Japan and the International Order in the Age of Shifts in Power in the Indo-Pacific

Hosoya Yuichi, Kokusai chitsujo: 18 Seiki Europe kara 21 Seiki Asia e [International Order: From 18th Century Europe to 21st Century Asia] (Tokyo: Chuokoron Shinsha, 2012)

Hosoya Yuichi, Rekishi ninshiki towa nanika? Nichiro senso kara Asia Taiheiyo senso made [What is Historic Recognition: From the Russo-Japanese War to the Asia-Pacific War] (Tokyo: Shincho Sensho 2015)

Japan has just gone through a historic, yet essentially, modest change to its security policy. The security reform legislation has passed the National Diet despite the enormous controversy it triggered. As Prime Minister Abe Shinzo acknowledges, changes he is attempting to make in the official interpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution are not gaining broad support or deep understanding from Japanese voters. Instead of robust debates on the future of Japan’s national security policy, discussions rarely go beyond the realm of the interpretation of the pacifist constitution. It seems as if Japan, along with Germany, relinquished the concept of “balance-of-power” after its defeat, despite being a major part of America’s alliance system. This contrasts with its role in international relations in the early twentieth century as a rising power striving to maximize its national power. Nevertheless, geography is unchangeable. In Europe and Asia, respectively, Germany and Japan appear unable to escape from the pivotal geopolitical role they play in their region. In the evolving security environment in Asia, how can Tokyo reconcile its role in regional security and the Japanese people’s predominantly pacifist national identity rooted in the country’s experience fighting the Pacific War? This is a pressing question, which is not easy to answer without broad analysis of historical consciousness about the international order.

Diplomatic historian Hosoya Yuichi in two recent books, one on the international order and the other focusing on early twentieth century Japanese history, offers hints for resolving this dilemma. Kokusai chitsujo explores the evolution of the international order to discuss what sort of order is optimal for a stable, peaceful Asia. Rekishi ninshiki towa nanika? delineates the disconnect between Japanese diplomacy and international relations from the Russo-Japanese War to WWII in a broad historical context, highlighting how Tokyo’s failure to understand the global context resulted in strategic mistakes that led to its isolation as a “challenger to the international order.” These books, published not as arcane academic literature but rather as paperbacks, are intended to inform the public by offering food for thought on Japan’s national security and identity when the topic is as timely and pressing as ever. After Abe’s statement on the seventieth anniversary of the war’s end, Japanese continue to face the need to combine historical clarity and strategic thinking.

70 years after the conclusion of WWII, the Indo-Pacific region is at a critical juncture, amid a shift in the distribution of power given China’s economic development and military build-up. How to deal with China’s increasingly assertive behavior has triggered numerous debates. Japan, in particular, is wrestling with this emerging challenge. The Abe administration is struggling to change the status quo by consolidating the legal infrastructure so that Japan can exert the right to collective self-defense in specific and limited situations considered vital for its national security.

Hosoya’s consistent interest is how international order is forged, focusing on diplomatic history with implications for the present. Putting Japan in the spectrum of international order is crucial in responding to looming security challenges. The book starts by introducing a major debate over Japan’s security policy in 1959 between Kosaka Masataka and Sakamoto Yoshikazu, in which Kosaka rebuts Sakamoto’s call for a “neutral Japan” (churitsu Nihon no boei koso), arguing that losing the US-Japan security alliance would not only leave the defense of Japan vulnerable but would also result in undermining the “balance-of-power” in East Asia. Sakamoto responded that the concept of “balance-of-power” was feasible in nineteenth century Europe because of shared values. Hosoya indicates how both referred to the Congress of Vienna as an example in describing the conditions for peace in East Asia as well as Tokyo’s national security policies, proceeding to show how over the two centuries since that formative event three concepts—balance, concert, and community—underpinned the way the international order responded to new realities. He adds that the lessons of history tell us how we could effectively respond to the current challenges and strive to establish a new order that may produce peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific.

References to philosophers such as David Hume and Adam Smith on the roots of several types of international order that emerged throughout history illustrate how humans have wrestled with the eternal quest to seek peace and stability, recoiling from the mistakes when the conventional order went bankrupt. “Balance-of-power” is a prerequisite for stability in international politics, Hosoya argues, noting cases when a new equilibrium restored stability while mere pursuit of ideals failed to establish sustainable peace, as the period between the two world wars demonstrates. He argues that now the most important thing for East Asian security is to restore order based on “balance,” which involves sustained US commitment to East Asia, strengthening of the US-Japan alliance, and, most importantly, Japan’s maintenance of adequate national power. Order based on balance is the foundation for establishing orders based on concert and community, Hosoya concludes.
Based on this analysis, steeped in historical arguments, moves to upgrade defense coordination with US armed forces in Japan and consolidate the legal infrastructure to enhance collaboration could be regarded as not only reasonable, but as essential to achieve the ideals opponents assert.

