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Is Japan the Enemy?

The Coming War with Japan

by George Friedman, by Meredith LeBard
St. Martin’s, 429 pp., $24.95

Japan Versus the West: Image and Reality

by Endymion Wilkinson
Penguin, 299 pp., $9.95 (paper)

The Rise of Modern Japan

by W.G. Beasley
St. Martin’s, 306 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Japan’s Administrative Elite

by B.C. Koh
University of California Press, 297 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Japan’s Expanding Role and Influence in the Asia-Pacific Region: Implications for US Interests and Policy

by Richard P. Cronin
Congressional Research Service, 79 pp., free

White Paper on International Trade, 1990

by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, Tokyo
77 pp., free

Arming Our Allies: Cooperation and Competition in Defense Technology

by the US Office of Technology Assessment
113 pp., $5.00

Thoughts on US-Japan Security and Economic Linkages in East Asia

by Michael W. Chinworth
MIT Japan Program, 23 pp., $12.50

Kokusanka: FSX and Japan’s Search for Autonomous Defense Production

by Michael J. Green
MIT Japan Program, 64 pp., $12.50


It is easy to imagine the dilemma the publisher faced when deciding whether to call its new book The Coming War With Japan. The authors are not widely known. George Friedman is a professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Meredith LeBard, originally from Australia, teaches writing at a community college in Harrisburg. If a book by these two had been published under a title that would accurately sum up its argument—such as, After the Cold War: Diverging National Interests Between Japan and America—few people would have paid much attention to it. By swinging for the fences with an inflammatory title and hyped-up passages every few chapters on the “inevitability” of war, both the publisher and authors virtually guaranteed that reviewers would say, as I’m about to, that the book does not come close to proving its announced case.

Still, if it had to choose between overselling the book and letting it die, the publisher erred in the right direction. The Coming War is unconvincing, but it is not stupid. It fails, fortunately, to convince us that Japan and America are likely to fight each other, but it demonstrates with surprising thoroughness why their interests will diverge more and more. The book should be seen as a counterpart to The War Between Russia and China, which Harrison Salisbury published in 1969. Salisbury turned out to be wrong, since an all-out war never erupted, but he was clearly right in insisting that the spirit of the old alliance was gone. I suspect that the same will prove true of Friedman and LeBard’s book. In twenty years the passages warning about submarine duels will, I think and hope, look bizarre. But the underlying analysis of why Japan and America will change from their current partnership to more and more open rivalry may well seem prescient.

One way to illustrate the book’s value is to contrast its message with the fatuousness of official political discourse between the two countries. In early April, just as The Coming War was appearing in bookstores, Prime Minister Kaifu of Japan came to Newport Beach, California, to meet with President Bush. The interplay between the two leaders and the pieties they expressed perfectly captured the larger frustrations of the relationship. Kaifu arrived in a condition of political weakness, which is the normal state of most prime ministers of Japan. He had tried to get Japan to send nurses, refugee workers, or noncombatant soldiers to the Persian Gulf, but he had been rebuffed in the Diet and in opinion polls. His government had extracted a relatively huge amount of money—$13 billion, much of it paid by ordinary Japanese citizens in consumption taxes—to contribute to the Gulf effort. But the process had been so slow and grudging that it had won virtually no good will for Japan overseas, leading many Japanese to feel that the money had been completely wasted.

Bush had spent less of his time worrying about Japan than Kaifu had about America. But on his way into the meetings he presumably grabbed a sheaf of papers reminding him of some of the more annoying problems that have arisen over Japan: the Japanese government’s threat to arrest American diplomats who dared to display sacks of California rice at a Tokyo trade fair; the US military’s quiet discovery that many of the weapons it used to beat Iraq could not have functioned without Japanese components; the realization that much of the recent improvement in the US-Japan trade imbalance came from larger US shipments of fish, grain, ore, and other raw commodities to Japan. Just before the Bush—Kaifu meeting, Kevin Kearns of the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington released a study showing that since 1987, the US trade deficit with Japan had actually deteriorated in categories like electrical machinery, computers, and some other high-tech goods. Most of the US export “surge” that followed Japan’s “market-opening” campaign consisted of categories like “Cork and Wood” (up 53 percent), “Tobacco and Tobacco Manfactures” (up 105 percent), “Fish” (up 106 percent), and “Paper and Paper-board” (up 52 percent). (See graphs on the next page.)

After discussing their problems for ninety minutes, during which they also ate lunch, the two leaders declared that prospects looked bright. Prime Minister Kaifu said, as Japanese officials traditionally do, that Japan’s only difficulty was the “perception gap,” which meant that “sometimes Japan’s efforts have not been understood and appreciated.” For his part, Bush played the MacArthuresque role of the generous big brother who refuses to get worked up about minor slights. “Toshiki Kaifu and I are committed to see that that bashing doesn’t go forward and that this relationship goes on.”

It could have been a scene like this—and scenes like this take place every time a president and a prime minister meet—that Friedman and LeBard had in mind when issuing this warning early in their book: “By pretending that there is nothing basically wrong in the relationship between our two countries, by pretending that we can go on this way indefinitely, [leaders] are permitting the tensions that are dividing our two countries apart to develop beneath the surface, out of sight and utterly out of control.”

