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Watch Out for Japan

Black Star Over Japan

by Albert Axelbank
Hill and Wang, 230 pp., $7.95

Japanese Imperialism Today

by Jon Halliday, by Gavan McCormack
Monthly Review Press, 272 pp., $7.95 (to be published in September)

The Fragile Blossom: Crisis and Change in Japan

by Zbigniew Brzezinski
Harper & Row, 153 pp., $5.95

The Weary and the Wary: US and Japanese Security Policies in Transition

by Robert E. Osgood
Johns Hopkins, 95 pp., $5.00

One of the clearest and least equivocal signs of the changing pattern—to say nothing of the confusion and disarray—of current international politics is the way everyone is suddenly becoming preoccupied with Japan. For twenty years Tokyo remained in the background, apparently happy with the role the United States assigned it in the postwar world, while attention concentrated on the actions and reactions of Moscow and Peking. Today the roles are reversed. I am not the first, and I shall certainly not be the last, to discern some disconcerting analogies between the position of Japan in the world today and the situation it found itself in when it launched its drive into Manchuria in 1931. As I pointed out in my previous article, 1 there is a large and growing body of commentators anxiously scanning the Far East and trying to predict which way Japan will jump. The purpose of the present article is to put their views into some sort of historical perspective and assess them accordingly.

On the surface it is easy to see the reasons for this new preoccupation with Japan. Albert Axelbank is concerned about the gathering evidence of a resurgence of Japanese militarism. Jon Halliday and Gavan McCormack perceive in Japan’s new-found economic strength the basis for a revival of Japanese imperialism. Zbigniew Brzezinski discerns “a kind of identity crisis” in Japan and believes that “serious strains are developing” which “will be reflected both in Japanese politics and economics.” Robert E. Osgood foresees “a basic revision of U.S.-Japanese relations” and “a fundamental redistribution of power in Asia.” In the background, and common to all, is the much discussed question of the connections between Japanese government and industry and their impact on political decisions at home and abroad, and the political imbalances which have enabled the right wing to retain power, with one short interlude, for twenty-five years, although by 1969 more than half the Japanese voters had registered their wish for fundamental change and a renovation of Japanese society.

All this is familiar enough. The question is whether it is adequate. I have no particular wish to pick holes in these sober and painstaking commentaries. Halliday and McCormack, in particular, have brought together an impressive body of material which even those who distrust their Marxist interpretation would be foolish to ignore. Japanese Imperialism Today is by far the most informative and in many ways the most penetrating analysis that has come my way so far. Nevertheless my doubts remain. If the four books here reviewed are a representative sample, my conclusion would be that they tell us much, but not enough. Like so much political commentary, they deal with symptoms rather than with fundamental causes. Japan, after all, is not the only country suffering from an “identity crisis,” nor is it the only country seeking a redefinition of its relations with the United States. What is missing, or so it would seem to me, is the realization that Japan is not a case apart but is caught up, like the rest of us, in a crisis involving the whole capitalist world.

Missing also is any serious consideration of the historical dimension. Robert Osgood warns us against false analogies with the prewar world. No doubt he is right. Nevertheless, if we wish to understand the international situation today, and Japan’s place in it, the last thing we can afford to do is to neglect the past. If, in 1931, the world was confronted by the crisis of capitalism, since 1971 it has been confronted by the crisis of neocapitalism. In the wake of the financial crash of 1929 the liberal world order somewhat shakily patched together after 1918 perished irretrievably; in the wake of the dollar crisis that loomed up in the last agonizing months of Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration in 1968, the international order set up under American auspices after 1945 is obviously coming apart. And once again Japan is not going to stand idly by. Its vital interests are too deeply involved. Indeed, as the world’s third industrial power, it is more deeply implicated this time than last.

For Japan, as Brzezinski points out, “the post-war period ended abruptly in August 1971.” The cathartic stroke, as everyone knows, was Nixon’s abrupt reversal of America’s China policy without consulting or even warning Tokyo—a blow that can be compared to the Nazi-Soviet pact of August, 1939. Certainly it toppled the Sato government as surely as the rapprochement between Germany and Russia toppled that of Hiranuma. All of a sudden the US-Japanese “partnership” began to look as hollow as had, thirty-two years earlier, the Anti-Comintern Pact. But if, predictably, the political issue hit the headlines, far more fundamental for US-Japanese relationships were Nixon’s drastic measures to defend the ailing dollar. These hit out all around, but no one, least of all the Japanese, doubted that the target was the yen.

For Japan, August, 1971, was a traumatic experience. It was also disturbingly reminiscent of the 1930s. Then, also, at the first blast of the cold economic wind, the Western powers had withdrawn behind tariff barriers (Hawley-Smoot and Ottawa), imposing quotas and excluding Japanese goods. The result, according to Sir Victor Wellesley of the British Foreign Office, was that “Britain’s economic nationalism alienated the Japanese from the Anglo-American economic world order and intensified their push for hegemony in East Asia.”2

August, 1971, was also reminiscent of the 1930s in so far as it seemed to indicate that Washington was not going to worry unduly about Japanese interests and susceptibilities when it came to making a deal with big brother in Peking. The twenty years of euphoria in US-Japanese relations following the Korean War may have dimmed memories, but the shock of finding itself in the back seat being driven in the wrong direction was not new for Japan.

