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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”????? (meaning an independent foreign policy, especially the reduction or elimination of US military bases, and closer ties to Asian neighbours) and “servility”??????, those who simply followed US instructions. The latter, in his view, had gradually become entrenched and the servile line was followed by government after government and by national and opinion leaders.

No less than eight post-1945 Prime Ministers, he believes, had belonged to the “autonomous” school and been eliminated on instructions or under pressure from Washington, while those in the Servility school had lasted longer, tended to thrive, and left by far the larger mark on the polity. His book plainly touched a nerve because by early October it had soared up the best-seller lists into the 200,000-plus range.

Magosaki’s book confirms and reinforces what I had written in 2007, in Client State – Japan in the American Embrace.5 At that time, my term “Client State,” or in Japanese Zokkoku, was a shocking deviation from mainstream Western and academic writing. It is grim satisfaction, five years on, to find my thesis confirmed in a best-seller by a senior figure from the Japanese bureaucratic establishment. For my zokkoku or client state Magosaki substitutes the essentially identical notion of the tsuiju rosen or servile line.

The division of world states into political science categories of independent (sovereign, nation) states and subject (colonial or neo-colonial) states tends to neglect the increasingly important, in-between category of “client states.” The formal sovereignty of the client state is not in question, but it combines independence and democratic responsibility with renunciation of independence or deliberately chosen submission, such that it is to be described only by oxymoronic terms such as “dependent independence” or “servile sovereignty.” I have suggested a definition that distinguishes it from other, related forms of colonial, conquered, or directly dominated, or neo-colonial territory as


“a state that enjoys the formal trappings of Westphalian sovereignty and independence, and is therefore neither a colony nor a puppet state, but which has internalised the requirement to give preference to ‘other’ interests over its own.” 6

The puzzling but crucial fact is that submission is not forced but chosen. The client state is happy to have its “patron” occupy parts of its territory, and determined at all costs to avoid giving it offence. It pays meticulous attention to adopting and pursuing policies that will satisfy its patron, and readily pays whatever price necessary to be sure that the patron not abandon it. Having some of the qualities of a feudal relationship in the sense of the exchange of fealty for protection, it may therefore also be described as “neo-feudal.” As one scholar puts it, “‘servitude’ is no longer just a necessary means but is happily embraced and borne. ‘Spontaneous freedom’ becomes indistinguishable from ‘spontaneous servitude’.”7

Though there is no agreed social science term to describe it, in common parlance it is what is known as the “poodle” syndrome – the term the UK widely adopted to apply to the government of Tony Blair (PM, 1997-2007) in the United Kingdom. Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard (PM, 1996-2007) was in similar vein often referred to as a US “deputy sheriff.” In Japan some critics referred to Prime Minister Koizumi (PM, 2001-2006) as a “pochi” (pet dog) and within the George W. Bush White House he was known – at least to some – as “Sergeant-Major Koizumi.” For any analysis of the client state phenomenon these three cases deserve close attention.

To such a list some might suggest adding South Korea, Israel, or various Latin American or Middle Eastern counties. However, as for South Korea, since its revolution in 1987 and especially in the presidencies of Kim Dae Jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-Hyun (2003-08), it showed a singular independent-mindedness and readiness to contest Washington’s policy prescriptions, unimaginable on the part of Japan. The Israel case is peculiar because in a sense in that relationship the clientilism is reversed, with Israel exercising as least as much influence over US policies as the reverse. As for Latin America and the Middle East it is hard to say more than that recent political changes have transformed and continue to transform both regions, leaving client states in general a diminishing species.

Though he does not systematize or rank them, Magosaki refers to certain distinguishing marks of the autonomous line: objection to payment of the costs of the US occupying forces, demand for the return of US military bases or their drastic reduction, the attempt to tie Japan’s foreign policy to the United Nations and to disarmament causes, the reluctance to be involved in war, from Korea in 1950 to Vietnam in the 1960s and Afghanistan and Iraq later, the attempt to reduce “host nation support” subsidies for US forces in Japan, the call for equidistant diplomacy with China and engagement in construction of an Asian or East Asian community. Adherents of the “servile” line, on the other hand, have insisted on the “alliance” as the charter of the state (with priority over the constitution), on the US presence in Okinawa, and on either constitutional revision or revision of its interpretation (so as to allow “collective security” and “normal” military power). One might now add attitude toward the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) scheme as a contemporary defining issue. Ominously, by 2012 the differences over China policy, collective security, and constitutional revision had narrowed. Eight of the parties contesting the December 2012 election gave prominence to the “Japan-US alliance,” seeking only that it be maintained, reinforced, or deepened, while only the Communist Party and the (now minuscule) Social Democratic Party, neither of which had any prospect of power, would dissolve or renegotiate it.8