Hosoya’s earlier biography of Anthony Eden highlights that diplomacy works most effectively when combined with adequate national power. Eden sought NATO’s consolidation to ensure US commitment to Western Europe and rebuilding West Germany’s military in order to talk with Moscow to diffuse the rising tensions in the 1950s. Likewise, for Japan to diffuse tensions amid uncertain and rapid changes in the power distribution in the region, it needs to preserve adequate power so as to ensure that diplomacy functions effectively in order to avoid war. Hosoya insists on positioning Japan in a broader context of international order in contrast to recent thinking on foreign policy and history that rarely goes beyond Japan’s own perspectives and dismisses its geopolitical role in the international order. The US-Japan alliance, despite its strategic value in the security of the Asia-Pacific, is rarely discussed beyond the realm of Tokyo’s own defense policy. Dismissing the linkage could produce negative consequences, as in the origins of WWII.

Hosoya’s 2015 book describes how missing linkages in Tokyo’s strategic mistakes resulted in war. Setting aside the usual pacifist lens on history, he blames the absence of internationalism (kokusaishugi) and the temptation to isolationism for disastrous outcomes. Misperceptions of international politics by the Japanese government and public were the major reason for Japan’s mistakes. The book focuses on individual political leaders and their decision-making to make this case. It describes the different impact WWI had on Europe and Japan; Europe experienced the destructive nature of the “Total War,” but Japan acted opportunistically by attacking German interests in China. Whereas Europe pursued prevention of war in the immediate aftermath, the lesson Japan learned was rather the value of opportunistic war in advancing its national interests. The establishment of the League of Nations and the Kellogg–Briand Pact in 1928 demonstrated Europe’s determination to pursue peace. Japan was not only indifferent to this emerging new trend in international relations but eventually became the country responsible for destroying it.

In 1931, Japanese forces invaded Manchuria, decimating the nascent optimistic atmosphere in Europe in the 1920s that peace was finally restored. This played a decisive role in transforming the nature of international relations back to military competition from the pacifist trend in the 1920s. As the perception gap widened between Europe and Japan, Tokyo started losing direction in its foreign policy as it made decisions based on parochial, short-term interests, while isolating itself through a chain of strategic mistakes inadvertently leading to confrontation with the United States. Hosoya highlights Japan’s lack of strong leadership, absence of long-term strategies, and parochial bureaucratic interests and interagency rivalry that dictated decision-making, contrasting it with Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s solid determination to win the war. The character of political leadership matters in difficult moments such as war. Lacking mechanisms to make strategic decisions even before Pearl Harbor, Japan was in trouble not only because of militarism, but also due to a lack of internationalism, preventing it from accurately recognizing the global context of the time. Parochial perceptions of the world transformed Japan into a challenger of the international order of the time. Hosoya, therefore, argues that the major objective in postwar Japan should be to restore internationalism in Japan’s strategic thinking.

Hosoya indicates how the spirit of internationalism is clearly embedded in Japan’s postwar pacifist constitution, the preamble of which states, “we (the Japanese people) believe that no nation is responsible to itself alone.”1 Yet, he observes that an obsession with pacifism (heiwashugi), or passive pacifism (nodoteki na heiwashugi) to be more precise, has harbored potential risks. The book warns that if pre-war Japan was trapped in a type of isolationism named militarism, postwar Japan could be interpreted as obsessed with isolationism that is pacifism. Hosoya wrote recently that pacifism has been occasionally translated into isolationism resulting in the absence of robust national security debates in Japan, at a cost to the country’s future.2

Japan’s disconnect from the global context is no more apparent than in today’s debates on the nation’s security policy. Discussion on the value of the US-Japan alliance is almost non-existent among the public despite the strategic value it has from Washington’s perspective. Within the US alliance system, which underpins the US-led international order, the US-Japan alliance has historically had exceptional strategic value. Even after the conclusion of the Cold War, the alliance has functioned as a provider of international public goods, especially in maintaining peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific.3 The security legislation Abe is trying to implement not only has major implications for Japan but also for the regional order. Absence of discussion on the geopolitical consequences of Japan’s national security policy is not a positive sign for the entire region’s future.

These two books offer an alternative framework in the face of polarizing debate over militarism-or-peace between the supporters and those against the security reforms What underlies Hosoya’s academic works are his endeavor to identify the conditions for peace, which avoids the simplistic all-or-nothing approach that appears to be framing the ongoing discussions on the security bills in Japan. The historic overview of international relations revealed in Kokusai chitsujo demonstrates that adequate possession of national power, including military power, produces equilibrium in the power balance resulting in peace and stability. War is absolutely not desirable amid the increasingly volatile state of security in the Asia-Pacific. Nevertheless, possessing power is a prerequisite for peace and for diplomacy to function effectively to diffuse tensions and avoid war. The security bills, which aim to consolidate the legal security infrastructure, therefore, are actually a necessary step to maintain the power balance in the Asia-Pacific that would ultimately preserve the peace that we all pursue. It is also important to note that the security bills are mere legal consolidations and do not directly alter nor upset the military balance in Asia.

