Japan's Foreign and Security Policy in the Twenty First Century: Challenges and Alternatives

Bachelor Thesis, 2008

79 Pages, Grade: 72% - First Class Honours




1. Japan’s foreign and security policy trajectory since 1945
1.1The Pacifist Constitution and the Yoshida Doctrine
1.2. The onset of the Cold War and entry onto the U.S. camp
1.3. A revised U.S.-Japan Alliance
1.4. War in Indochina and a more independent foreign policy
1.5. Towards the end of the Cold War

2. The post-Cold War period: From the Gulf War to the end of the century

3. Japan’s foreign policy in the twenty-first century: Challenges
3.1. The U.S.-Japan Alliance: To what extent is it adequate?
3.2. The decline of U.S. power and its implications for Japan’s security
3.3. Strains in the alliance: U.S. unilateralism, Japan’s limitations and U.S, military bases
3.4. Japan’s foreign policy and the rise of China
3.5. The Taiwan Question: A major challenge
3.6. The Korean Peninsula: East Asia’s ‘gunpowder barrel’

4. Alternatives for Japan’s security policy
4.1. Security through regional multilateralism .
4.2. Security through the United Nations
4.3. Security through self-reliance: Nuclear weapons and Article 9

5. Conclusion

6. References and bibliography


The end of the Cold War signalled the end of an international order which had existed for nearly a half century. As a new era began, states had to adapt to the new international structure which emerged after 1991. In Japan, where the bipolar system had shaped its foreign policy like most of the rest of the world, new considerations began to be made and a post-Cold War strategy was envisaged. By the end of the century, though, Japan’s foreign and security policy had remained largely the same as Cold War times, with the bilateral relationship with the United States retaining its precedence over any other relation. However, new factors which characterised the beginning of the new century led to a drastic change in the international system which presented Japan with new challenges.

This paper aims to discuss the challenges for Japan’s foreign policy in the twenty-first century and to explore possible alternatives for its security policy, which determines Japanese foreign policy to a great extent. First, in order to provide a background on Japan’s foreign and security policy and how they have evolved over the decades, Chapter One shall present their trajectory since the end of the Second World War, for this was a major turning point in Japan’s foreign policy.

Chapter Two explains how there were expectations of a change in Japan’s foreign policy and a shift of its security policy towards a multilateral arrangement in replacement of the bilateral alliance with the United States, as result of the U.N. success in the Gulf War. It then shows how external factors that occurred in the mid 1990s put those expectations on hold and led to the upgrade of the U.S.-Japan Alliance.

Chapter Three analyses the challenges Japan faces in the twenty-first century. It explores Japan’s security relation with the United States and the adequateness of their alliance in today’s world, taking into account waning U.S. hegemony and growing U.S. unilateralism, as well as strains in the bilateral relationship such as Japan’s increasing dependence on Washington’s strategy and domestic problems with U.S. military presence. It then looks at the rise of China and the question of Taiwan and their implications for Japan, as well as the challenges North Korea poses.

Chapter Four explores alternatives to Japan’s current security policy, which is strictly restricted to the alliance with the United States. It takes three approaches in exploring the alternatives: Security through regional multilateralism, security through collective security via the United Nations, and security through self-reliance, which would require domestic reforms and rearming, and potentially acquiring nuclear capabilities. The feasibility of such alternatives is then considered and an attempt to find whether any of them would be an effective security policy is made. Finally, the conclusion will draw on the findings of the previous chapter and indicate further studies that are broader in scope and which could not be undertaken in this paper.

1. Japan’s Foreign Policy Trajectory Since 1945

1.1 The Pacifist Constitution and the Yoshida Doctrine

Japan’s position in the international system has its roots in post-Second World War arrangements. Having lost the war, Japan was disarmed, demilitarised, occupied by the Allies – predominantly the U.S. –, and had a new constitution imposed upon it in 1947, which has never been amended ever since[1]. According to this so-called peace constitution, the Japanese people would seek peaceful cooperation with all nations, renounce war forever, and, to that end, never maintain military forces or any kind of war potential[2]. Looking at the pacifism that has dominated Japanese approach to foreign relations since 1947, the importance of the constitution is evident, for it provided the basic platform on which these were to be based.

