Japan-US Relations with Extension to Japan’s Ties to Russia and China

The narratives of the end of the Cold War naturally start with the question of “what was the Cold War for Japan,” which, in turn, raises the question “what was WWII for Japan,” because in Northeast Asia, it was precisely Japan which became the major actor in waging this war. Thus, this analysis starts with the “trauma of defeat in WWII as the Pacific War,” then shifts to the “meaning of the Cold War (1945-1990),” followed by “what does the end of that era mean today,” and finally “the implications of the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII in 2020.” Japan’s relationship with the United States should be kept foremost in mind, given the importance of shared memories for an alliance of former adversaries steeped in common values. Coverage here extends also to Russia and China.

In 2015 in commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, Abe Shinzo’s prime ministerial statement had been waited anxiously for evaluations of the degree of apology or signs of historical revisionism. But in 2020, freed from that pressure, with Donald Trump indifferent to such matters, Xi Jinping intent on boosting his personal relationship with Abe, Vladimir Putin maintaining his personal connection, and Moon Jae-in discredited in the eyes of many for overdoing his demonization of Japan, Abe might have a chance of taking a new position on Japan’s role in the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII. Attention may focus instead on the Tokyo Olympics or their cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic with its attendant economic battering. Yet that does not mean the 75th anniversary will pass unnoticed in international circles. It behooves those following Japanese ties to the US, China, and Russia to reflect on it.

Trauma of defeat in WWII as the Pacific War

The impact of Japan’s total surrender (not unconditional, because the Emperor remained as the critical exception) was exacerbated by the mindset that had been deeply implanted by 1945. It combined: the residue of a sense of security from a history of 260 years of peace and stability in a Sinocentric world during the Edo period, which succeeded in creating a comparatively rich and educated society, culturally developed, and even with an informed class of leaders within the context of a closed society but capable of tuning into new national and global affairs; a determined will to catch up by becoming a “rich and strong country” after being forced open by Western states benefiting from the Industrial Revolution; inflated confidence through victories in the Sino-Japanese war and Russo-Japanese war that Japan had reached the top ranks of the Euro-American imperial powers; and a profound sense of loss after a catastrophic defeat, stripping Japan of practically everything it had acquired from the Meiji Restoration. The trauma was acute because Japan had never had the experience of being defeated and occupied by a foreign power and had developed a narrative of civilizational uniqueness and superiority only to suffer immeasurably. The lessons learned by the Japanese people were: do not repeat this devastating defeat and keep the peace; since pre-war policy was guided by autocratic militarism, new democratic government is preferred; preservation of the emperor means civilization is not endangered; and people’s energy needs to be directed for daily work and economic reconstruction. This was the meaning of 1945, which has remained as important foundation now at the time of the 75th anniversary.

The initial US occupation policy was in harmony with Japanese people’s preferences, enshrined in Article 1 (emperor) and Article 9 (peace) in the Constitution. But around 1948-49, the Cold War began affecting Japan. Rather than letting Japan become just a peaceful and democratic country, US policy shifted to make it economically and militarily strong and become a vanguard of democracy to fight against communism.  Prime minister Yoshida Shigeru accepted this strategy to fight against the communist bloc in his own way through the Yoshida Doctrine that kept Japan fundamentally pacifist, so that people’s energy would be primarily directed to economic reconstruction, keeping minimal ability for self-defense, and letting American troops defend Japan against any communist threat. This established the foundation for the entire Cold War period.

Meaning of the Cold War (1945-1990)

Japan-US relations during the Cold War

Cold War relations between Japan and the US were founded on the system of 1951: 1) the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which allowed Japan to return to international society but only with the US and other democratic countries; 2) Japan’s individual self-defense through the controversial Self-Defense Forces (SDF); 3) the rest of its defense ensured by US troops stationed in accord with a security treaty; and 4) normalization with communist countries and with South Korea postponed until Japan’s economy could serve as a lure. This foundation worked well for Japan’s material progress and national security as one bilateral barrier after another fell; the reversion of Okinawa became a critical point for normalization.

The Cold War era witnessed an enduring but fragile balance between progressive forces in Japan wary of entanglement in the costly, potentially dangerous work of protecting the “free world,” and the driving forces in the conservative camp intent on converting economic power into domestic pride and foreign policy activism using all types of power. While the US generally welcomed conservative goals for rejuvenation, Japanese aspirations to end what was perceived as an abnormal postwar period posed challenges for bilateral relations. In 1965, prime minister Sato Eisaku stated that “without the reversion (of the administrative right) of Okinawa, Japan’s ‘post-war’ shall not end.”

