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.”
Fifty years after Pearl Harbor, Japan is tormented by similar worries about material dependency, Friedman and LeBard contend. This is where the argument may begin to sound strange to readers outside Japan. Japan’s economic success, after all, would seem to have given it more and more control over its trading partners around the world. Korea needs Japanese components to produce its own exports, from semiconductors to automobiles. The US government needs Japanese investors at its Treasury-bill auctions. Poor countries around the world need foreign aid from Japan.
Japan’s industrial and governmental leaders are well aware of the leverage they enjoy over other countries. Yet economic success is somehow not as reassuring as it should be. As Friedman and LeBard emphasize, the sheer tonnage of imported goods required by modern Japan nags in the back of many people’s minds. It is hard to pass a day in Japan without being reminded—in newspapers, on TV shows, in interviews—of the cliché that Japan is “a small island nation devoid of natural resources, which must export or die.”
In the late 1980s as in the late 1930s Japan enjoyed a large trade surplus but an even larger “materials deficit.” The country must import eight tons worth of fuel, food, wood, and other raw materials for each ton of goods that it exports. Economically this shows how valuable Japan’s products are; but strategically, Friedman and LeBard say, it fills the Japanese leadership with chronic dread. Every day Japanese ports must receive 80 million metric tons of oil, 30 million tons of iron ore, 25 million tons of coal.
The worldwide scale of Japan’s economic activity, far from allowing the country to feel more confident, makes it all the more insecure, according to Friedman and LeBard. In the 1930s, Japan could satisfy its material needs by controlling neighboring countries in Asia. Now it depends on resource shipments from the entire world. Since the end of World War II, it has known that the shipments would get through, since the US Navy has controlled the commercially significant shipping lanes. But with the end of the cold war, as The Coming War contends at great length, the US will lose both the incentive and the ability to patrol sea lanes for everyone else. The military alliance with Japan will no longer seem sacrosanct, and the US will concentrate more on winning its trade battles against Japan. Japan, to defend itself, will expand its military. The United States, with interests of its own in Asia, will resist. And so to war.
The specific events or economic conflicts that might provide the casus belli are not laid out very convincingly in this book. (Friedman and LeBard try to get around this problem by saying that the immediate causes of war are always unforeseeable. “Imagine being alive in the summer of 1900. Europe was powerful, peaceful, and rich. Could you have imagined the devastation of 1920, the fall of the Kaiser, the Russian Revolution?” Et cetera.) But the major motivating force, they say, will be America’s decision to push Japanese exporters out of the North American market. Friedman and LeBard correctly point out that Japan’s postwar economy has been built on a Ponzi-scheme-like promise of endless growth. Why do big Japanese companies so rarely lay off employees? Part of the explanation may lie in “Japanese culture,” but the principal reason is that they constantly expand their sales volume, even when they lose profit by doing so. (“Japanese culture” does not keep the nation’s small subcontractors, who supply components to the giants like Toyota and Mitsubishi, from laying off workers whenever business is slow.) Why is a square meter of Japanese soil one hundred times more valuable than a square meter of America? Mainly because Japanese banks have allowed land to be used as collateral for ridiculously inflated loans—which in turn obliges corporations to expand their sales even faster if they hope to meet the loan payments.
The desperate scramble to grow so as not to fall behind—behind the payroll, behind the loan payments, behind the other Japanese corporations that are scrambling just as hard—is what motivates the big Japanese exporters, Friedman and LeBard say (correctly, in my view). Europe decided long ago that it would not let this struggle for expansion spill over into its domestic markets; the United States, the authors contend, will soon do the same. Then Japanese interests will become truly desperate. Where will they sell their cars? How can they be certain that the ore and oil will still get through? In their anxiety, they will take steps that in turn put Americans on guard. The following passage comes as close as any other in Friedman and LeBard’s book to saying why “conflicts of interest” will lead to a shooting war:
As the United States forces Japan out of the American market and, indeed, closes off the rest of the hemisphere to Japanese trade, and as Europe raises barriers in order to protect its internal cohesion, Japan will find itself in a position where it will have to create its own regional market.
The US will see Japan attempting to force it out of markets that had hitherto been open to the US, at the precise moment when the US has made the decision to solve its own economic problems through more aggressive exports….
The US will respond to the decrease in its economic and political power in the region by increasing its military presence, and converting that presence into political pressure necessary to try to open up Asian markets to American goods….
The Japanese will respond by increasing their own political activity and constructing an armed force capable of limiting American pressure in the western Pacific….
One does not have to argue that Japan is preparing for war. It is sufficient to note that Japan would be insane not to prepare for war.
