Civilizational Divides and Regional Confrontations – 3

Both Gilbert Rozman and Francois Godement’s articles are stimulating and instructive, and it is a pleasure for me to follow up the debate. Issues raised by Rozman are real. I tend to agree with Godement that it is important to see these complicated issues both from a strategic-realist and a civilizational-constructivist perspective, in that order. If we fail to place these two perspectives in the correct order, then not only do we risk misunderstanding each other, but also the whole debate might get confused. On Japan’s position, rather than responding issue by issue, I had better go back to the holistic picture to follow the right order with which I analyze the present-day situation.

What is the single most important, defense-security-foreign policy issue for Japan today? It is China and its growing power, which at this point in time is difficult to gauge in its extent and nature. But since September 2014, in the form of intrusions into the territorial waters of Senkaku at its own discretion, for the first time in post-WWII history Japan is facing an existential threat. Since then China has crossed a red line. To face this situation there are only two policies to adopt. One is deterrence and another is dialogue. Deterrence might well be implemented more vigorously. Dialogue needs to be implemented more cautiously so as not to provoke China unnecessarily. But on the whole Abe has been implementing these dual policies reasonably well. In the context of this article, it is important to note that up to this point in this discourse, the logic is dominated by strategy, power, and realism.

Somewhere, however, in the course of the dialogue part, the civilizational approach emerges. From Japan’s point of view this is an extension of efforts to identify its national objectives in the post-Cold War period of drift or the lost 20 years in the Heisei period. From China’s point of view it is an extension of its search for new direction after the end of the Deng approach of “keep your head low and your might in reserve,” seeking economic, political, military, cultural, and global supremacy. From Japan’s point of view, countering China’s civilizational approach with Japan’s own civilizational direction is the best way to face its new rising initiative. This is not a negation of the geopolitics affecting Japan, nor a negation of some of the liberal values that Japan has acquired, but, probably, the best way of enhancing mutual understanding and arousing the fewest possible tensions with China. The outcome of that debate is utterly unknown because this is only the beginning of a long process. Naturally any meaningful dialogue here has to be open, transparent, and accessible to any party of interest.

Prioritizing geopolitics and strategy in handling relations with all countries other than China, the fundamental position Japan is seeking is to establish solid and trustworthy relations with as many countries as possible. That includes, foremost, the United States, South Korea, and Russia. In addition there is the “other Asia,” including Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, and Mongolia. Similar priorities apply to Europe and the rest of the world. The United States unquestionably has the highest priority as an allied partner. There is only one country that has this status. Japan’s strategic interests rest on consolidation of the alliance with it with which Japan has come to share the values of freedom, democracy, and rule of law. Within that perimeter of strategic thinking, such issues as not provoking China unnecessarily, i.e. not going to the Yasukuni Shrine, and strengthening ties with South Korea, i.e. resolving the “comfort women” issue, emerge definitively as high priorities. I argue that the inability to comprehend these necessities by the present-day government of Japan does not serve Japan’s national interest.

Is there any room for the civilizational question to emerge at this point with the United States? Not in the near future, because the immediate question for Japan is how and where to adjust its civilizational position in relation to China or to Asia, and rethinking Western values does not appear at the forefront.

Geopolitical positioning with regard to South Korea is bizarre. Taking into account all of the factors in the region around Japan and Korea seen from a geopolitical perspective, there are numerous reasons for the two countries to enter into solid and trustworthy relations. To name a few, there are North Korea’s erratic behavior, China’s destabilizing rise, and the clarity of US strategic preferences. But the weight of history issue is being inflated between the two countries. Confidence in South Korea regarding successes in democracy, economy growth, and culture seem to enable an explosion of the historically compounded “curse” against Japan dating from the period of colonialism. A rising sense of frustration on the part of the Japanese—that their past humility was not only not accepted but also fueled the Korean “curse”—is flooding Japanese bookstores, asserting that the historic national character leaves Koreans not able to come to terms with reality. Should we attribute this mutual strategic disaster, to a clash of civilizational perspectives? There is clearly no common historical approach. One could start between Japan and Korea when the two countries are able to see their relationship through a shared understanding of history, free from today’s value judgments. Embryonic efforts may start by increasing attention to such positive historical experiences, as what occurred in the 7th century when Japan accepted the Korean royal family of Baekje after their defeat by the Silla-Tang alliance, or Tokugawa Ieyasu’s reconciliation with Korea in the early 17th century after Japan’s failed invasion of Korea.