The reversion took place in two stages. The first stage required handling the nuclear weapons stationed in Okinawa. The 1969 Sato-Nixon Joint Communique Article 8 prescribed that they will be removed at the time of revision, but if there occurs a necessity for their reentry (the Vietnam War was ongoing), that would be handled under the consultation system established by the 1960 security agreement. Later it became known that an energetic young professor of Kyoto Sangyo University, Wakaizumi Kei, acted as Sato’s secret envoy and negotiated with Kissinger that if consultations were sought by the US president, the Japanese prime minister’s response would always be “yes.” (In the 1990s news of this was received with consternation.) The second stage of the negotiations from 1970 to 1972 took care primarily of financial issues related to the revision, culminating in the Okinawa Reversion Agreement. Yet it was already entangled with trade issues, starting with textiles, which tested bilateral ties until 1995, when US president Bill Clinton and prime minister Hosokawa Morihiro resolved the last serious issue automobiles. The essence of the trade conflict was that the party demanding change to the status quo was now the Americans. The Japanese side conceded, one by one, to American requests with an understanding that it has to take into consideration the economic suffering of an allied power, treating as less salient that “opening Japanese markets” also entails benefits for Japanese consumers. Unlike the Okinawa issue, where Japan was the supplicant, treating this as a test of equality, trade saw the US beseeching Japan, while Japanese felt some resentment that this was a reminder of more inequality.

The Cold War became defined as Washington pressing Tokyo for more military support and more market openness, while Tokyo grudgingly yielded on some matters, as in prime minister Nakasone Yasuhiro’s decision to let financial authorities agree to Plaza and Louvre exchange rate changes, which made the yen twice as strong as the dollar. He also introduced economic reform initiatives to pull down import barriers more voluntarily. On the security front at the Williamsburg G7 in 1983, Nakasone asserted that the “security of the West is indivisible” and worked for G7 members to agree on the zero option for Soviet intermediate nuclear forces. The “Ron-Yasu” relations marked the high point of US-Japan relations during the Cold War. Japanese largely have positive memories of such closeness and accord, but they anticipated something better: a larger voice, greater equality, a leadership role in Asia, and room to perform as a great power. 

Japan-Soviet Union relations during the Cold War

Cold War relations between Japan and Russia are pretty straightforward. First, the world was basically divided into two. For Japan, under US occupation and led primarily by conservative parties, it was a natural choice to belong to the Western world. There were political and intellectual leaders who preferred the Eastern world, or a neutral position between the two, but they never reached the level of taking political power. Second, when Japan was surrendering to the United States, the Soviet Union attacked Japan in violation of its obligation under the Neutrality Pact still in force until April 1946. It committed atrocities in Manchuria, the northern part of Korea, and the Kurile Islands and southern part of Sakhalin, resulting in taking 600,000 soldiers to Soviet camps and seizure of territory, including the four southern islands of the Kuriles, which were designated as Japanese territory in 1855. Thus, the Cold War was fundamentally a time of hostility between the two countries, but Japan had aspirations for a breakthrough.

Intermittent hopes for a turnaround in relations with Moscow were indicative of how the Cold War era left Japanese uneasy about unrealized national identity ideals. In 1956-60 a rapprochement raised hope that Japan would escape the vise of polarization as well as secure the return of islands indicative of it returning as a diplomatic player, but Moscow dashed those hopes in 1960 after Japan and the US concluded a new security treaty. As in the earlier Khrushchev thaw, the détente environment in 1973 after Japan had reached a normalization agreement with China saw a renewal of summitry and verbal agreement between Tanaka Kakuei and Leonid Brezhnev that “unresolved after the war are four islands.” Japan demonstrated its newfound economic clout agreeing to several Siberian timber and energy projects, but political tension soon revived, and official visits did not take place between foreign ministers from 1979 to 1985. The third Cold War warming started after Gorbachev took power in 1985, dialogue resumed, and with some delay, Gorbachev finally made his official visit to Japan in April 1991. Hopes lingered into the post-Cold War years that Moscow would agree to an island deal while relations would finally give Tokyo the room to maneuver and identity boost that it had long envisioned.

