TOKYO- Is Japan a “great power”? The country’s defense minister said so in a recent speech, uttering a phrase rarely used by the Japanese political leaders and sticking his finger in the eye of China, which has been pursuing its own vision of “great powers” in the region.
Delivered on July 11 at Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., Itsunori Onodera’s speech was aimed at explaining Tokyo’s efforts to take on a bigger policing role in Asia through a more expansive interpretation of its postwar pacifist constitution.
Japan’s “engagement in developing security and defense policy in its region is drastically expanding. This is nothing unnatural,” Mr. Onodera said, according to the English text. “It is natural for a great power like Japan,” he added, “to play a responsible role for the region based on…. the increasingly acute regional security environment.”
Aides to Mr. Onodera played down the significance of the phrase. Some officials said the Japanese word used by Mr. Onodera–taikoku, made up of the characters for big and country–would better be translated as “major power.”
Still, over the years, few Japanese public officials have used “taikoku” to describe their country, at least without some kind of qualifier like “keizai” (economic).
“It’s natural for Japanese to think of themselves as a ‘great power’–but not openly state it,” says Akihisa Nagashima, an opposition party parliament member and a former vice minister of defense. “I was bit surprised to hear that he said that.”
It’s not just about semantics. In rival China, official media are full of discussions about a “new type of great-power relationship.” The Chinese phrase, daguo, uses the same characters as taikoku, and in Beijing’s eyes it refers almost exclusively to the China and the U.S.
In a recent essay, Amy King of Australian National University examined 326 Chinese-language journal articles over the past two years on “the new type of great-power relations” and only eight made any mention of Japan. Of “thousands of articles” in the People’s Daily official newspaper on the subject, “only seven discussed Japan in any detail,” she said.
To the extent Japan enters the Chinese discussion of “great powers,” it’s often as a negative example, with Tokyo’s subordinate relationship to Washington viewed as a poor model, wrote Ms. King, a lecturer at the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre.
The U.S. has its own ambivalence about the notion of Japan as a “great power.” To the extent Tokyo pursues policies that veer from America’s, that draws grumbles from Washington, whether it’s Mr. Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni war memorial or his diplomatic overtures to Russia and North Korea. And yet the U.S. has long been eager for Japan’s military to take on more of the “great power” role that Mr. Onodera floated last week.
Many Japanese have long argued that the postwar pacifist constitution imposed by the occupying Americans was intended to ensure Japan “would never emerge as a great power,” Mr. Abe himself wrote in a book nearly 10 years ago. But Americans quickly reversed course as they sought Japan’s help fighting the Cold War–and ran into resistance from Japanese leaders who preferred the safety of pacifist isolationism.
During a 1956 Tokyo visit, then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles urged Japan “to think again of being and acting like a Great Power,” historian William Blum wrote this month. ”Asia’s Overlooked Great Power” was the title of a 2007 essay about Japan written by Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Intellectuals, journalists, and politicians are now saying and writing things about Japan’s role in the world that were unthinkable a decade ago,” Mr. Haas wrote. “Not everyone will welcome these changes.”
– Jacob M. Schlesinger