Wither Japan?

Mohsin Zeb

Much is made of the rise of China as a superpower these days, with comparatively scant attention being paid to the concurrent decline of Japan as the regions’ leading power and the impact of that slide down the global power tables has and will have on the Japanese people and Japan as a state.


Two things are important to note from the start – one, that historically and certainly over the past few centuries, Japan has had the better of its regional rivals Korea and China and has in comparative recent history subjugated both via military conquest. The second core point is that the rise of China to superpower status – now surely undisputed as a reality in the near future if Beijing is not already acknowledged as such – will impact Japan more directly than any other state – including the United States. It is Japan that sits a stone’s throw away from China, Japan that is directly in line of the growing and increasingly assertive Chinese military, Japan that faces being sucked into the economic dynamo that China now is – finding itself usurped as the regional leader in every field. Indeed steps towards further economic integration, the one area where cooperation seems logical and desirable by all in the North East Asian region, are somewhat stymied by the fear amongst Japan and South Korea that in a free trade area, neither could complete with China on cost – thus seeing a sizable outflow of capital to maximize the benefit of China’s comparative cost advantage for Japanese and Korean producers. However this article deals not with the economics of China’s meteoric rise – but rather hopes to focus more on the political and social impact of the shifting power dynamics in East Asia.

To gauge this, I rely partially on my own unscientific but tremendously interesting experiences. Many moons ago during my first incarnation as a doctoral student I struck up a friendship with a Japanese student enrolled on the same program. Perhaps we both subconsciously thought that the only other ‘Asian’ in the class would enable an easier friendship to emerge or perhaps he assumed I too was a foreign student who would be equally shy speaking in English before more obviously apparent ‘native speakers’- but none the less over time we became quite close and despite my zigzag journey though different programs and cities to where I am now, we remain good friends. I shall not give his full name as he is still on the program and I have no wish to embarrass him but Nish as I called him (Nishi was too much to say!) gave me a tremendous insight into the mindset of segments of the educated strata of Japanese society and how they both view and react to the sea geopolitical changes taking shape around them.

To say he is a nationalist would be an understatement. His grandfather and granduncle fought and died in Iwo Jima in spring 1945, he had been taught to be proud of his roots and over the years has interned for politicians who now make up the second tier of Japan’s ‘Japan Restoration Party’ – a fiercely nationalistic outfit who govern Osaka and now have a few dozen MP’s in Japan’s parliament. The rapid national rise of the JRP is reflective of the mood of a particular set of Japanese of which Nishi is perhaps representative. Affluent, culturally aware and with a family tradition of military service, their concerns centre on the future of Japan – and I shall relate them as follows.

Why they ask, nearly 70 years after World War Two ended; does the US still have troops in Japan? They see Japan as being occupied and sold out by governments to agree to humiliatingly one sided terms in bilateral US-Japanese ties.

Why is Japan still governed by a constitution forced upon it after the War ended by the Allies? This constitution constrains Japan’s freedom as a sovereign state and leaves it at the mercy of the US in so far as security is concerned?

Why is it wrong for Japan to honor their war dead yet the war dead of other countries are celebrated? Are Japanese war heroes less worthy of recognition?

The undercurrent of frustrated nationalism in the Japanese may not remain so hidden should the feeling that their nation is being superseded by China become more apparent. World War Two and the subsequent political mechanics have bottled Japanese nationalism, have cut out from common conscience that history that glorifies Japan and emboldens the nationalistic Japanese. However, Japan may not wither into second tier power status quietly as some have expected. We have all seen the protests against US troops; against China when events transpire between the two and the rise of right-wing parties such as the JRP reflect the existence of a very real current of nationalistic rebirth evident in some Japanese.

Somewhere in the national psyche of the complex Japanese people is that warrior spirit that made them so feared by Allied powers and so successful as an expansionist military power for centuries. It is my belief that the right external stimuli could well bring this characteristic back to the forefront should the Japanese people – who remain fiercely proud and xenophobic as even close Japanese friends will admit to ‘outsiders’ when they are being honest – feel they face permanent national loss of position and prestige in their region.

It is this undercurrent of anger, frustration and regret that the Japan Restoration Party taps into and the same sentiments are expressed by even some amongst the most educated, worldly and sophisticated Japanese people. It is possible that Japan withers as a power or it may attempt to bridge the gap by investing heavily in its military and in reviving its’ still mighty economy to try and retain its regional leadership.

However, should Japan wither, it is my understanding that it is unlikely that Japan will wither away quietly. Efforts are underway to try and open up the constitution to allow for some offensive military capability and just recently Japan inaugurated the largest warship it was had since its halcyon days of Empire in World War Two – a huge helicopter carrier named Izumo. As China becomes more assertive and expansionist – it should be ready to face stiff resistance from Japan, resilience lesser states such as the Philippines cannot possibly offer. I do not doubt that East Asia has seen a changing of the guard – a passing of the baton to a new primary power, but judging by political developments within Japan – and a renewed overt patriotism within an influential element of Japanese young adults – those who will tomorrow govern the nation on account of their education and noble blood, the Japan will to retain leadership remains. From a valued friendship I have learnt of a culture I knew nothing off, learnt to appreciate a finely crafted Masamune sword or the epics of Japanese literature – but as a political scientist, I have learnt most importantly to observe – not just the ideas of one friend, but a movement led by Japan’s youth – a youth who yearn for the power and prestige their ancestors once knew and enjoyed. From everything I take one core lesson – Japan’s youth will not surrender its regional status without a fight.

Mohsin Zeb, MA Reading University