The essence of their case is that the differences in national interest that led Japan and America to war fifty years ago were suspended but not resolved by the asymmetrical partnership of the postwar years, in which the United States agreed to defend Japan and Japan agreed to follow America’s diplomatic lead. If the world conditions that prevailed from the early 1950s through the late 1980s could last forever, this relationship could also endure, Friedman and LeBard say. One essential condition was that the US saw the entire world in cold war terms, which made Japan far more important as an anti-Soviet ally than as a competitor or rival in any sense. (“As long as the Soviet—American competition remained the central fact of the international system, the United States was dependent on Japan…. Japan was so important to America’s strategic interests that the United States was willing to endure substantial discomfort from Japanese economic competition.”) The other, related, condition was the sense of economic robustness that let the US government keep its head in the clouds of grand strategy, while other, smaller-minded, governments worried about commerce. Now both these conditions have changed, Friedman and LeBard say. As time goes on the US government will worry less about containing the Soviets, and more about keeping up with its allies. As a result, the US will necessarily cast a colder, more self-interested eye on Japan.

Unlike many American warnings about Japan, The Coming War‘s case does not rest on any assumption of dishonesty, perfidy, or conspiracy on the part of the Japanese. Indeed, Friedman and LeBard’s account of the origins of the “first” US—Japan war, which occupies about a third of the book, is much closer to the conventional Japanese understanding of events than to America’s.

From the Occupation onward, the standard American theory has been that the hard-working and essentially docile citizens of Japan were led astray by an aggressive, war-mongering government. Tojo and his cronies may not have been quite so evil as Hitler, in the American view, but their expansion in Asia, like Hitler’s in Europe, was seen as morally wrong, as opposed to merely opportunistic—as, for example, France’s had been in Indochina. By removing the evil leaders, as the Occupation authorities did with a purge of the top layer of the Japanese military command, the US would therefore be able to resolve its problems with Japan.

To the disappointment of many British and especially Australian officials, the US exempted emperor Hirohito from war crimes trials, on the theory that he had been powerless to stop Tojo’s cabal from launching the war. When the emperor presented himself to Douglas MacArthur in a famous meeting shortly after the surrender, MacArthur began lecturing him on how much better the world would have been if he had stood up to the militarists. According to David Bergamini’s account, Hirohito said:

The idea of gainsaying my advisors in those days never even occurred to me. Besides, it would have done no good. I would have been put in an insane asylum or even assassinated.”

A monarch must be brave enough to run such risks,” said MacArthur sternly.

Hirohito replied instantly. His well-modulated nasal voice rose slightly. His eyes turned attentively on the interpreter whose English seemed suddenly hushed and hesitant: “It was not clear to me that our course was unjustified. Even now I am not sure how future historians will allocate the responsibility for the war.”*

Friedman and LeBard contend that for Japan the war was a tragedy rather than, as with Hitler, a sin. Japan’s leaders felt that they were doomed to fight the Americans sooner or later, because the US was so bitterly opposed to Japan’s expansion in China and Southeast Asia. Once they had decided that war was unavoidable, the Japanese leaders realized that their best hope lay in taking the initiative, with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Delay would only give the US war machine extra time to get going. Meanwhile, the Japanese Imperial Navy would be running out of fuel. Before 1940, its main supplier had been the United States; therefore, the US embargo on oil shipments made naval leaders desperate.

Virtually no one in the Japanese command believed that the country could beat the Americans in an all-out war, but many expected that such a war could be avoided. The US, they believed, would quickly tire of fighting and agree to a cease-fire. In that case, the countries might agree to a kind of demarcation line running down the middle of the Pacific, with the US Navy in control from California to Hawaii and Japan in control of seas and territory to the west, including much of China, the Korean peninsula, and the former French, British, and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia. Japan’s fatal errors were, first, to underestimate the galvanizing effect of Pearl Harbor in the US, and second, to misunderstand the US Navy’s version of the “domino theory.” Friedman and LeBard say that the Navy feared that, if it lost the western Pacific to Japan, it would eventually lose control of Hawaii and the eastern Pacific too:

The Japanese, having modest goals, did not understand the level of insecurity the Americans felt in the Pacific. In the long run, the US could not believe that Japan would stop at controlling the Asiatic Pacific. Thus, the Americans would spare no expense in driving out Japan; negotiations would not take place before the surrender.

The force behind this tragedy, Friedman and LeBard say (along with most Japanese historians), was the enormous material dependency Japan encountered as it rushed into industrialism in the late nineteenth century. For several centuries before 1860, Japan had run a practically autarkic economy, producing all the food its people could eat and all the fuel they consumed. By 1920, its population had grown so fast that it began to rely on imported food from the rest of Asia, including rice from its colonies in Korea and Taiwan. Imports of oil rose twenty-fold during the 1920s, most of it coming from the United States. “The very success of the Japanese economy was its undoing,” Friedman and LeBard say. “It could not continue to grow without becoming more dependent on other countries and this inevitably would undermine Japanese autonomy.”

  1. *

    David Bergamini, Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy (Morrow, 1971), p. 172.

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