There were other factors which influenced Japan’s foreign policy and to assume the constitution alone shaped it would be too simplistic. Among them, the Yoshida Doctrine that was enunciated by Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida in 1947 was one which had the greatest impact on Japan’s foreign and security policy in the following decades. This doctrine determined that Japan’s primary objective was to rebuild the nation and thus concentrate its efforts on economic recovery, whereas the Japanese role in international politics would be secondary and kept to a low profile while security guarantees would be sought from the United States[3]. The Yoshida Doctrine remained, though adapted to changing circumstances when necessary, the most important strategy on which the course of Japanese foreign policy was based for most of the Cold War.

1.2 The onset of the Cold War and Japan’s entry onto the U.S. camp

The onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s further shaped Japan’s foreign policy and defined its security policy, since it led Japan to firmly place itself on the United States’ camp against the communist bloc. The basic policy established by Yoshida proved to be far more important and durable than Yoshida himself had envisaged, setting Japan’s strategy for the next four decades[4] and influencing Japanese foreign policy during most of the Cold War.

Moreover, the communist threat led the United States to change the way it regarded Japan, transforming it from an occupied enemy into the most important ally in Asia. The Korean War (1950-53) further strengthened this view and provided Japan with the opportunity to have its own military forces, as with most of the U.S. occupation forces sent to Korea, it became clear that Japan would need to acquire some sort of defence capability. Encouraged by the U.S. occupation authorities and authorised by the Japanese government, the National Police Reserve was established in 1950[5], less than a month after the outbreak of hostilities on the Korean peninsula. This was the forerunner of the Japan Self Defence Forces (JDSF), which were created four years later in 1954 and became Japan’s own military forces[6]. This was remarkable, as Japan created what were to become its own military forces barely three years after the pacifist constitution had come into effect.

Behind such shift in Japan’s position was a shift in the United States’ own strategy in Asia. Up to the Korean War, American policy in Asia had placed greater emphasis on socio-economic factors to counter the communist threat[7], an approach that was quickly changed by the war in Korea. Both the U.S. and the Japanese governments were alarmed by the Korean War and, as the U.S. occupation of Japan drew close to an end, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty was signed in September 1951, coming into force in 1952[8]. It was this treaty that established the U.S.-Japan alliance that came to constitute Japan’s foreign and security policy cornerstone and the linchpin of U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific region, although it did not explicitly make the United States responsible for Japan’s defence[9]. The First Taiwan Crisis (1954-55) further convinced Tokyo and Washington of the importance of the U.S.-Japan security alliance.

However, while it is true that Japan’s basic strategy was to follow the United States’ lead in international politics, it is important to note that there were occasions when Japan took a relatively independent course, as many lawmakers in Tokyo recognised the need to improve Japan’s relationship with other countries even if that was not part of the U.S. Asia-Pacific strategy. This was the case of Japan’s attitude towards the People’s Republic of China (PRC) early in the Cold War.

Japan had opted to establish diplomatic relations with Taiwan (ROC) instead of Beijing in 1952, partly due to U.S. pressure and partly due to Chiang Kai-shek’s soft posture towards Japan[10]. But as early as 1953, recognising that economic relations were the first step towards normalising relations and believing it to be in Japan’s economic interest, the Japanese Diet passed a resolution which called for development in trade between the two countries, resulting in four unofficial Sino-Japanese trade agreements during the 1950s[11]. Although diplomatic relations were not re-established, it was the first major contact both countries had made since the end of the Second World War.

During the same period, Japan also pursued a policy towards the Soviet Union that can be seen as independent from the United States to a certain extent. In the mid 1950s, Japan sought to sign a peace treaty with the Soviet Union and although this attempt was not a success due to the question over the South Kuriles[12], it resulted in the normalisation of relations between the two countries, which ultimately allowed Japan to join the United Nations in 1956 once the Soviet opposition to its membership had ceased. As part of Japan’s Soviet Union policy of the time, the Hatoyama government also attempted to improve relations with North Korea in 1955, though the results were no more than limited trade and repatriation of Korean residents in Japan[13]. Such course in Japanese foreign policy indicates that although the bilateral relation with the U.S. was by far the most important and Japan’s foreign policy centred around the Washington axis, Tokyo did not discard seeking closer ties with its neighbours[14].

1.3 A revised U.S.-Japan alliance

In discussing Japan’s foreign and security policy, one cannot ignore domestic factors as at times these have had significant impact in shaping them. For instance, the renewal of the 1952 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty in 1960 was proposed by Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. A former member of Japan’s wartime cabinet, Kishi proposed the replacement of the previous treaty by a treaty that extended the relationship between the two countries

and was more equal[15], which was signed and ratified in the form of the United States-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security in 1960.