Magosaki’s formulation of Japan’s post-1945 history in terms of a binary contest is provocative but perhaps in need of some clarification. First, although he does not address the point specifically, his analysis appears to assume that Japan’s is a unique state formation, rooted in the experience of defeat in war, occupation, and imposition of basic institutional frame by its conqueror between six and seven decades ago. Yet the parallels on the part of other US allied states, notably the “Anglo-Saxon” states of United Kingdom and Australia, neither of which has, at least in modern times, been a US enemy, suggest that defeat and occupation is not a necessary pre-condition. Dependent independence deserves attention as a phenomenon in its own right.

Second, the application of the servile-autonomous formula to the post-war period as a whole tends to obscure its defining criteria and significant transitions. “Servility” surely had different implications and was expressed differently in 1960, 1990, and 2010. Without clear definition, there is an element of capriciousness in the way the labels are applied. Magosaki makes an especially strong case for seeing four early post-war leaders — Shigemitsu Mamoru (Foreign Minister in 1945), Ashida Hitoshi (Prime Minister in 1948), Hatoyama Ichiro (Prime Minister in 1954-5), and Ishibashi Tanzan (Prime Minister in 1955-1957) ­— together with some of their later successors, notably Tanaka Kakuei (Prime Minister in 1972-74), and Hatoyama Yukio (Prime Minister in 2009-10), as autonomists. However, his inclusion on the same list of Kishi Nobusuke (Prime Minister in 1957-60) and Sato Eisaku (Prime Minister in 1960-64) is such as to raise doubt as to the usefulness of any such inclusive criteria.9 With that reservation, however, Magosaki is plainly right to insist that servile line governments — under which category he includes those of Yoshida (1948-54), Ikeda (1960-64), Nakasone (1982-87), and Koizumi (2001-2006) — have tended to last longer and have a greater impact than autonomous line ones.

Third, Magosaki belittles mass popular protest movements (especially those of 1960 against revision of the Security Treaty) and focusses instead on the bureaucracy. He draws attention, for example, to a “Top Secret” 1969 Ministry of Foreign Affairs document as evincing the strength of the autonomy line. Entitled “Outline of Japan’s Diplomatic Policy” (Wagakuni no gaiko seisaku taiko), it spelled out the need to “gradually reduce and reorganize US bases in Japan (while retaining “a small number”) to cooperate with “countries such as Sweden” on international disarmament issues, and “to avoid at all costs giving the impression of being America’s running dog.”10 However, in the context of the paper as a whole, these are little more than autonomous flourishes in a bureaucratic essay that was secret, resolutely pro-alliance and pro-“security” as it might have been understood by alliance managers. This document was drawn up even as the Ministry (and government) was negotiating Okinawan “reversion” in such a way as to give fullest consideration to assisting the US war in Vietnam and prioritizing future war preparations over the constitution or the interests and desires of the Okinawan people. It is a thin basis on which to construct a significant autonomous strain in ministerial thinking. Furthermore, a decade later, Ono Katsumi, identified by Magosaki as the core figure in this school at that time (Vice Minister in 1957-8) wrote ruefully,


“In Japan’s foreign policy, based since the end of the war on following the wishes of the occupying forces, i.e., the Americans, the idea took root that it would be enough to concentrate on the economy, which presented enough difficulties, and to leave everything else to the Americans, so that the spirit of autonomy and independence was lost.”11

Bureaucratic resistance to servility, as in this “Outline,” was inevitably susceptible to compromise because it was elitist and largely detached from popular, grassroots, democratic movement. Bureaucratic groups such as the authors of the “Outline” equivocated in the attempt to push back at the margins against servility, preferring modest adjustments to frontal challenge and rarely if ever confronted the kernel of the relationship. Not until the rise of the Democratic Party 40 years later did that change, when the “zokkoku question” merged with the “Okinawa question” (on which below).

Post-Cold War

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.