It is unfortunate that most claims made to oppose the legislation dismiss the strategic value the security legislations has for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific. While their “commitment” to peace is valid, by inaccurately linking the legislation with “militarism” under Imperial Japan, those opposing the security reforms have failed to offer any reasonable alternative security policy options. What appears to be absent here is the basic recognition of the forces and variables that kept Japan safe after the Cold War in a region with potential sources of conflict along with the robust debates linking the security reforms with their broader implications for regional security. The opposition advocates peace; however, its parochial approach to peace considers Japan’s pacifism an absolute virtue, revealing a total lack of any sense of internationalization.

As a matter of fact, the security reforms are not merely about military balances in Asia nor the US-Japan alliance. They also allow the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to play an active role in peace-keeping operations (PKOs). Strict legal constraints have hindered that despite incremental legal amendments over the years. The security reforms, therefore, are also necessary, if modest changes, for Japan to play a responsible role as a member of the international community.

What would internationalization mean in the twenty-first century? According to Hosoya’s 2015 book, it is about recognizing international politics from a global context without being trapped in one’s parochial national interest and security. In the modern world, for Japan, a major US ally, it means to understand America’s grand strategy and position Japan within the international order, which benefits Japan enormously. Tracing US national security reports from the Nye Initiative4 to the Armitage Report in 20005 shows the security reforms to be a natural culmination of policy to encourage Tokyo to redress legal constraints over defense policy. The lack of any sense of internationalization among some in the Japanese public is, therefore, a discouraging trend given the major role Japan has played in Washington’s grand strategy since the Cold War from the containment strategy forged by George Kennan to the value of the alliance illuminated by present-day strategists.

A commonly used term in Japanese media to describe America’s global role, “the world’s policeman” (sekai no keisatsu), is indicative of the perception the Japanese public may generally have towards America’s leadership role. The expression implies that the US global commitment is a given for allies such as Japan or an obligation for a superpower to maintain her expansive engagement. In leftist discourse, such terminology could be used negatively to see the United States as an imperial power, intervening in conflicts elsewhere. This perspective hinders the public from having a broader view of Tokyo’s geopolitical role in the international order, resulting in the absence of internationalization or a global perspective on international affairs.

It is an encouraging sign that the term “international order” is increasingly being used in statements made by the Japanese government. The Abe statement on August 14, for instance, mentions Japan being “a challenger to the international order” during the country’s imperial past. Reference to such a phrase reveals that Tokyo’s foreign and security policy takes a broader context into account. It also demonstrates that the government is taking into account the geopolitical consequences of its decision-making. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Tokyo has not been successful in clearly presenting this view on Japan’s global role in the international order to the Japanese people so as to explain the reasoning behind the security reforms.

Beyond the role of power in diplomacy and the value of power balances in preserving peace, another major takeaway from Hosoya’s 2015 book is its description of how Japan’s decision-making apparatus crumbled in the course of a decade, culminating in the Pearl Harbor attacks. The functionality of a country’s decision-making mechanism is a topic often discussed when considering grand strategy, including in Washington. While the book attributes Japan’s strategic mistakes in the 1930s and 1940s to the absence of a sense of internationalization, Hosoya warns about parallels we see today. He highlights the risk of polarizing debate, which may produce further untempered discussions, eventually hindering the country from making rational decisions.

Pursuing peace is a natural thing for humans. Rather than a polarized debate over a simplified militarism-or-peace lens, what Japan desperately needs now is a robust debate on how to preserve the peace we all cherish as well as Japan’s global role from a long-term and broader perspective. The absence of such discussion is not only unfortunate but dangerous, given the potential shift in power distribution in the Indo-Pacific. From a security standpoint, the reforms are no surprise, given that this is something that Washington has been encouraging Tokyo to do for almost two decades. However, by viewing the legislation solely from a constitutional lens or through an ideological obsession with pacifism, commentators have derailed the debate over this pressing security issue and simplified it into a polarized standoff. After WWII, Japan has played a distinctive and pivotal global role as a major US ally. It would be constructive to place this debate within a broader context of regional security and Japan’s role as a proud country committed to peace since 1945, as the preamble of the Japanese constitution claims. Hosoya’s two recent books are valuable starting points to kick off such a discussion.


1. Japan Constitution, http://japan.kantei.go.jp/constitution_and_government_of_japan/constitution_e.html.

2. Hosoya Yuichi, “日本ではなぜ安全保障政策論議が不在なのか,”
July 31, 2015, http://www.newsweekjapan.jp/hosoya/2015/07/post.php.

3. “Grand Design of the US-Japan Alliance at a New Stage: As a Protector of a Liberal, Open, Rule-based International Order in the ‘Era of Smart Power,’” The Japan Forum on International Relations, June 2015, http://www.jfir.or.jp/e/special_study/201506.pdf.

4. Department of Defense, “The United States Security Strategy for the East Asia-Pacific Region,” Office of International Security Affairs, February 1995.

5. “The United States and Japan: Advancing Toward a Mature Partnership” INSS Special Report,” Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, October 11, 2000.