On Russia, Japan’s basic strategic position is to seek as trustworthy as possible relations with this country. The three directions with which Abe started in April 2013—expanding economic relations, entering into new security cooperation, and resolving the territorial issue—met this strategic direction. Then the Crimea and Ukraine issue exploded from late February 2014. In reality, Japan’s reaction has been to continue to act in accord with its position as a member of the G7, but only timidly because of the importance it attached to bilateral relations with Russia, as it kept sending a half-garbled message of goodwill toward Russia for further improving bilateral ties. In September this balancing act reached its limit. For the time being, Japan has lost Russia to the satisfaction of securing its position as member of the G7. I consider this policy a strategic mistake. The line of argument with which Japan should have pronounced the matter is best explained by John Mearsheimer’s Foreign Affairs article,1 namely from the time of Ukrainian independence in 1991, the G7 should have treated it with the understanding that this country can only achieve strategic stability through some kind of Russia-friendly existence, and luring it into a full-scale Euro-American value-oriented country (thereby distancing it from backward, autocratic Russia) was a mistake. The West is now paying a price for this mistake in facing the repulsion from Russia. The best policy is not to take Russia as an adversary, which makes Russia an adversary, but to make a collegial effort to allow Ukraine to choose a stable Russia-Europe-friendly position. I argue that the failure to have taken this position resulted not only in Japan losing Russia but also pushed Russia substantially toward China. This is a strategic nightmare, engendering axis relations of China and Russia at the center of the Eurasian continent. To rectify this situation a policy of dialogue for Japan vis-a-vis Russia is essential.

Only here does civilization enter into the discussion of Japan and Russia. There is the inescapable commonality of historical development that the two countries share: the split between Western values and something inherently of its own: Peter the Great vs, the Slavophiles and Meiji Japan’s “entering Europe abandoning Asia” vs. “Japan’s own traditions immersed in the Asian world.” It seems that Putin is seeking a notion of “Russian identity” of its own. Likewise Abe’s search for “getting out from the postwar regime” is a search for Japan’s identity. To me this is an opportunity rather than a risk. A possibility emerges to broaden the scope of debate to a civilizational context, finding out commonalities and differences in the direction the two countries are taking, trying to influence the other while keeping, to the maximum extent possible, respect for the choices the other might like to make.

In concluding, I want to reiterate my view on what Rozman asserts are American values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law and their universal application. I deeply agree that among the basic notions that Western civilization has produced there is something infinitely precious in the values of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. In the whole process of Japan’s modernization there is a long history of learning. There were at least two periods when the Japanese people tried to absorb these values directly: in the Meiji Freedom and Democratic Movement of 1874-1890, and in the Taisho Democracy of 1912-1926 before the advent of American democracy under the Occupation. Despite my own judgment about some fundamental flaws in democracy in today’s Japan, there are certain aspects of these values of which we can be proud and which we should maintain and strengthen.

When it comes to how to apply these values, however, a straightforward application based on one country’s definition, in my view, might undermine the credibility of that country’s policy. American policy is a combination of idealism maintaining values in the forefront and realism shaking hands with any regime with which it finds useful to maintain relations. In that context I think that Mearsheimer’s approach toward Putin has some useful seeds for contemplation in present-day geopolitics, and that my addition on a civilizational approach to Putin has further value to open the way for better understanding of Putin and Russia in the minds of the international community.

Lastly, how does Europe matter for Japan? In my own study of pre-war and postwar Japan’s external relations, one of the most conspicuous differences is the role of Europe that affected Japan’s policies. Before the war, whether Great Britain or Germany, their relations were one critical factor for Japan’s global strategy. After the end of war, it ceased to be. Other than war memory related issues, some economic issues which needed rebalancing and common cultural projects to enrich our lives, the question haunted Japan: is Europe really relevant? To me there is no better time for the two to exchange thoughts on the issue of the global power shift, where the main actors—the United States, China, Russia and others—are claiming their own position. Japan’s search to define its strategic and civilizational positions may not find a more understanding partner than in Europe with which Japan shares many values. This dialogue can serve a useful purpose in drawing attention to the desirability of such a Japanese-European exchange of views encompassing both strategic and civilizational issues.


1. John Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2014,