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Reviewed by:
  • Rethinking Japanese Public Opinion and Security: From Pacifism to Realism?
  • Christopher W. Hughes (bio)
Rethinking Japanese Public Opinion and Security: From Pacifism to Realism? By Paul Midford. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2011. xviii, 250 pages. $75.00, cloth; $24.95, paper; $24.95, E-book.

Paul Midford in this volume has produced a very important study and done great service to those in the Japan studies community working on Japan’s evolving security policy and, more widely, to international relations (IR) scholarship dealing with explanations of national security behavior. Midford has given us an excellent text which—although not free of contentions over the conclusions relating to the empirical evidence, nuances of interpretation, competing explanations, and wider policy implications—will form a central and indispensable part of the literature on Japanese security for many years. [End Page 484]

Midford’s essential contention is that the influence of public opinion in determining Japanese security policy in the postwar period has been relatively understudied, poorly understood, and in many cases underestimated. Even those Japan studies specialists and IR theorists who claim to find the key to Japan’s security policy either vested in or divorced from public opinion rarely look systematically at how this variable works in practice. This study aims to reintroduce the study of public opinion more centrally into the Japanese security policy debate. The author seeks to demonstrate how public opinion functions as a key intervening variable between the decisions of elite policymakers and actual security policy outcomes and how it thus filters out the most potentially egregious tendencies of the Japanese state in seeking to push forward Japan’s military role.

In the first part of the volume, this investigation is launched by laying out a wide variety of polling data from newspapers and organizations to illustrate how public opinion is stable and leans toward certain antimilitaristic predilections in regard to security policy. The volume then examines the particular conditions that account for not just the general influence of public opinion but also more specifically those instances where it is most influential in helping to determine policy. Midford claims these conditions are the existence of: large and stable opinion majorities; political competition; a united Diet opposition supported by a stable majority; the nearing of an election; evidence of retrospective voting; concerns of a ruling coalition about the consequences of security issues for other issues; a new policy proposal or old policy likely to impose costs; and consensus norms and institutions. Midford then proceeds to argue that opinion data confirm that the Japanese public by and large has an outlook suspicious of the utility of offensive military power for security ends and is anxious about U.S. military adventurism and the risks of Japanese entrapment. Hence, for Midford the default position for Japanese security, and from which it cannot be easily shifted, is one of what he calls “Defensive Realism,” eschewing offensive power and instead preferring to concentrate on homeland defense.

A series of interesting case studies further demonstrates the durability of Japanese public attitudes toward the use of military force from the cold war to the first years of the twenty-first century. Midford provides meticulous research from the first Gulf War, the passing of the UN Peacekeeping Operations bill, the dispatch of Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to support the U.S. response to 9/11, and then JSDF dispatch to Iraq. These chapters show how the ambitions of Japan’s policymaking elites for more hard-edged military cooperation were very much constrained and in some cases, Midford claims, halted by public opinion.

Midford’s analysis is on the whole sophisticated and persuasive, and his case studies are wonderfully researched. His work has advanced our understanding of the mechanics of Japanese security policy, and every future [End Page 485] study will need to take into account public opinion rather than simply taking it for granted. However, as noted above, there is also much to argue with in some of the more extended claims of the main conclusions.

First, the evidence does not always seem to stand up in terms of some of the larger claims about Japanese attitudes toward security. The evidence used to survey...


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