Japan- China (PRC) relations during the Cold War

From 1972, Japan’s energy as status quo challenger shifted toward China. Prior to that time, Japan’s options were frozen, but the Nixon shock gave it an opening, which prime minister Tanaka Kakuei seized. Hopes centered first on culminating Japan’s “reentry into Asia” and then on forging an “East Asian community” and “putting history issues behind,” while “gaining equality with the US” has always been there. The environment was shifting during the final two decades of the Cold War: China changed its policies in ways that intermittently raised Japanese hopes for friendship and economic synergy; the international environment shifted in ways that largely reinforced Japanese confidence that economic integration, development assistance, and support against the Soviet threat would lead to mutual trust between Japan and China; and rising Japanese confidence led to heightened expectations that Japan would serve as a model distinct from US ideals.

Even with the abrupt end of the Cold War and, simultaneously, China’s use of force at Tiananmen and the resulting alienation from the West, Japanese anticipated that the transition away from the postwar order was within reach. They looked back on that order as transitional, poised for change under the right international conditions. Seeking to become a bridge between China and the US while building on its close economic ties across Asia and some signs that it could be a cultural magnet there, Japan expected in the post-Cold War period to realize goals long postponed as one of the key great powers.

What does the end of the Cold War era mean?

The past thirty years have not led to a lot of retrospection about dashed hopes or missed opportunities. At times there has been talk of US unfairness in economic agreements at the root of “three decades of stagnation.” Blame has been put on faulty diplomacy failing to reach a breakthrough with Moscow when openings existed. Some progressives have charged that provocative moves such as visits to the Yasukuni Shrine have interfered with building trust with China or that sticking too close to the US has entangled Japan in divisive policies reviving polarization. Yet much of the criticism centers on Japanese leadership, failing to reform in a timely fashion, becoming too unstable to generate real initiatives, and stuck in old ways of thinking in the face of many assertive new leaders.

The post-Cold War era is not appraised favorably although until 2020 at least Abe drew praise as a different kind of leader: proactive in summitry with other leaders, intent on bringing stability to Japanese politics, and even visionary in addressing security matters. Few Japanese have traced the troubles of the past three decades to what was decided as a result of defeat in 1945 or how the end of the Cold War was interpreted. One response is to accept Japan’s limited clout in 1945, 1990, and 2020 with the conclusion that little it did has mattered much in regard to relations with Washington, Moscow, and Beijing. Its stature as a great power was often exaggerated, when leaders such as Mao, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, and Putin, as well as US leaders culminating with Trump have been little inclined to treat it as one. Alternatively, the structural realities of polarization during the Cold War and the rekindling of polarization during the post-Cold War period have left Japan with few options. Yet Japanese reflections on historical milestones are hesitant to deny Japan’s voice and prospects, as seen in the narratives looking back thirty years.

Japan-US relations after the end of the Cold War

Triumphalism was absent in Japan in the early 1990s for multiple reasons: 1) a letdown from the high hopes raised for Japan when the “bubble economy” collapsed and China substituted a “patriotic education campaign” demonizing Japan for accepting a partner eager to build East Asian regionalism together; 2) high expectations failed in securing a deal with Moscow to recover islands that would have meant Japan achieving what Germany achieved in the form of unification in winning the Cold War; and 3) a sense that now Japan had become the prime target of the US, first due to impressions of a trade war and then due to alarm over criticism for being a free-rider in the Gulf War despite large financial contributions. Prime minister Kaifu Toshiki, already in October 1990, had tried to prepare a new law allowing the SDF to engage in logistical support to UN multinational forces but “one country pacifism” paralysis prevented Japan from enacting such a new law. It failed to join the multinational forces against Iraq, contributing $14 billion, only to be criticized as “too little, too late.”

While trade tensions soon receded, making amends with the US over security, especially as concerns about China and North Korea emerged, preoccupied security-minded Japanese. Recovery from the trauma of not being seen as playing a responsible role in 1991 took the form of contributing in 1992 to UN peacekeeping operations in Cambodia and establishing new mechanisms for cooperation between the SDF and American forces. Alarmed by the North Korean nuclear crisis in 1993-94 and the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996, Japanese could hardly share in US optimism about a new era. Okinawa also became a focus of Japan-US relations. A 1995 rape of an Okinawa schoolgirl brought a paradigm shift from trade rivalry to security tension, leading to the establishment of the Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO) to address the problem of US bases there. In April 1996, prime minister Hashimoto Ryutaro and president Clinton agreed that the Futenma Base shall be returned to Japan. Relocation to Henoko became a difficult issue for the alliance as for Japanese domestic politics.

