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  • Japan's Return to Great Power Politics:Abe's Restoration
  • Kenneth B. Pyle (bio)

japan, shinzo abe, foreign policy, U.S.-Japan alliance

[End Page 69]

executive summary

This essay explains how Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is engineering a seismic shift in Japan's foreign policy from a postwar position of dependence and subordination in the U.S.-led order to a proactive and independent role, which in the uncertain regional environment is likely to gain increasing popular support.

main argument

After more than 70 years of subordination in the U.S.-led world order, Japan is pulling free from its self-binding constraints and restoring an activist foreign policy not seen since 1945. Coming to power with a surge of conservative nationalist support in the Liberal Democratic Party, Abe has engineered Japan's return to great-power politics. He has achieved a historic reinterpretation of the constitution to permit collective self-defense, ended the ban on arms exports and other self-binding policies, and pressed for new offensive military capacity, all of which have made possible a much more cohesive and integrated U.S.-Japan alliance. Although Abe and the policy elite have had to override public opposition in returning Japan to this activist role, in such circumstances of transition in the international order, Japan has historically experienced rapid swings in geopolitical position. With the growing uncertainty of regional conditions, we should not be surprised if the pacifist identity that postwar generations have long embraced gives way and we see changes in the prolonged resistance of the Japanese public to revision of the constitution and to an activist and assertive foreign policy.

policy implications

  • • Japan will closely weigh the reliability of U.S. assurances and the future direction of U.S. policy in Asia, especially as they relate to the management of the nuclear threat from North Korea and to Japanese interests vis-à-vis China.

  • • Japan's immediate priority will be to strengthen its alignment with the U.S., but in the longer term it will increasingly move toward a more independent foreign policy that offers greater autonomy and room to adjust to its perception of the shifting regional balance of power.

  • • Although Abe appears likely to remain in office until 2021, even should his term be shortened, his policies now have a momentum that will be very difficult to reverse. These policies are supported by all likely LDP candidates to succeed him, and the political opposition is weaker than at any time in the postwar period. [End Page 70]

In 2018, Japan is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its modern revolution, the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The nature of a country's modern revolution illuminates a great deal about the national character, the strategic principles, and the logic of a people. Just as 1776 tells Americans so much about ourselves—the ideals and purposes that we hold central—so the Meiji Restoration reveals much about the nature and purpose of modern Japan. The restoration was not a class upheaval proclaiming new values. Rather, it was a conservative nationalist revolution, carried out "from above" by a party within the old samurai elite and driven by the dangers posed by the Western imperial powers. Its purpose was to strengthen Japan, adapt to the changes in the external environment, restore the independence that was infringed by the West, and bring Japan into the company of the great powers. Over the next two decades, borrowing broadly from the Western powers, the Meiji Restoration achieved one of the most remarkable institutional innovations in world history: Japan became Asia's first rising power. This formative experience of Japan's entry into the modern world established a strategic style of realism and pragmatism in response to shifts in the international system.

In the prime ministership of Shinzo Abe, we are witnessing a similar accommodation to changes in the international system. Like the Meiji Restoration—albeit on a more limited historical scale—Abe is engineering a foreign policy revolution carried out from above by a conservative elite. When his cabinet in 2014 approved a radical reinterpretation of the constitution to allow collective self-defense, Abe reportedly told leaders of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP...


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pp. 69-90
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