security. Based on this recognition, the Japanese government dispatched vessels from the Maritime Self-Defense Force to assist in clearing mines from the Persian Gulf after the war was over, and in the following year it sent personnel from the Self-Defense Forces to take part in the UN peacekeeping operation in Cambodia. Since then, Japan has continued to dispatch SDF personnel and others to participate in peacekeeping activities and other international security operations around the world, but its level of involvement in such endeavors is still the lowest of any major developed country. Though Japan’s dues payments and other financial contributions to the United Nations are relatively large, it lags behind in both the scale of its official development assistance (as a share of GDP) and in the number of personnel it has dispatched on peacekeeping missions; this performance belies its lofty commitment to the ideal of a UN-centered foreign policy.

Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō delivering a policy speech in Singapore.

How about Japan’s Asian diplomacy? Of the three principles, the commitment to maintaining Japan’s position as a member of the Asian community is the one whose weight has increased the most since the end of the Cold War. Japan’s Asian neighbors have achieved rapid economic growth over the past two decades, starting with the so-called Asian tigers in the early 1990s, followed by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and, since the start of the current century, China and India. This growth created new opportunities for the Japanese economy, and it also added to the importance of regional and bilateral foreign policy initiatives toward these countries. The first summit meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which was held in Seattle in 1993, attracted much attention as marking the start of an Asia-Pacific age, and the 1997 East Asian financial crisis served as the impetus for rapid development of regional cooperation through the ASEAN+3 framework, which brings the senior leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea into regular contact with their Southeast Asian counterparts. In a speech delivered in Singapore in January 2002, Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō called for the creation of a “community that acts together and advances together.” This was seen as an indication of the Japanese government’s strong desire to develop an East Asian community—a stance that played a key role in the launch of the annual East Asia Summits in 2005.

China’s rise, however, has presented Japan with a new set of diplomatic concerns. The rapid growth of the Chinese economy has been accompanied by an alarming surge in the country’s military might, leading to increased tensions in places like the East China Sea and the South China Sea, where China’s territorial claims overlap those of its neighbors. Also, the friction with China and South Korea that followed the visits by Prime Minister Koizumi to Yasukuni Shrine (which honors the spirits of Japan’s war dead) highlighted the wide gap that remains between Japan and its neighbors in the way they remember and assess their shared history. In pursuing its diplomacy toward Asia, Japan must also give consideration to these knotty issues of historical perceptions, conflicting territorial claims, and the balance of power, which have been fanning nationalistic and xenophobic sentiment in East Asian countries and interfering with regional stability. Japan’s foreign policy, while seeking to promote regional cooperation in East Asia, must also squarely confront these issues and keep working toward their solution.

Finally, what about the Japan-US alliance? How have Japan’s relations with the United States developed over the two decades since the end of the Cold War? The bilateral alliance has evolved considerably over this period. During the administration of President Bill Clinton (1993–2001), economic friction led to fears that the bilateral defense ties would weaken, and to keep this from happening, Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye promoted an initiative to redefine the alliance. Under the joint declaration issued by Clinton and Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryūtarō in 1996, the two countries reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening their bilateral alliance even in the post–Cold War era. They also set forth a policy of putting the alliance to work for the sake of broader international security as a “public good” in the Asia-Pacific region. The two countries then agreed on a new set of guidelines for their defense cooperation, and Japan confirmed its readiness to play a greater role in security affairs. In this way, the Japanese government started to pursue a more activist course with respect to security policy.

We can see, then, that over the period since the end of the Cold War, even though Japan strayed from the international identity that had previously guided its foreign policy, it did keep up its efforts to adjust to the new international realities as they related to the “three principles.”

  • [2011.10.03]

Professor at Keiō University. Born in Chiba Prefecture in 1971. Graduated from Rikkyō University in 1994, where he majored in law. Completed his doctoral studies in politics in 2000, and received a PhD from Keiō University. Has also taught at Hokkaidō University and Sciences Po, Paris. Author of Sengo kokusai chitsujo to Igirisu gaikō (The Postwar International Order and British Diplomacy; winner of the Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities), Gaikō: Tabunmei jidai no taiwa to kōshō (Diplomacy: Dialogue and Negotiations Across Civilizations), Rinriteki na sensō: Tonī Burea no eikō to zasetsu (Ethical Wars: The Glory and Failure of Tony Blair; winner of the Yomiuri Yoshino Sakuzō Prize), and other works. Member of the editorial committee.

Related articles
Also in this series

Related articles

Video highlights

New series

  • From our columnists
  • In the news