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Japan’s Client State (Zokkoku) Problem


Introduction – The Servile and the Autonomous

As Japan moved to conduct House of Representatives elections in December 2012, attention in Western media and academic circles turned, as it does from time to time, to the question of whether the country was in decline, or even in some sort of crisis. Already five years have passed since the Minister for Economic Policy declared to the National Diet that “in economic terms Japan is no longer a first-class country,” by which she meant that its GDP had shrunk below 10 per cent as a proportion of the world's for the first time in 24 years.1 It has continued to fall since then. As a proportion of global GDP, Japan was 15 per cent in 1990, fell below 10 per cent in 2008, is expected to fall to 6 per cent in 2030 and 3.2 per cent in 2060, while China’s rises steadily, from 2 per cent in 1990 to a predicted 25 per cent in 2030 and 27.8 per cent in 2060.2 It is that shift in relative weight, perhaps more than anything (national debt, aging, shrinking population) that disturbs Japan.

In meta-historical terms, Japan has preserved a wary distance from China for well over a millennium, ever since the “Battle of Baekgang” (or Hakusukinoe) in the year 663, when the combined forces of Tang-Silla (states then dominating China and the Korean peninsula) defeated the combined forces of Baekje and Yamato (rival states on the Korean peninsula and the Japanese islands).3

For 1,350 years since then, Japan has carefully nurtured its distance and independence from incorporation in any Sinic world order, alternating between fear of being invaded, as was threatened but did not occur in the late 7th century but then did occur but fail (under the Mongols) in the 12th century, and failed attempts to supplant the Sinic order with one under its own hegemony in the 16th and 20th centuries (led by Hideyoshi in the first and the Imperial Japanese Army in the second). There is no historical model for an inter-state relationship of equality and mutual respect, and negotiation in that direction becomes so much the more difficult, for both sides, the more likely eventual Chinese superiority becomes. Needless to say, this meta-historical view, with its serious implications for constructions of Japanese identity, is not widely discussed in Japan, where China’s current and continuing rise tends to be seen simply as “threat.”

If the China relationship is therefore problematic, so too is the relationship with the United States, though it too is in ways different from common perception. As Japan went to the polls in December 2012, all major parties agreed on the need to confirm, reinforce, or deepen the relationship, while a minority, albeit an influential one, held it to be fundamentally flawed and in need of revision. Where Japan for 1,350 years resisted becoming a Chinese “client state,” many believe that in just over a half-century Japan has embraced precisely that role towards the United States. In this view, Japan’s servility as a US “client state” rests at the heart of Asia’s problems.

The clearest recent expression of this view is to be found in a book published in August 2012, entitled The Truth of Postwar [Japanese] History. Author Magosaki Ukeru is a former head of the Intelligence and Analysis Bureau of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who had also served as ambassador to Uzbekistan and Iran and professor at the National Defense University.4 Magosaki sees the sixty-seven years of Japan’s post-war history in terms of the contest between factions within the state favouring “autonomy” 10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
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In the post-Cold War period, the Hosokawa Morihiro government made a brief attempt in 1993-4 to articulate an autonomous line. A report prepared at its request by Higuchi Kotaro of Asahi Beer noted the slow decline of US hegemonic power and recommended Japan adopt a more autonomous, multilateral, and UN-centred diplomacy. But it was quickly overwhelmed and abandoned following the return of LDP-led government and the US riposte in the form of the Joseph Nye report of 1995 that insisted that East Asian security depended on the “oxygen” of US military presence and the base system had to be preserved and reinforced.12

While Japan itself experienced a series of weak and short-term governments, Japanese policy in Washington was the subject of non-partisan consensus and remarkable consistency. The principles of the relationship were defined in a series of general statements issued from Washington in 1995, 2000, 2007 and 2012 by the group of East Asian specialists centring on Joseph Nye and Richard Armitage. Under their oversight, the legal and institutional reforms to transform the Alliance were adopted, and from their general principles highly specific demands followed — “show the flag,” in the burgeoning Middle Eastern conflict, “put boots on the ground” in Iraq, send the MSDF to the Indian Ocean, buy US missile-defense systems and other military hardware, and construct new US base facilities in Okinawa.

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Great Britain, like Japan, hosts major US military facilities and has provided basing sites and cooperated in numerous fighting wars ever since 1939. Unlike the defeated enemy, Japan, Britain was and is, of course, the closest of allies, for which alone the terms “grand alliance,” and “special relationship” have been coined. In war zones from the First World War to the ongoing declared and undeclared wars of the Middle East and Africa, Britain and the US have stood together, consulting and collaborating clos

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