Japan First Versus Global Japan

    Michito Tsuruoka

    Politics, Asia

    Well-wishers wave Japanese national flags as Japan's Emperor Akihito appears on a balcony of the Imperial Palace during a public appearance for New Year celebrations at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo

    “Japan First” and “Global Japan” clash over the two shapes the direction of Japan’s foreign, security and defense policy.

    Making sense of Japan as an international political and security actor and maintaining a sense of proportion regarding Tokyo’s foreign and security policy are hardly a straightforward task. It is not just a headache for outside observers. There is no consensus in Japan either on what role the country should or is prepared to play in the international political and security arena. In light of the ever worsening security environment in which Japan is situated, the gap between those who argue for focusing on the immediate needs of Japan’s territorial defense and those who argue for more global engagement seems to be growing. I call the former camp the domestic-oriented “Japan First” and the latter the internationalist “Global Japan.” The competition between the two camps will shape the future course of Japan’s foreign and security posture and the country’s role in the region and beyond—and importantly, the Global Japan camp is far from winning.

    The “Japan First” and “Global Japan” Camps

    The logic behind the Japan First camp is rather simple. Given the limited nature of resources that Japan can spend on its foreign, security and defense policy, they argue that Japan needs to concentrate available resources to its core interests strictly defined, most notably addressing the threats and challenges regarding the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea—controlled by Japan, but claimed by China as well—and North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile developments. The value of the political and security partnerships that Japan has with other countries are assessed more or less exclusively based on the extent to which partners can help Japan address those immediate threats and challenges.

    In this regard, countries other than the United States—the only treaty ally of Japan—are likely to be seen as secondary or irrelevant. They believe that non-U.S. partners cannot do anything substantial in contingencies involving Japan. As a result, the geographical scope of Japan’s security interest, as far as the ‘Japan first’ camp is concerned, has shrunk considerably over the past several years amid growing tensions in the vicinity of Japan. They believe Japan is too busy and there is no time, energy and resources left to think about less relevant partners. For them, global engagement is nothing but a waste of resources. While Japan’s defense budget is increasing under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it is not thought to be enough.

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