In the second stage of the post-Cold War era during the 2000s, tensions lessened with the US. Koizumi Junichiro guided relations successfully in contrast to his difficulties with China, standing firmly with the US after 9/11, offering logistics support for the war in Afghanistan, finding ways to support the US in the Iraq War, and developing a personal bond with George W. Bush helpful for making progress on the Okinawa base transfer. While unstable Japanese leadership prevented a similar bond in the following years and prime minister Hatoyama Yukio of the DPJ severely strained relations in 2009-10 over Okinawa and regional coordination, growing concern with aggressive moves by China and North Korea as well as the closeness built in responding to Japan’s 3/11 disaster kept ties on a positive trajectory. Only under Abe, however, were the signature achievements marking the post-Cold War period realized. Memories of what resulted from the shift following 1990 are now heavily imbued with Abe’s strengthening of ties.

Probably Abe’s greatest achievement over 7 years of tenure in his US policy was “Japan’s Legislation for Peace and Security” from 2014 to 2016, allowing the SDF to act not only when Japan exerts its right of individual self-defense but also when it exerts its right of collective self-defense, “when an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs and as a result threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to fundamentally overturn people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.” The new law substantially revised the asymmetry existing since 1960 that the US is obligated to defend Japan when attacked, but Japan is constitutionally prevented to do so when an equivalent situation occurs with the US.

On historical memory issues, through his address to a Joint Meeting of the US Congress in April 2015, Obama’s visit to Hiroshima in May 2016, and Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor in December 2016, Abe made a substantial contribution to healing the wounds of the two peoples in relation to WWII. Thus, when Trump assumed the presidency in January 2017, Abe could meet with him with a record of having strengthened the alliance. In the three years of Trump’s presidency, Abe strengthened relations based on credible policy implementation and an uncanny ability of communication with Trump few other leaders could or would manage. This seems to have given him space to implement foreign policies when positions of the two sides differed. On the policy of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), where Japan and the US share much in common, Abe does not intend to isolate China or Russia. Abe’s Iran policy of visiting this country in 2019 just before the Osaka G20 and sending the Maritime SDF to the Strait of Hormuz region without joining the coalition of forces under the US are further examples. Thus, moving beyond the Cold War has meant becoming a fuller partner of the US while also gaining more space to shape regional policies, albeit with less of a leadership role than was anticipated in the 1990s and a more active security alliance than seemed possible then.

Japan-Russia relations after the end of the Cold War

Despite expectations peaking in 1991-92, Japan has failed to build a bond with Russia to transform the bilateral relationship with implications for the regional power balance. If this had happened, the end of the Cold War would be perceived in a very different light. After the August 1991 coup failed and the Soviet Union began disintegrating, there emerged clear recognition in Tokyo that this might be a historic opportunity. A new policy declaration, a new initiative for economic assistance at the level of $2.5 billion, and a new concessionary islands proposal that “so long as sovereignty is recognized, timing and modality of transfer can be made flexibly” were proposed in September 1991. Russia, which replaced the Soviet Union in December, seemed to have understood the readiness of the Japanese side to act; and in March 1992 foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev visited Tokyo. Making a breakthrough with Japan was in the national interest of Russia, and resolution of the territorial issue could be seen as an integral part. On March 21, 1992, Kozyrev had an informal meeting with foreign minister Watanabe Michio and made an informal and confidential proposal: to start negotiations on Habomai and Shikotan, the fate of which was predetermined by the 1956 Joint Declaration; to sign a treaty when agreement is reached to transfer them to Japan, without putting it into force; to start negotiating Kunashiri and Etorofu in line with this agreement; and to conclude a peace treaty once an agreement is reached on four islands. The proposal was not accepted as the basis of negotiations, because apparently the fate of Kunashiri and Etorofu were not sufficiently clearly designated to Japan at the outset. The Russian side backed away. Boris Yeltsin cancelled a scheduled visit to Tokyo in September 1992 four days prior to his visit. In October 1993 Yeltsin made his official visit to Japan, but essentially what the two sides agreed in the Tokyo Declaration was a confirmation of what had already been agreed between Kaifu and Gorbachev in 1991.