As Akira Iriye has pointed out, fear of diplomatic isolation was a constant theme of Japanese policy in the 1930s. Never quite absent after 1922, when pressure from the United States and the Pacific Dominions forced Great Britain to jettison the Anglo-Japanese treaty of alliance, it became a nightmare when the British and Americans ganged up against Japan at the London naval conference in 1930. This was the beginning of alienation between Japan and the West, of “a foreign policy which discounted the necessity of co-operation with the Anglo-American nations,” of the search for economic and political self-sufficiency. What it meant in practice was seen a few months later when Japan moved unilaterally into Manchuria.

If in the 1930s it was the gathering economic crisis that exposed the fragility of the whole existing international system and drove Japan to embark on what James B. Crowley has called its “quest for autonomy,”3 conditions in the 1970s are not so different. Nixon’s China initiative apart, it can hardly have inspired Japanese confidence when, with the collapse of the so-called Smithsonian settlement at the beginning of 1973, the US and the enlarged (and swollen-headed) EEC got together in Paris, with scarcely a nod to Tokyo, to patch up the monetary float. Nor can the Japanese have been reassured when the old Atlantic hands, meeting in Amsterdam in March, 1973, in a futile attempt to paper over the cracks in the European-American relationship, pointedly rejected a proposal to include Japan in the debate. These, no doubt, are only signs of things to come; but they are signs the Japanese are unlikely to ignore.

A month later Henry Kissinger launched his appeal for a new Atlantic relationship, “in whose progress” (he somewhat condescendingly added) “Japan can share.” The reception given to Kissinger’s proposals in Europe was tepid, to say the least. In London The Times tartly rejoined that “US problems lie at home.” In Paris the French minister of agriculture once again spelled out the danger of allowing the United States “to dictate its terms to European countries.” The Financial Times, meanwhile, launched an attack on Japan’s policy of unloading its “vast surplus of foreign exchange” by direct investment overseas, and poured scorn on Kissinger’s contention that “the problems of European defense and of Japan can be meaningfully dealt with within the same framework of Atlantic partnership.”

In fact, Kissinger’s references to Japan were so perfunctory, his idea of somehow linking Japan with the United States and Western Europe in a single “common enterprise” so imprecise, that they can only, as Joseph Kraft immediately pointed out, have suggested to the Japanese “a get-together of the old boys’ club to which they might be admitted as servants.” Japan might be the second economic power in the capitalist world, and well on the way to being the first; but it was only too obvious that Tanaka counted for less in its councils than Pompidou or Brandt, or even grocer Heath.

If there is a feeling of insecurity in Japan and a sense of racial discrimination—if Japanese believe that, though for the moment they are tolerated as “honorary whites,” this is a temporary phase which will not endure—it would be difficult to argue that Japanese apprehensions are groundless. For one thing, as Brzezinski points out, the Japanese are acutely aware of the vulnerability of their key sources of supply. In 1971, according to Halliday and McCormack, there were only around twenty days’ supply of most industrial raw materials in the country and oil for forty-five days. No one, of course, is threatening Japan’s access to raw materials at present; but when we recollect the decisive part the oil embargo played in 1941 in the Japanese decision for war, it is not surprising that the question of how best to protect Japan’s vital overseas interests—the question that haunted Japanese policy in the 1930s—has again come to the fore.

Nor is it surprising that the terms in which it is posed are much the same. Japan’s geopolitical situation has not, after all, changed fundamentally since the 1930s. As the Sato-Nixon communiqué of 1969 explicitly observed, Korea and Taiwan, particularly the former, are still regarded as a necessary buffer on the outer Japanese defense perimeter. In regard to Korea at least, it is no secret that Japan would not hesitate to move in to protect its interests there, if need arose. The position in regard to Taiwan following Tanaka’s rapprochement with China is less clear. Eventually perhaps Tokyo may be willing to sacrifice Taiwan, if it proves a necessary price to pay to secure closer relations with Peking. Certainly there is no sign that Japan regards itself as committed to the Kuomintang regime in Taipei.

In addition, there is the wider question, debated incessantly in 1940 and 1941, of ensuring Japan’s economic needs. As Halliday and McCormack point out, Japan is extremely conscious of European-American control over the world’s mineral resources. It is no less conscious of its economic interests in Southeast Asia and of its dependence on oil imports through the Straits of Malacca. Because of its agricultural and mineral resources, Southeast Asia is, in Osgood’s words, “critical to Japan’s industrial economy.”

  1. 1

    Hitler and Hirohito,” New York Review, May 31, 1973.

  2. 2

    Wellesley’s statement is quoted by Bradford A. Lee, Britain and the Sino-Japanese War (Stanford, 1972).

  3. 3

    James B. Crowley, Japan’s Quest for Autonomy (Princeton, 1966).

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