Wednesday 05 Oct 2022 | 13:39 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 05 Oct 2022 | 13:39 | SYDNEY

Is Japan just a middle power now?


Graeme Dobell

23 August 2010 13:16

Japan spent the 19th and 20th centuries coming to terms with the West. Now Japan must spend the 21st century adapting itself to Asia.

It was quintessentially Japanese that its academics in recent decades could debate the issue of whether the country was actually Asian. The discussion captured that strange Japanese mix of insular self-regard and questioning self-doubt. Back in the 1980s, the question of whether Japan was Asian was rooted in Japan's views of its own uniqueness and economic achievements. No more.

No longer is Japan the only 'Western' or developed state in Asia. No longer is Japan peerless. And now it is official – Japan is no longer number one in Asia.

The changeover point with China has been rumbling away beneath the figures for a long time. Yet suddenly the moment has arrived. Japan and China have traded places. China has the second largest economy in the world. Japan slips back to number three.

Asia enters the modern China era without every really having had a modern Japan era. Sure, Asia had the Japan war, but never the Japan era. When Japan was Asia's economic leader and shining example of the way forward, many elements of Tokyo's leadership were mediated by the Washington relationship. Even at its economics peak, Tokyo's polity usually played the subsidiary role to Washington.

For Japan, the China changeover marks the disconnect between the strategic and the personal. So many Japanese are having a wonderful life, even as the country drops down the economic league table. Tokyo is extraordinary. Japan beguiles. And, as ever, it is hard to peer much beneath the immaculate Japanese surface.

Working as a correspondent in Tokyo for a few short stints, I quickly came to appreciate the comforts and advantages bequeathed by the MacArthur shogunate after World War II. From English street signs to newspapers to English-speaking spokesmen to the picture menus that required no language at all, the MacArthur veneer was just one more layer of Japanese politeness to manage outsiders. It worked with the West. Now Japan must attempt the same trick with Asia, operating from the subsidiary, not the leading, position.

Japan's questions about itself and its future should draw more attention from Australia. We, after all, are undergoing similar agonies about the meaning of the China era.

In a column on Australia's Asia Pacific community discussion, I commented on the great gap between Canberra and Tokyo over competing visions for an Asia Community. Australia and Japan were as one in creating APEC. Twenty years later, it was as though the two capitals hardly talked, much less shared thoughts on regional architecture. The two sides do talk constantly, so the divide was notable. It's more than just the disruption caused by whales.

I still find it hard to grapple with the idea that Japan is ready to start operating like an Asian middle power, lining up in the same league with Australia, South Korea and ASEAN. Tobias Hatch explains Japan as a middle power here.

The middle power vision gives some context for what I found the most surprising presentation at last week's annual conference in Canberra by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. It was by Ambassador Yoshiji Nogami, the president of the Japan Institute of International Affairs. Nogami confessed to a 'sense of resignation' at China passing Japan on the league table, then gave what he correctly described as 'the gloomiest presentation' of the conference.

Gloomy, yes, and a huge departure from what is normally offered by senior representatives of Japan Inc. Over the decades, I've listened and reported on hundreds of speeches, presentations and pressers by Japanese leaders, ministers, diplomats, bureaucrats, business executives and academics. The line from Japan Inc. is remarkably consistent. That is why the downbeat assessment from Nogami was so striking.

The former vice minister for the Foreign Ministry and adviser to Cabinet said there is not much public discussion in Japan of the shift in power relativities: 'The reason why there is no public discourse — this is about our relations with US and how we see China, and ultimately this is about where we are going, what Japan is heading toward. This subject is like a Damocles sword hanging there, hanging there always, but hard to address.'

For Nogami, the realities of Japanese politics make it virtually impossible to confront Japan's myriad challenges, describing a huge chasm between reality and what ought to be done. It's hard to do long-term planning, he said, when Japan 'changes the prime minister every nine months.' And why talk about change when Japan's people and polity are so happy with much of the status quo'

Photo by lickr user Mr Ush, used under a Creative Commons license.