After a diplomatic lull, diplomacy was reactivated in 1997 between Yeltsin and Hashimoto, who made a concessionary proposal at Kawana in April 1998 of “Japan taking sovereignty and Russia keeping the administrative rights,” but the Russian side did not accept. In return the Russian side made a concessionary proposal in November 1998 “to introduce joint governance before settling the sovereignty issue,” but the Japanese side did not accept it. In 2001 at the Irkutsk summit Mori Yoshiro proposed to conduct parallel negotiations on Habomai and Shikotan and Kunashiri and Etorofu, drawing on ideas in the failed Kozyrev proposal. This proposal was not negated by Putin. Yet in April 2001 prime minister Koizumi Junichiro, who succeeded Mori Yoshiro together with a new foreign minister Tanaka Makiko, backed away from the Irkutsk proposal to the dismay of Russian negotiators, who had cooperated for the success of parallel negotiations. A deal arguably capable of redefining the post-Cold War era for the 2000s failed to be realized.

After Irkutsk, a counter-offensive from rightists advocating “four islands in a bunch” and an impression of Suzuki Muneo, the LDP politician most supportive of parallel negotiations, as a conservative-old-style opponent of Koizumi’s reformist vigor, left relations stagnant until 2012, when Putin was reelected as president and Abe was also reelected from his first 2006-7 prime-ministerial tenure. Again, an opportunity arose to change through one dramatic breakthrough the tenor of an era when Japan appeared newly beleaguered in Northeast Asia and increasingly dependent on US regional policy.

Abe has made genuine efforts to expand economic relations, stimulate cultural and cross-border ties, take a moderate approach on international issues such as annexation of Crimea, and introduce new ideas for successful conclusion of a peace treaty. He apparently made an important concessionary proposal in Singapore in November 2018 based on the 1956 Joint Declaration, reportedly even withdrawing the sovereignty request for Kunashiri and Etorofu. Yet Putin did not reciprocate, whether because of hardening national identity, a different calculus about the desired balance of power, or a dismissive view of Japan as a worthy great power partner. The post-Cold War offered no relief here.

Japan-China relations after the end of the Cold War

In contrast to Japan-Russian relations generally stuck in a rut despite periods of hope, Japan-China relations have swung wildly over three decades, peaking early in the 1990s and gaining some momentum again at the end of the 2010s. Japan’s policy of “not isolating China” after June 1989 led the Chinese government to make a strong plea to invite the Emperor to China, which prime minister Miyazawa Kiichi accepted, hoping to make it a symbolic and final gesture for reconciliation. The visit took place in October 1992, and the “deep sorrow” and “deep remorse” carefully expressed was accepted positively in China. The 1995 Murayama Statement, 1998 Jiang Zemin visit to Japan, and 1999 Obuchi initiative for a Japan-China-Korea breakfast meeting at the ASEAN+3 meeting were other initiatives with at least some positive impact. The 1990s gave hope that Japan had found a partner for an independent regional leadership role. Tensions in East Asia mostly appeared manageable; regionalism was on the upswing. Yet there was a fundamental disconnect given China’s use of the “history card,” its distrust of the Japan-US alliance, and its refusal to accept a leadership role for Japan in East Asia.

Japan-China relations were on a downward trend under Koizumi (2001-6), who did not miss a yearly visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, to which the Chinese government responded harshly. The bilateral relationship improved considerably under Abe in 2006, by his policy “not to confirm, nor to deny, whether he visited Yasukuni or not,” by his strategy of establishing “strategic and mutually beneficial relations,” by his readiness to acknowledge the 1993 Kono Statement and 1995 Murayama Statement as his cabinet policy, and by his successful October 2006 visit to Beijing. Wen Jiabao’s visit in April 2007 and Hu Jintao’s visit in May 2008 warmed up relations substantially. Prime ministers to 2011 all maintained a generally friendly policy toward China. If the hopes of the 1990s were gone, there remained expectations that relations could be managed as compromises were reached on regional institutions such as the East Asian Summit.