According to this treaty, which bound Japan and the United States even closer, the United States would explicitly commit itself to maintaining Japan’s security and the stability of the wider Far East region[16]. Far from being a national consensus, though, this proved to be a great controversy which caused massive domestic outcry, prompting tens of thousands[17] to protest outside the Diet. It also led to the cancellation of President Eisenhower’s visit to Tokyo in 1960 due to concerns over his security, culminating in Kishi’s removal from office in the same year. At the heart of this controversy was the post-war identity of Japan, which many Japanese[18] saw as that of a peace state and therefore strengthening a military alliance with the U.S. would contradict that identity.

Instead, they supported a Japanese security policy based on unarmed neutrality and reliance on the United Nations[19] rather than a bilateral security alliance. On the other hand, the Japanese government defended that the treaty was necessary to protect Japan from the communist threat by making the U.S. commitment to its defence explicit and placing Japan under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. If the 1952 treaty formed the basis of the U.S.-Japan alliance, the 1960 treaty cemented this alliance, at the same time making the Americans aware of the domestic opposition to a more active Japanese strategic role and the dangers Japan could face if it were to push for that role, as the U.S. had been requesting.

Unlike the Kishi administration, the subsequent government led by Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda (1960-64) sought to avoid controversies over security policies and instead placed greater emphasis on improving the living standards of the population. Ikeda is best known for his income-doubling plan, which aimed to double the income of the Japanese people in ten years, but at the same time he also pushed for an expansion in the number of JSDF personnel, purchase of U.S. missiles and supported greater bilateral relations with the U.S[20]. Thus, although having social concerns at the centre of his administration, Ikeda nevertheless continued to adopt policies supportive of the U.S.-Japan alliance in line with Japan’s security policy.

Also in the 1960s, after years of negotiations and several setbacks due to territorial disputes, war compensations and Japan’s reluctance to recognise Seoul as the only Korean government, Japan and South Korea finally established diplomatic relations in 1965[21]. However, bilateral relations between Tokyo and Seoul were not smooth and experienced constant strains until they were improved under the Nakasone administration in 1983, though there have been times of considerable friction since then.

1.4 War in Indochina and a more independent foreign policy

The Vietnam War (1959-75) and the United States’ decision to escalate its intervention in 1965 presented Japan with a difficult dilemma: On the one hand, in the name of the alliance and due to the difficulties faced in Vietnam, Japan was pressed by the U.S. to provide full-scale support which included direct military involvement as other U.S. allies in the region had done[22]. On the other hand, constitutional constraints and domestic opposition prevented Japan from doing so. The latter intended to prevent Japan even from providing minimum support, let alone direct military involvement.

Prime Minister Eisaku Sato (1964-72) therefore had to find a way of balancing internal and external pressures, which he did by initially strongly supporting bilateralism with the U.S. by giving political support and allowing the use of Japanese bases for U.S. forces to use in the war in Vietnam as well as economic aid to South Vietnam[23]. He then adopted policies intended to strengthen Japan’s identity as a non-militarist state. This was done in the form of banning arms export to communist countries and countries involved in the war, and proposing the Three Non-Nuclear Principles which determined that Japan would not possess, produce or permit the introduction of nuclear weapons in its territory[24], which was adopted by the Diet in 1971[25]. Hence, it may be observed that although the U.S.-Japan alliance provided Japan with security guarantees, Japan’s situation was far from without trouble as on occasions the alliance itself was the source of turmoil and potential instability.

During the 1970s, Japanese foreign policy began to take a more independent course from that of the U.S., even though the bilateral relation with the U.S. remained the sole most important for Tokyo. The Vietnam War had an indirect impact on this modest but yet significant change, as the difficulties faced by American forces in Vietnam for years led U.S. president Richard Nixon to enunciate the Nixon Doctrine[26]. This meant that U.S. commitment to its allies’ defence would in part wane, which in turn meant that Japan would need to share a greater degree of its security responsibility as well as contribute more to regional stability. In the same year Nixon announced his doctrine, Prime Minister Sato joined him in the joint U.S.-Japan communiqué which explicitly included South Korea and Taiwan’s security as crucial to Japan’s own[27].

