What would a liberal Japan actually look like?

Project Syndicate has posted an essay based on a speech by Joseph Nye in Tokyo last month, in which he foresees the rise of a “liberal” Japan.

Calling attention to Asahi‘s series of twenty-one editorials [series available at Japan Focus] outlining a vision for Japan, Nye argues on its behalf, observing that Asahi‘s vision provides a path for “Japan to become a world power as a provider and coordinator of global public goods from which all peoples can benefit and none can be excluded, such as freedom of the seas or a stable international monetary system. This would be a way for Japan to escape its reputation for insularity, avoid the mistakes of its military history, improve its relations with Asian neighbors who still remember the 1930’s, and increase Japan’s ‘soft’ or attractive power.”

Nye foresees Japan carrying a greater burden in a variety of ways, but few that would require the use of force.

This is all well and good, but it is not entirely clear how to get there, because in the quotation above there is a chicken-and-the-egg problem: will a more international role lead to Japan escape its reputation for insularity, or can Japan only embrace a more international role after it lowers its psychological walls and becomes far more willing to interact with the world?

Then, of course, there is the larger question of whether this is the role the Japanese people want their country to play in the world. Arguably, Abe Shinzo and other nationalists of a more Gaullist streak are not alone in desiring a foreign policy rooted in the defense of Japan’s pride and the assertion of Japanese interests, particularly in relations with North Korea and China. And while the Japanese people are hardly clamoring for Japan to become more belligerent, content to see the JSDF play little more than a supporting role in multilateral missions abroad, they also support the government’s misplaced emphasis on the abductions issue (as opposed to focusing on a mix of issues, with abductions but one among several).

So how can Japan actually become the liberal power outlined by Nye?

Well, first, as eloquently argued in this post by MTC, it requires vision on the part of the Japanese government as to what role it can actually play as a leader in the region and the world. Arguably, a broader vision of Japan’s role is inconsistent with the kind of “standing up for Japan’s pride at all costs” thinking that has motivated Japan’s response to the comfort women resolution in the US Congress, the whaling issue, and historical feuds with South Korea and China. It’s time to grow up. The of a serious great power capable of taking the lead on an issue — the environment, African development, etc. — is the ability to not let petty issues undermine national focus. Is Tokyo serious about protecting the environment? Marshal its resources, line up allies, force others to make commitments, and avoid stupid, avoidable mistakes and comments that give other countries can excuse not to follow your lead.

The other change is what Japan looks like at home. What happens at home matters incredibly abroad. Just ask Washington, which has found it hard to make allies follow its lead on a host of issues due to perceived human rights failures at home. Japan, of course, is free to do what it wants at home: approve textbooks with questionable interpretations of the war, emphasize patriotism in education over other skills that might serve Japanese children better, railroad those accused of crimes straight to prison, and prevent women from rising to positions of prominence. But it cannot do so and then turn to the world and proclaim that Japan intends to be a liberal great power. For Japan to be a liberal great power means building an international position largely upon how other countries view Japanese society. If Japan is respected for its domestic governance, its counsel will be welcomed by others, and so its power will grow.

For all the rhetoric, does the Japanese government truly appreciate what it will take to become this kind of global power?

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