The Japanese Question
In NBR Analysis vol. 1, no 2

The Japanese Question

by Kenneth B. Pyle
November 1, 1990

In an era of headlong change, while Europe is struggling with the “German Question” in determining its new order, Asia has the “Japanese Question” to confront in charting its future.

In an era of headlong change, while Europe is struggling with the “German Question” in determining its new order, Asia has the “Japanese Question” to confront in charting its future. Both “questions” arise from the experiences¬† of 20th-century history and the belief in many quarters that these experiences reveal national character traits that require special precautions and arrangements in the future. The spector of a resurgent Japan, a Japan of great economic power and uncertain national purpose, troubles Asia and the Japanese-American¬† alliance. While Asians talk openly about the Japanese Question, Americans because of their alliance with Japan have tended to avoid the issues. The Japanese Question, however, should be addressed because it si fundamental to the resolution of some of the paradoxes and anomalies in the present Japanese-American relationship.

One can imagine that sometime in the future a student of history looking back at the 1980s might wonder: why did the world’s largest debtor nation continue to offer military security for the world’s largest creditor nation? How was it that the United States continued by treaty to provide a unilateral security guarantee for the Japanese state at the same time that it was running a $50 billion annual trade deficit with that state? How was it that the United States Continued to commit over 50,000 military personnel to the defense of Japan at a time when a majority of Americans regarded Japan’s economic power as a greater threat than the power of any other country.

Part of the answer to these questions, of course, is that the United States gave primary to the demands of the Cold War and thus was willing, grudgingly, to live with these perculiarities and paradoxes of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Part of the answer relates to the extraordinary foreign policy of postwar Japan, which chose to concentrate exclusively on economic growth, remain lightly armed, and trade bases on Japanese soil in return for an American security guarantee.

Part of the answer, too, lies in a fundamental, often unspoken, question in the minds of American policymakers: can Japan be trusted to participate responsibly in international security affairs? This “Japanese Question” is at the core of American thinking about its alliance with Japan and beclouds the issue of how Japan should contribute to the maintenance of the international order upon which it depends so heavily for its remarkable affluence. If the Cold War continues to wind down in Asia as it has in Europe, this concern must be resolved, for it is fundamental to the continued relationship of the United States and Japan and the changing pattern of international relations in East Asia.