Watch Out for Japan

Black Star Over Japan

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

Japanese Imperialism Today

by Jon Halliday and 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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.