Does any of this make sense? The book’s flamboyant conclusion, that there will be a real war, seems preposterous to me. It is hard to imagine that the US government could “force” Japanese companies out of its own markets, let alone those of the rest of the hemisphere. (Friedman and LeBard say next to nothing about the obstacles that would prevent the United States from trying to expel Japanese interests—or from succeeding even if it tried. These include the age-old internal debate between “free-trade” and “protectionist” theorists within the United States, and the ever-increasing connections between American and Japanese firms. Carlos Salinas, the president of Mexico, has made a great show of sending his children to a Japanese-language school in Mexico City; many countries in Latin America are encouraging closer ties with Japan, as a source of investment and as a counterweight to the familiar, overbearing norteamericano presence.)
In view of the US Navy’s over-whelming power in the Pacific at the moment, it is also hard to imagine that Japan could develop a war-fighting fleet unnoticed, even if it wanted to. The authors correctly point out that Japan, with its generally advanced technology and its extensive nuclear power industry, could produce nuclear weapons almost immediately if it so chose. Two years from now Japan is scheduled to launch its own long-range missile, the H-2, which could theoretically be used to deliver nuclear warheads anywhere on earth. If anything, Japan’s nuclear potential makes conflict even less likely; the old concepts of deterrence, which have prevented war between the great powers for nearly fifty years, would swing into play.
If we are looking for plausible causes of combat between Japan and America, they are not to be found in future Pearl Harbors—that is, in headon collisions of national interest. If they were to arise anywhere, they would probably come from disputes like those in the three years before Pearl Harbor: struggles over influence and prerogatives in third countries. In the 1930s, the US resisted Japan’s growing role in China, the Dutch East Indies, and French Indochina. In the 1990s, the two countries might resist each other’s role in, say, the Philippines or Burma or Vietnam. It’s not hard to imagine Japan deciding to trade with or prop up a government the United States is attempting to bring down. (This year Japan will overtake the Soviet Union as the leading exporter to Vietnam, even as the US tries to enforce an economic boycott of Vietnam under the anachronistic “Trading With the Enemy Act.” This disagreement will obviously not lead to a war, in part because sooner or later the US will abandon the boycott.)
The case for war requires that many things go wrong and that many people act recklessly. That is, it could happen, but it need not. The case for a breakup of the postwar alliance requires merely that already visible trends go on.
The other books under review, like The Coming War, examine the political and strategic consequences of Japan’s commercial success. Japan Versus the West, by Endymion Wilkinson, a British official on the European Community staff in Brussels, like The Coming War, offers a conclusion that is less impressive than the reasoning that precedes it. Wilkinson’s conclusion is as implausibly cheerful as The Coming War’s authors are apocalyptic: he argues that “mutual understanding” will resolve most of what’s wrong between Japan and the outside world.
The most valuable parts of Wilkinson’s book (an updated version of a book first published in the early 1980s as Japan Versus Europe) are contained in the first 150 pages, which are mainly literary analysis. Starting in the 1860s, when Japanese and Western cultures first interacted in an extensive way, writers from each society registered strong opinions about the other. Before Wilkinson, several other scholars had compared the views from West to East and East to West, and the way each side’s perceptions of the other had evolved over the years. Sir George Sansom’s The Western World and Japan, published shortly after World War II, is the classic among them. John Dower in War Without Mercy and Sheila Johnson in The Japanese Through American Eyes are the most recent authors of similar works.
In the historical section of his book, Wilkinson offers many droll examples of impressions that later proved erroneous—for instance, the Anglo-Saxon certainty of the 1890s that the Japanese were too indolent and pleasure-loving to succeed at anything requiring hard work.
Small wonder that they constantly underestimated Japan. When it began catching the attention of the West by the defeat of China in 1895, or by the victories over Russia in 1904 and 1905, the West was completely taken by surprise.
He cites other impressions that have proven more durable, especially Japan’s tendency to have too much or too little respect for Western accomplishments. When Western economic and military power seems vast, as it did in the 1880s and 1960s, much of Japanese society organizes itself to “learn from the West.” When the West seems dissolute, as in the 1930s and in the 1980s, the prevailing Japanese view is one of disillusion and contempt.
The implied message of much of the history Wilkinson recounts is similar to The Coming War’s in emphasizing long-term conflict between Japan and the West. But in the second half of his book Wilkinson asserts, with much less evidence, that the conflicts can easily be resolved. In part this conclusion is dictated by the book’s premise. Wilkinson says that when cultures are as strange to each other as Western and Japanese society have been, certain stereotypes and images can emerge that blot out more nuanced thought. He says that these images are handed down from generation to generation, and that each new observer thinks he is seeing Japan afresh but is really trapped in second-hand perceptions and ideas.