However, a series of factors prevented Japan from playing an active role in East Asia. Namely, apart from Japan’s own unwillingness to do so, the memories of the Second World War, still fresh in the memories of many Asians, stood as an obstacle to Japan’s direct active involvement in regional security matters. Moreover, the U.S.-Japan alliance still stood as the best option for Japan to interact with Southeast Asia, as it provided the framework within which Japanese security policy would be pursued in the region . Indeed, Japan’s security relations with Southeast Asia during this period were conducted through the bilateral relation with the U.S., even though on the economic side Japanese presence was increasingly significant[28].

Ironically, the growing Japanese economic dominance in the region made it more difficult for Japan to improve security relations with Southeast Asian nations, since it created a notion of neo-colonialism in the minds of many locals, which was demonstrated in violent protests in Jakarta on the occasion of Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka’s visit in 1974[29]. Three years later, while on a tour of ASEAN member states, Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo articulated Japan’s foreign policy in the region that came to be known as the Fukuda Doctrine, which is still considered relevant today. Fukuda stated that ‘ Japan, a country committed to peace, would never become a military power and that Japan would build up relationship of mutual confidence and trust with Southeast Asian countries in wide-raging fields, and that Japan would cooperate positively with ASEAN and its member countries in their own efforts, as an equal partner.’[30]

This period also saw the first major tension between Tokyo and Washington since the Second World War. Nixon shocked the Japanese when in 1972, without prior consultation or even notification to Tokyo, he visited Beijing and, with Mao Zedong, announced intentions to normalise Sino-American relations. The Japanese government was caught by surprise and for a moment even saw in this move a possible reversal of alliances[31], for Japan’s very foreign policy had been based on the alliance with the United States, whose strategy in Asia, in turn, had been based on hostility to China[32]. Believing it to be in Japan’s interest, as it was mentioned above, and now without the risk of upsetting the Americans, the Japanese government followed suit and Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka visited Beijing in the same year.

This notwithstanding, Nixon’s action was met with suspicion and resentment on the other side of the Pacific and encouraged Tokyo to take a more independent foreign policy. At the same time, the Sino-American rapprochement produced a great irony: As a result of the Sino-Soviet border conflict of 1969[33], China had began to regard the U.S. with less hostility and the Nixon-Mao meeting served to consolidate that view. Consequently, being Japan the main U.S. ally in Asia, Beijing ceased to oppose the U.S.-Japan alliance, even going as far as appreciating it[34] as a counter-balance to Soviet power. But if this apparently sudden and drastic change in Washington’s attitude shocked and led to some suspicion in Tokyo, it also opened the way for Japan to pursue closer ties with China which ultimately benefited Japan’s own security by reducing the threat of a potential conflict with Beijing, though at the expense of its relations with Taiwan[35][36].

Japan’s relatively more independent foreign policy was also reflected in its response to events outside the Asia-Pacific region. One remarkable example is the 1973 Oil Crisis. As part of the Arab strategy in the Yom Kippur War, the member states of the OAPEC[37] embargoed petrol export to pro-Israel countries, which included the United States, Western European countries and Japan. This represented Japan’s constant concern over the wider Arab-Israeli conflict, as Japan had traditionally been caught between its good relations with Arab states on the one hand and the bilateral relationship with the U.S.[38] on the other.

The embargo, however, constituted a far more serious situation than previous instances and Tokyo had to make its position unambiguously clear: It chose to take a pro-Arab stance. Japan therefore complied with the Arab business and economic boycott of Israel, which went strongly against U.S. foreign policy and led to much pressure from Washington. Nonetheless, Japan remained in the boycott until 1991[39] and only abandoned it on the condition that the Israelis freeze the establishment of settlements in the occupied territories: ‘There should be a simultaneous suspension of the Arab boycott against Israel by Arab nations and of the establishment of settlements in the occupied territories by Israel’[40].

What is more, PLO[41] leader Yasser Arafat’s visit to Tokyo in 1975 and Japan’s abstention in the UN General Assembly Resolution which equalled Zionism with racism, in the same year, confirmed Tokyo foreign policy’s increased degree of independence from that of Washington’s[42]. This, in turn, was the result of the United States’ own actions, namely the Nixon Doctrine and the U.S. rapprochement with China, which for their part were consequences of America’s failure in Vietnam and the Sino-Soviet border conflict.

Furthermore, the Arab petrol embargo showed that non-military threats could be equally dangerous to Japan’s security and that in extreme cases, paradoxically, Tokyo was willing to adopt policies of its own interests even if that meant alienating the United States[43] - who is the main guarantor of its security. But although the 1970s saw a greater independence of Japanese foreign policy, it still remained largely dependent on Washington and predominantly passive and reactive.

