Nov 22

Book Review: Japan Rising by Kenneth Pyle

Reviewed by Lyle Sylvander (Yokohama-shi, 2001-02) (Originally published in the JETAA NY Fall 2008 Quarterly Newsletter)

Bookstores are stocked full of tomes charting the recent rise of India and China. The IT and computer programming revolution in the former and the manufacturing explosion in the latter have accompanied such massive population growth in both countries that the world’s attention has naturally shifted to that region of Asia.

In this context, Kenneth Pyle’s new book Japan Rising: The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose may seem anachronistic, as a holdover from the 1980s, the decade when, to quote a book from the era, Japan would be “first among equals.” But Pyle, a Professor of Asian history at the University of Washington, makes a strong case for Japan’s continuing relevance in the international global community, both politically and economically. His book is a fascinating account of Japanese foreign policy history, from its origins in the Meiji era to its current strategic calculations.

Much commentary has been made about Japan’s ability to preserve tradition while adapting to foreign external forces. Pyle’s analysis demonstrates that this trait is just as salient in Japan’s foreign policy as in its economic and cultural developments. As the country industrialized after Commodore Perry’s famous landing in 1853, the old feudal system was replaced by a system which preserved Confucian hierarchical structures while establishing a modern nation state, with the emperor as its head. As German industrial processes were adopted in modernizing the economy, the Prussian doctrine of realpolitik, with its emphasis on the maximization of national self-interest, complemented the new state’s ambitions well. Pyle cleverly notes that this pragmatic paradigm shared many traits with the old samurai order and provided a firm foundation for Japan’s interactions with the outside world. Throughout the course of its modern history, this theoretical foundation allowed Japan to adapt its domestic institutions and policies to the changing demands of the international system.

During his narrative, Pyle recounts some of the more famous events from Japanese history, such as the victory over Russia in 1905, which raised the nation’s status as the preeminent power in Asia. As a country poor in natural resources, Japan adopted the Western model of colonization, and its victory over Russia inspired its imperial expansionist policies throughout Asia. After its descent into fascism in the 1930s and its humiliating defeat in the Second World War, Japan was forced to accommodate itself to the new U.S.-dominated international order.

Less well known is how Japan built its mercantilist foreign policy principles during the Cold War. Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida designed the foundation for postwar economic development, in which pacifism allowed economic resources to be diverted from military means to the promotion of export-based industries. Japan cleverly used the U.S. imposition of Article 9, which forbids Japan from having a military, for its own ends. Using its unique security arrangement with the American armed forces, Japan was able to penetrate their consumer goods market while simultaneously closing its own market to American products. American industries were virtually powerless in persuading Congress to enact protectionist measures for fear of endangering the security arrangement. Yoshida’s successors continued his policy of economic advancement with great success as Japan grew to become the second largest economy in the world and a leading industrial and electronic manufacturer.

Pyle concludes his book with a discussion on Japan’s newfound purpose after a “lost decade” of post-Cold War confusion and economic stagnation. When Junichiro Koizumi was elected in 2001, he ushered in a new political era in which the entrenched bureaucracy, crony capitalism and factional dominance was challenged by financial deregulation, government accountability and constitutional reform. Koizumi’s government was also responsive to the new Heisei generation (those who matured in the post-Hirohito years) of voters and reflected their values of informed public opinion. Militarily, the Self Defense Force members were dispatched to Afghanistan and Iraq to support U.S. aid efforts. Koizumi’s successor, Shinzo Abe, continued these efforts and hinted at revising Article 9 while pursuing more open trade with China. Tokyo’s future foreign policy will inevitably involve a carefully calibrated balancing act between the interests of Beijing and Washington.

Japan Rising is most successful in bringing disparate analyses of Japan’s historical, economic, political and sociological changes under the umbrella of a succinct foreign policy narrative. While his overall tone is academic and maybe off-putting to readers not familiar with social science rhetoric, he does provide occasional glimpses into the insights of such literary figures as Natsume Soseki and Kenzaburo Oe. Works of fiction are often superior to policy analysis in analyzing the psychological health of a nation, particularly the ennui of a populace adjusting to modernization.

Ultimately, though, his book most valuably serves as a blueprint for the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance. The new Japan is no longer sheltered from the political developments in its part of the world and will be more active in international disputes.

As Pyle makes clear, Japan will continue to adjust its economy, political structure and sources of relative power to maximize its interests in the prevailing international system.

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