The most recent of these Washington homilies in 2012 cautioned Japan to think carefully as to whether or not it wanted to remain a “tier-one” nation.13 To hold such position would entail taking steps to “stand shoulder-to-shoulder” with the US, sending naval groups to the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea, relaxing its restrictions on arms exports, increasing its defense budget and military personnel numbers, resuming its commitment to civil nuclear power, pressing ahead with construction of new base facilities in Okinawa, Guam, and the Mariana Islands, and revising either its constitution or the way it is interpreted so as to facilitate “collective security,” i.e. merging its forces with those of the US without inhibition in regional and global battlefields. Under the overarching principle of the “Air Sea Battle” doctrine, there would be much more “interoperability” – sharing training and base facilities – of Japanese and US forces (in Okinawa, Guam, the Marianas, and Darwin). Prominent Washington figures urge Japan to buy new weapon and missile systems, including F-35 stealth fighters and Aegis destroyers.14 Any thought of possibly reducing the huge financial subsidy it paid the Pentagon (around $8 billion per year) by way of “host nation support” (the omoiyari or “sympathy” budget), such as briefly entertained in the early days of the Democratic Party government in 2009, should be set aside.15 If Japan balked at any of this, Washington intimated, it would simply slide into “two-tier” status, and that, clearly, would be beneath contempt.

While the US patron thus pressed its client Japan to make the relationship into a “mature” alliance, it also issued parallel economic nostrums under the rubric of “Annual Statement of Reform Desiderata” (nenji kaikaku yobosho) that set out general neo-liberal principles and particular applications, such as the “domestic market expanding (naiju kakudai) measures under which Japan disastrously invested prodigious sums on public works in the 1990s, postal privatisation (adopted in a highly successful electoral campaign by Koizumi in 2005), and the ongoing demands for “opening” of the Japanese markets in finance, insurance, health services and pharmaceuticals. Koizumi Junichiro’s prime ministership (2001-2006), coinciding for much of the presidency of George W. Bush (2001-2009) came to be seen as the “golden years” of the alliance. As Moriya Takemasa (Vice-Minister for Defense in 2002-2006) later remarked, “It is called an alliance, but in practice the US side just decides things unilaterally.”16 “Sergeant-Major Koizumi” (as Bush reportedly referred to him) was much appreciated for the effort he put into implementing the US agenda, and was rewarded as his term of office approached its end in 2006 with a special, presidentially-guided visit to Graceland.

Ozawa, Hatoyama and the Okinawa Factor

The DPJ’s 2005 Manifesto declared a commitment to “…do away with the dependent relationship in which Japan ultimately has no alternative but to act in accordance with US wishes, replacing it with a mature alliance based on independence and equality.” As the credibility of the LDP faded and the star of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan rose in 2008-9, it was Joseph Nye (author in 1995 of the crucial post-Cold War policy document) who emerged at the heart of the Washington mobilization of pressure to neutralize the DPJ before and then after it took power. In December 2008, he spelled out the three acts that Congress would be inclined to see as “anti-American”: cancellation of the Maritime Self-Defense Agency’s Indian Ocean mission, and any attempt to revise the Status of Forces Agreement or the agreements on relocating US Forces in Japan [i.e. including the Futenma transfer],17 repeating the same basic message to the Democratic Party’s Maehara Seiji in the early days of the Obama administration. When Maehara sought to convey his party’s wishes to renegotiate these agreements, Nye warned that to do so would be seen as “anti-American.”18 The Nye frame of thinking, unchanged from his earlier report of 1995 and destined to be restated periodically thereafter, was predicated on two general principles: distrust of Japan and need for US military occupation to continue indefinitely.

On 24 February 2009, Ozawa Ichiro, then the DPJ’s head (representative), suggested that the US 7th Fleet, home ported at Yokosuka, should be adequate to any security purpose in the region, and that other US bases, including notably those in Okinawa, were no longer necessary. To propose equalizing the US relationship and liquidating the bases was to reject servility and challenge Washington fundamentally. It was the clearest imaginable statement of a Japanese foreign and defense policy that would substitute a UN- and East Asia-centre for the long-established US centre. It was therefore intolerable. Just a week after his remarks, Ozawa was arrested on corruption charges and it was not till three and a half years later that he was fully cleared. The point of these long-drawn out proceedings was not so much innocence or guilt as removal of the DPJ’s most effective and courageous leader and rooting out of the “autonomous” faction in Japanese politics.19

Hatoyama Yukio, who took the reins from Ozawa and led the Democrats to electoral victory at the end of August, shared (with him) a similar vision for Japan and tapped a national mood of desire for change. He promised to take back government from the bureaucrats and open it to the people through their elected representatives; to renegotiate the relationship with the US on the basis of equality; to reject “market fundamentalism” and to re-orient Japan away from US-centred unipolarism towards a multipolar world in which Japan would be a central member of an East Asian community, to promote local self-government, and (as a kind of concentrated expression in concrete form of all of the above) to close (by moving somewhere outside Okinawa) the Futenma marine base. Hatoyama described his core philosophical concept of Yuai as something that was “…a strong, combative concept that is a banner of revolution,”20 using the word “revolution” in a way no Japanese Prime Minister had ever used it before. He opened the Diet session in January 2010 with the words.