1.5 Towards the end of the Cold War

The 1980s saw a significant increase in Japan’s defence capabilities as well as in its role in the Cold War. The normalisation of relations with China and the 1978 Sino-Japanese peace treaty had left the Soviet Union as the sole major security threat to Japan in the Cold War world. The peace treaty with China itself had led to deterioration in Japan’s relations with the Soviet Union, as Moscow saw it as an act directed at the Soviets[44] despite both Tokyo and Beijing denying it. Although in theory the Soviet Union continued to seek better relations with Japan, the Soviet military build up in the Far East indicated that, in practice, this was not the case.

With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Japan was expected to play a greater role in the containment of the Soviet Union, which it accepted to do, in part because of U.S. pressure and in part because of its own concerns regarding the Soviet threat. As a result, Japan began a build up and modernisation of its military and to aid countries considered vital to checking the Soviet expansion such as Pakistan and Thailand[45]. The accession of Yasuhiro Nakasone to Japanese premiership in 1982 facilitated Japan’s strategy to be more assertive in the international arena.


[1] In 2007, however, the Diet passed a bill that is considered the first step for a possible future amendment. BBC News, 2007

[2] Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan, House of Councillors, 2001.

[3] Hook et al 2005, pp32

[4] Pyle 2007, pp241

[5] Calvocoressi 2001, pp95

[6] Their purpose being purely defensive, with offensive weapons being forbidden.

[7] Nester 1990, pp31

[8] Under this treaty, Japan would provide U.S. forces with military bases on its soil

[9] Hook et al 2005, pp144

[10] Kawashima 2003, pp97

[11] Yahuda 1996, pp 239

[12] A territorial dispute over four former Japanese islands – known in Japan as the Northern Territories – which were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War and whose occupation continues to this day

[13] Lee 2003, pp69

[14] As long as those ties did not harm the relation with the United States, as it can be seen in Tokyo stopping short of a full recognition of the PRC until the U.S. did so

[15] Removing the right of U.S. forces to suppress Japan’s domestic unrest

[16] Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States of America

[17] 560,000 on 4 June 1960 and 580,000 on 15-16 June 1960. See Hook et all 2005, pp148

[18] Left wing politicians, opposition Diet members, pacifists, workers, students, left wing political groups and a significant part of the general public

[19] Hook et al 2005, pp148

[20] Ibid, pp150

[21] The United States had attempted to bring its South Korean and Japanese allies closer soon after hostilities had ended on the Korean Peninsula. Eventually, Japan recognised South Korea as the only ‘lawful’ government of the peninsula, but not necessarily as the only existing one. See Hook et al 2005, pp204

[22] Australia and South Korea

[23] Hughes 2004, pp26

[24] The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan

[25] U.S. bases in Okinawa maintained nuclear weapons prior to its return to Japan in 1972 and speculations hold that even after that, although such speculations shall not be discussed in this paper

[26] This held that the United States would decrease its military presence in Asia and its allies would be expected to assume primary responsibility for their own defence by providing the necessary manpower. The U.S. would provide weapons, training and nuclear shield, and existing treaty commitments would be maintained. See Nixon 1969

[27] See Tucker, 2001

[28] Hook et al 2005, pp221

[29] See the Jakarta Post, 25 September, 2007

[30] The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan

[31] Calvocoressi 2001, pp99

[32] As well as to the Soviet Union

[33] Which itself paved the way for Sino-American rapprochement

[34] Yahuda 1996, pp134

[35] At least at the official level, as Japan-Taiwan relations remained strong at other levels

[36] The two governments adopted a joint communiqué which recognised the PRC as the sole government of China. See Joint Communiqué of the Government of Japan and the Government of the People’s Republic of China

[37] Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries

[38] Japan’s relations with Israel had been carried out mainly through its bilateral relation with the U.S.

[39] Shaoul 2004, pp274

[40] Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, Ibid, pp282

[41] Palestinian Liberation Organisation

[42] Which predictably voted against the resolution

[43] The Middle East is of particular concern for Japan’s security, as 90 percent of the petrol it imports comes from the region, though its share has been consistently decreasing. See Passia 1999

[44] Library of Congress 1994, Japan: Relations with Russia

[45] Ibid

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Japan's Foreign and Security Policy in the Twenty First Century: Challenges and Alternatives
University of Greenwich
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William Fujii (Author), 2008, Japan's Foreign and Security Policy in the Twenty First Century: Challenges and Alternatives, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/128694


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