Obviously stereotypes can be handed down, and not just about Japan. But Wilkinson’s approach pushes him toward the bizarre position of implying that the more often foreigners have observed a certain trait about Japan, the more likely it is to be false, not true. By the same reasoning, we could say that America must be an unusually peaceful society, since foreign observers have consistently marveled at how violent it is.
The trick is of course to distinguish mere handed-down stereotypes from observations that recur precisely because they are true. This Wilkinson does not do. He writes in the tone of a “cultural intermediary,” the man who assures us that he understands both sides and laments that others cannot do the same. This is a very familiar role in Japanese affairs, especially on the part of Westerners who, like Wilkinson, “discovered” Japan before its current success. Wilkinson says, “Over the years, I can count on the fingers of one hand the Japanese I met who reacted to me as just another human being,” precisely the kind of observation he would call a cliché if someone else said it. Wilkinson is left at the end of the book issuing Kaifulike calls for “mutual understanding” between Japan and the West, leaving much of the responsibility to the Japanese. “Nothing can be achieved until the Japanese…make massive efforts to be better understood.”
At the heart of appeals for “mutual understanding,” like Kaifu’s and Wilkinson’s, is the belief that any Japanese practices that caused friction in the past have recently changed, or will change by themselves very soon. Japan, it is said, used to be xenophobic, but is now internationalist. It used to have closed markets, but now it has opened up. It threw the GATT talks onto the shoals last year by refusing even to discuss the opening of its rice market, but eventually its policy will change. The key is patience and “understanding” from the outside world.
W.G. Beasley’s The Rise of Modern Japan, although written with as much evident love for Japan as Wilkinson’s book, takes the opposite approach, emphasizing the tremendous continuities in the way Japan has defined its national interest and defended it. Beasley is an emeritus professor of Far Eastern studies at the University of London. This book is an updated version of The Modern History of Japan, first published in 1963.
The recurrent pattern in Japan’s modern history, as Beasley describes it, is an effort to avoid imminent subjugation by the West. When Commodore Perry showed up with his machinery and gunships, Japan’s leaders knew the country would be colonized, like Malaya or China, if it did not haul itself into the modern age. When Douglas MacArthur arrived on the Missouri, Japan’s tattered postwar leadership understood that technology and industry were the only means of recovering independence of any kind. In the 1930s, Japan resented the Asian order that Britain, France, and the United States had constructed for their own benefit. In the 1990s, Japan is beginning to chafe at the American-dominated “New World Order” for which the Japanese are expected to pay. All of these views are perfectly logical, yet they suggest that something more than “mutual understanding” will be required to reconcile American and Japanese interests.
Like B.C. Koh in his book about the Japanese bureaucracy, Beasley emphasizes how little the nature of Japan’s government was changed even by defeat in war. About a hundred of the most notorious militarists were dismissed, but most of the rest of the government continued as if nothing had changed. The Occupation authorities announced bold plans for remaking Japan, and in some cases, such as land reform and demilitarization, they made a difference. Yet, Beasley says:
this change of direction can be overstated. Once the shock [of the Occupation] wore off, and the Japanese again began to take the initiative in directing their own affairs, they gave to the new something of the attitudes and the personalities of the old: less of America of the 1940s, more of Japan of the 1920s and 1930s. The result is that in many contexts one can trace today a far greater continuity with the recent past than would at one time have seemed possible.
Like the authors of The Coming War, Beasley says that dependence on foreign resources is another of the great continuities in Japan’s condition. Yet without making the point explicitly, his book indicates why struggles over resources will probably not lead Japan to war again.
The reason is money. Japan has learned how to use money as the “financial equivalent of gunboats,” as a way of keeping the ore and grain coming in. During the build-up to the Gulf War, most Americans seemed to share the Friedman-LeBard view about Japan’s dependence. Since Japan relied on the Middle East for 70 percent of all the oil it used, compared to America’s reliance for 12 percent, the Japanese should have been deeply worried about all that oil coming under Saddam Hussein’s control. In fact, they were not. To large Japanese companies, which had watched OPEC’s rise and fall, Saddam was annoying but not much more. Masamichi Hanabusa, the Japanese consul general in New York, made a famous speech a few weeks before the fighting began, saying that of course Japan wished the allied troops well, but saw no compelling reason to get into the fight itself:
Who will control the oil is a serious issue for the US this time. But it is not a very serious issue for Japan. It is of course better that oil is in friendly hands. But experience tells us that whoever controls oil will be disposed to sell it.