“I want to protect people’s lives.


That is my wish: to protect people’s lives


I want to protect the lives of those who are born; of those who grow up and mature…”

Such pronouncements disturbed Washington. To speak of “protecting life” seemed bizarre dreaming to those for whom readiness to take it was rather the mark of seriousness. Richard Armitage observed scathingly that the Democratic Party was “speaking a different language” and that he and his colleagues were “shocked by its platform,” and Joseph Nye referred to it as “inexperienced, divided and still in the thrall of campaign promises,” by which he meant that attempts to renegotiate the agreement on the Futenma replacement base plan would not be tolerated. 21 Defense Secretary Robert Gates, demanding Hatoyama’s submission, added insult to ultimatum by refusing to attend a welcoming ceremony at the Defense Ministry or to dine with senior Japanese Defense officials. The Washington Post described Hatoyama as “the biggest loser [among world leaders]…, hapless, increasingly loopy,” i.e., in effect, it was saying, Hatoyama was mad. The challenge to Japan’s status as “client state” was proof of his madness.

No other major ally – or, for that matter, no enemy either – had ever been subjected to the sort of advice, abuse and intimidation that was directed to Hatoyama, Japan’s Prime Minister. The Hatoyama crisis coincided with revelations from Wikileaks and from domestic Japanese sources attesting to persistent lying, deception, secret deals, cover-up, and manipulation by governments in Japan in order to serve Washington. Servility was incompatible with democracy and therefore required deception, secrecy, and manipulation. Hatoyama threatened to untie the alliance knot.

Hatoyama’s isolation grew as the bureaucrats of the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Defense launched a “rollback” operation to force his submission,22 refusing cooperation and instead conspiring to bring him down. Hemmed in by his faithless bureaucrats and torn between the pressures of Washington on the one hand and Okinawa on the other which he lacked the courage or clarity to confront, his political position crumbled. The national media blamed him for the deterioration in the country’s key relationship, insisting that he cease offending and irritating the US.

Late in May 2010 Hatoyama surrendered, announcing that he had given up on his attempt to relocate Futenma base outside Okinawa. Already before this he had yielded to US pressure by abandoning his proposal for an East Asian Community (by the time he left office he had expanded his conception of East Asia to include the US). When he handed the reins of government to Kan Naoto, Kan’s task was described throughout the national media as to heal the “wounds” that Hatoyama had caused to the alliance, restore Washington’s trust and confidence, and resolve the Okinawa problem by “persuading” Okinawa to accept the new base. In contrast to the paean to life with which Hatoyama began his government, Kan’s introductory policy speech to the Diet promised the “steady deepening of the alliance relationship.” By that he meant he would do as required. The “servile line” was thus restored. What Magosaki refers to as the ascendancy of the tsuiju rosen under the Democratic Party governments from this time is what may also be seen as the “mature” Client State.

The Hatoyama vacillation and surrender, however, had fundamentally altered one major element of the equation. It left an outraged, aroused, determined Okinawa. Unlike elite bureaucrats and vacillating politicians, the Okinawan people have since proved not susceptible to compromise. The fault lines of struggle for an autonomous national polity, for justice and democracy, thereafter bisected Okinawa. Hatoyama’s resignation, at one level a major defeat, at another, therefore, signalled a deepening of resistance.

As for Nye, Armitage, and other “handlers” of the relationship, despite their overweening attitude and assumption of the prerogative of dictating to Japan, they were respected, even revered, as “pro-Japanese.” One well-placed Japanese observer recently wrote of the “foul odor” he felt in the air around Washington and Tokyo given off by the activities of the “Japan-expert” and the “pro-Japan” Americans on one side and “slavish” “US-expert” and “pro-American” Japanese on the other, both “living off” the unequal relationship which they had helped construct and support.23 Minister of Foreign Affairs Gemba expressed his profuse thanks for these interventions when greeting Armitage, Nye and other guests in 2012, expressing his gratitude at “the advice proffered by Japan’s true friends.”24

United Kingdom ?Poodle Power

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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