But in 2012 relations plunged due to the Senkaku Islands issue. Returning to the top post in 2012, Abe inherited an even worse relationship than in 2006. Chinese official vessels’ encroachment into the territorial waters of the Senkakus left him little option but deterrence: greater budgetary expenditures to the maritime SDF and coast guard; establishment of the National Security Council with a secretariat and National Security Strategy of Proactive Pacifism; and new defense guidelines with greater emphasis on the islands. In November 2014 the first Abe-Xi meeting took place on the fringes of the APEC summit meeting in Beijing after an agreement to stabilize the status quo on the Senkakus and Yasukuni. In May 2017 Abe switched his policy on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) from detachment to economic engagement. At the Abe-Xi summit at the APEC summit in November 2017 in Vietnam, Xi Jinping was publicly seen smiling when shaking hands with Abe. This change of atmosphere led to enhanced dialogue: Li Keqiang’s visit to Japan and Abe’s visit to China (2018), and Xi Jinping’s visit to Japan for the G20 (2019). Japanese media began reporting that the quality of dialogue between Abe and Xi reached a level where Abe might be able to state his views on such “delicate issues” as Hong Kong, the Uighurs, human rights inside China, and debt-trap diplomacy. Xi’s official visit postponed from April 2020 promised to test whether ties have reached a sustainable character in the face of many limitations in Japan-China relations. The decade of the 2010s left deep doubts about whether adverse relations could be avoided, perhaps even recreating the Cold War bipolarity that had limited Japan’s active diplomacy for so long, but Abe’s testing of Xi revived talk of options ahead.

The implications of the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII in 2020

From Japan’s perspective, the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII to be marked in Russia on May 9 will become an important test to gauge Abe’s foreign policy resilience. Through media reporting, on January 16, 2020, Putin met Kitamura Shigeru, director of the National Security Council secretariat, and invited Abe to attend this anniversary. Would he go or would he not go? Abe stands at a foreign policy crossroads. Despite the fact that he conducted 27 summits with Putin and might have already crossed the Rubicon to make a concessionary proposal on the territorial problem, peace treaty negotiations under a new format starting from January 2019 have not yielded any positive results. If Abe can find a strategy to place a breakthrough of Japan-Russia relations in the strategic interest of both, there might be a slight opportunity of the two sides producing something meaningful for the future. If not, the alternative for Japan-Russia relations is a slow death from which the successor to Abe and Putin may not be able to recover for a long time to come.

On the assumption that Xi would be at the 75th anniversary event, what could be the prospects for Abe from that commemorative occasion for Japan-China relations? Unlike the downward spiral from which Abe cannot escape in Japan-Russia relations, Abe has done a lot to pull the Japan-China downward spiral upwards. But Xi’s current soft approach is based on his strategic calculations. Both on historical memory problems, including Yasukuni, and on geopolitical interests, including the territorial problem around the Senkakus, China and Japan are far from reaching an agreement, and Xi might even open fire on any of these issues.

Xi’s calculus today must surely be that having a friendly Japan against the United States, which is becoming increasingly hostile to China, is in his national interest. This smile diplomacy somewhat resembles Deng Xiaoping’s wooing for the Emperor’s visit at the beginning of the 1990’s. If Abe is not able to strategize Japan’s position for coexistence with China without damaging his relations with the United States and Xi is not willing to create an opportune atmosphere, then present-day friendly relations may just be a short-time experience before the downward spiral resumes to the detriment of both sides.

In contrast with US policies to Russia and China, especially of late, Abe has succeeded in creating an upward spiral with his policy to the US. Will he be able to continue? Herein lies the most difficult strategic choice for Japan. If it followed a policy of complete adherence to the US, then Japan-US relations would remain stable and trustworthy in the coming decades. But if Japan’s national interest lies in closer strategic relations with Russia and in seeking a path for coexistence with China, while ensuring alliance relations with the US, Japan’s foreign policy navigation would not be a simple task.

As the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelms the world, demonstrating that national frontiers do not suffice in a world of interconnected challenges, we may be transitioning to a new era. This catastrophe could have been used to create a new atmosphere of cooperation to fight against a common enemy. In his press conference on March 14, Abe referred to cooperation with Trump and Macron but not a word was mentioned about China or South Korea.

The post-Cold War period has been defined by strong Japan-US relations, troubled Japan-Russian relations, and vacillating Japan-China relations. 2020 may reinforce those trends, sustaining the special bond between Abe and Trump but dooming Abe’s quest for a breakthrough with Putin and further upward momentum with Xi. In that case, the commemorative events from May to September 1990 would not have been much of a watershed for Japan, and 2020 would punctuate the trends that followed. Alternatively, if Abe calculates that Japan’s national interest lies in closer strategic relations with Russia while seeking a path for coexistence with China, simultaneously striving to maintain alliance relations with the US, the outcome would be an opening of a new era. Navigating such a turnabout in great power relations would not be a simple task.

1945 appears long in the past. Yet the prospect of marginalization in a world where three great powers are caught in intensified rivalry may awaken Japanese to aspirations for a more active role and assess the past 75 years as a transition to national revival as a more autonomous force in world affairs, leaning strongly to the US but not solely that.