Part of the experience Hanabusa had in mind was the first oil shock, in the early 1970s, which was far more traumatic for Japan than for the United States. Factories laid off workers for the first time since the war; government officials toiled in offices that were cold and dark; the wholesale price index rose by 30 percent in 1974. But as Beasley carefully explains in his book, Japan responded to that shock in a way that minimized its economy’s future vulnerability. Bureaucrats devised plans to shift the economy away from energy-gobbling industries like aluminum smelting. They imposed requirements that businesses and civilians conserve energy; one of the most effective was raising the price of gasoline, which now costs nearly $4 a gallon. Japan built nuclear power plants, and of course continued to pile up trade surpluses with which to pay for future oil.
These measures were so successful that, by the time Iraq invaded Kuwait, the “vulnerable” Japanese economy was much less threatened than America’s. All industrialized countries suffer when the price of oil goes up, but Japan now suffers least. Its industries are so much less energy-intensive than America’s that, each time OPEC drives the price of oil up another dollar, Japanese firms become stronger relative to competitors in North America, Korea, or Europe. It was this understanding of world energy markets, as much as the standard timidity of Japanese diplomatic statements, that lay behind the Japanese government’s repeated declarations that it “hoped for a peaceful outcome” in the Gulf. Saddam Hussein could take over every oil well, and Japan would still prosper (relatively speaking). But actual warfare, however “just” the cause, could interrupt the physical flow of oil and create big problems for Japan.
Japan’s Administrative Elite, by B.C. Koh of the University of Illinois, is a useful complement to Beasley’s book, in explaining how the Japanese government has managed its energy problems so effectively. One basic tenet of Anglo-American economics is that the government shouldn’t try to guide the economy, because bureaucrats will always be worse than the market at deciding how resources should be used. Economists in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore have little to say about this theory, because many people in those countries assume that bureaucrats can make better choices than the market does. Japan has an energy policy made by bureaucrats, they would say; America, one from the market. Draw your own conclusions.
Koh’s book is a scholarly analysis of Japan’s bureaucratic traditions, which argues that the country’s administrators are some of the most skillful in the world. Before the Meiji restoration of 1868, the shoguns who ruled Japan had their courtiers and retainers, but the Japanese bureaucracy in its current form was created as part of the sweeping Meiji-era reforms that followed Commodore Perry’s arrival. Like the Prussian bureaucracy, on which it was modeled, the prewar Japanese bureaucracy ran on a combination of the merit system and snobbery. In theory, admission was based strictly on academic merit, but in practice only young men from rich families could afford the training necessary to qualify.
Koh says that the most destructive part of the current system is the structural corruption it creates. Most bureaucrats are forced to retire in their late forties or early fifties, at which point they have only tiny pensions to rely on and many decades of life expectancy ahead. The successful bureaucrat’s ideal is to land in a lucrative, cushy job with one of the corporations he regulated during his preretirement years. The jobs are widely viewed as deferred bribes, but the system seems beyond any attempt at reform. Outsiders often talk admiringly about “government-business co-operation” in Japan, without dwelling on strong-arm practices like this that make “cooperation” work. The best side of the bureaucratic system, Koh concludes, is:
the exceptional caliber of Japan’s administrative elite, broadly defined. They are the veritable cream of the crop—extraordinarily competent, highly dedicated, and singularly hard-working…. [This] may go a long way toward explaining the apparent efficiency of Japanese-government bureaucracy and the efficacy of Japan’s public policies.
The Japanese government’s clear-eyed, competent pursuit of its national interests may put it at more and more obvious odds with US policy, as the disagreement over Iraq indicated. But the same skill and rationality will presumably keep Japan out of war. What is the point of building more destroyers, when foreign aid payments, contracts, and investments can do the same job? The reports by Richard Cronin of the Congressional Research Service, Masaharu Hanazaki of the Japan Development Bank, and the legendary Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) itself differ in emphasis but all remark on Japan’s powerful economic influence over its nearby “resource base” in Southeast Asia. Japan’s diplomatic power in the region is still modest. In some countries, there are still bitter feelings about World War II. Yet money, in huge quantities, would seem to secure Japan as many supplies as it would want from the region.
In the last two years, Thailand’s exports of electronic goods to the US increased forty-fold. Nearly all of the goods are from Japanese companies that have set up factories there. Approximately half the value-added of Korea’s exported cars consists of components imported from Japan. For the last two decades, leaders from Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and other Southeast Asian nations have talked about integrating their economies. The only real progress in that direction has been carried out by Japanese manufacturers like Toyota, which is now building engines in one country, brakes in another, and combining them into a regional car.
Most of Malaysia’s oil and Indonesia’s timber goes to Japan; these were resources for which Japan fought in the 1930s, and which it can now simply buy. Since the early 1980s, American imports from Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia have been mainly manufactured products—TVs, VCRs, radios, telephones. Japan’s imports are overwhelmingly fuel, food, and raw materials. In the last three years, Asian countries have doubled their exports of manufactured goods to Japan. Virtually all of the increase comes from the overseas plants of such companies as Matsushita, Sony, or Hitachi.
If any nation is pushed toward a martial policy by economic developments in Asia, it would seem to be the United States, not Japan. As the rest of Asia looks to Japan as the source of money and technology, America’s comparative advantages boil down to four: the possibility of immigration, the supply of movies and other pop culture, the continued strength of American universities, and the presence of the Seventh Fleet. If it seriously reduced its military presence in Asia the US would lose one of its principle sources of influence.
Japan, then, has no good reason to rush toward rearmament. America is unlikely to close its own market (or Latin America’s!) so suddenly as to make Japan go to war. This leaves the one plausible source of military confrontation between the countries: the fears of the American military itself.
In principle, the Japanese and American military establishments work on a complementary if unbalanced basis. The US specializes in certain tasks that are defined as being too big for the Japanese—providing a nuclear deterrent, “projecting power” with aircraft carriers, guarding the sea lanes through the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Japan, meanwhile, is supposed to defend itself with a bristling local arsenal of tanks, anti-aircraft missiles, and resolute home guards.
At face value, the relationship leaves Japan wholly dependent on the United States. If there were a war, and it happened at any time in the next couple of years, Japan would not have a prayer, since it has deliberately subordinated its military to America’s. But American military officials have begun to worry about their dependence on Japan.
In the recent reports issued by MIT’s Japan Program, Michael Chinworth and Michael Green describe in detail the diverging paths of Japanese and American military technology. The central goal of Japan’s policy, as Green shows in his report, has been kokusanka—technological autonomy, the ability to produce weapons without relying on foreign suppliers for anything. In strictly financial terms, this policy is costly and irrational. When Japan decided to build the T-2 fighter plane in the mid-1960s, for instance, its projected cost was twice as great as it would have been had they bought a plane from American manufacturers: by the time the plane was finished, it cost twelve times as much as the American import would have cost. (Remember, these comparisons are against the already high prices the US military pays.)
The drive for kokusanka is a military irritant, since it means that the Americans and Japanese would be less able to use each other’s weapons in battle. It creates obvious diplomatic problems with the United States. Yet 90 percent of Japan’s weapons are now produced domestically. In 1975, the defense production committee of the Keidanren, Japan’s leading bigbusiness alliance, said that relying on imported weapons
prevents a nation from adopting hostile activities toward the supplier of its weapons. And even if one accepts that a country would not go as far as taking such hostile action, that country would still be unable to take action which opposes the intentions of its supplier.
To this the American military might reply: precisely. Through the last two decades, the US military has replied a kind of reverse kokusanka policy; each year, a higher proportion of the advanced electronic components in its weapons come from Japan. In its coverage of the US victory in the Persian Gulf, the Japanese press was much more skeptical about American high-tech mastery than were most American reports. Except for the F-117 Stealth fighter, virtually all of the “brilliant” American weapons were designed and developed in the 1970s. Consequently, their technology was more impressive to the Iraqis than to the Japanese. Moreover, the Japanese reports stressed, the highest-tech parts of the American systems were often Japanese. Semiconductor chips inside the Patriot missile and most other American “smart” weapons were housed in ceramic packaging made almost exclusively by the Kyocera company of Kyoto. Raytheon manufactures the Sparrow air-to-air missile, but certain crucial components in its guidance system must be imported from Japan. The machine tools on which the defense industry depends, the optical elements of precision-guidance systems, the composite materials used to make high-speed aircraft, come increasingly from suppliers in Japan.
“Japan does not look upon its relationship with the United States as something that inherently is desirable for its own sake,” Michael Chinworth, a long-time student of Japanese defense policy, says in his report, “or as one that should be maintained out of a sense of philosophical commitment to shared ideals.” This view explains much of the disagreement between the US and Japan during the Gulf War.
The United States must therefore project an image of strength vis-a-vis Japan in order to sustain the political leverage necessary to convince its ally to cooperate. If Japan perceives an American decline—and many policymakers already see that happening—it will be extremely difficult to secure Japanese cooperation.
In the view of Friedman and LeBard “extreme difficulty” means war. This itself is extreme. But there is sure to be more antagonism than we have seen in the last forty years.
May 30, 1991