Recommended Book: Securing Japan, Richard Samuels

In the aftermath of Japan’s first successful test of its ballistic missile defense systems, the “Japan Rising” meme will undoubtedly be on the lips of foreign commentators. Expect more articles like the NYT article by Norimitsu Onishi discussed in this post in July.

Fortunately MIT’s Richard Samuels, in his latest book Securing Japan, provides a more balanced look at Japan’s changing security posture. Samuels studiously avoids the extremes of the debate, offering instead a level-headed scholarly discussion of the dynamics of Japanese security policy both at present and since the Meiji Restoration. Unlike Kenneth Pyle’s Japan Rising, however, which is largely a history of Japanese foreign policy change, Samuels spends at least as much time discussing where Japan is going as where it has been.

His conclusion is that the security policy consensus — the successor of the Yoshida Doctrine — that will emerge from the contemporary debate will not be the result of the revisionists simply imposing their will on the Japanese people. Rather, it will be the result of a compromise (what Samuels calls a “Goldilocks consensus”) that strikes a balance between the alliance with the US and economic integration in Asia and a constructive relationship with China, while lifting some of the limits on Japan’s armed forces, a process that Samuels shows is well underway.

The new Japan, Samuels argues, will look more like Canada or Germany, a country reluctant to use force aggressively but willing to play an armed role in peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction. As a result of living in a more dangerous neighborhood, the JSDF’s mission profile will, of course, differ somewhat from other US allies, in that it will have to monitor activities in the air and seas around Japan and repel intruders when necessary, as Japan’s Coast Guard is already doing (documented at length by Samuels). But the end result will be a looser US-Japan alliance — in which Japan might occasionally say no — and a greater focus on Asia by Japan, both as a source of security threats and economic opportunities.

This would be, I think, a positive outcome for Japan (and the US).

I would like to make note of a couple more things about this book. First, as in previous books and articles, Samuels shows his first-class skills as a political “taxonomist.” For those confused about the differing schools of thought in the contemporary Japanese debate, Samuels deftly explains the differences and traces their roots back to the late nineteenth century.

Second, for my part I find his theoretical approach appealing. Samuels is a self-described “realist,” but he is not a structural realist. As he demonstrated clearly in Machiavelli’s Children (discussed in this post), leaders matter — and domestic politics matter. National interests and foreign policies are not simply determined by the international system. They are the result of a complex, messy interaction between the international system and domestic political systems, with politicians and bureaucrats playing a mediating role, trying to advance their personal interests and their visions of the nation’s interests simultaneously. The result is that policy changes do not always have obvious international antecedents. There are often lags, as states struggle to interpret changes in the international environment.

The result is that we now have a comprehensive guide to how Japan has interpreted recent international changes and changed its domestic institutions so to be better able to interpret international signals, a guide that will also be useful in putting events like Japan’s BMD test in perspective.

4 thoughts on “Recommended Book: Securing Japan, Richard Samuels

  1. Bryce

    Yeah, I read this book a few months ago (is it you who has my reading list?). I didn\’t pay much attention to the final few chapters as I was a bit busy at the time.\”Rather, it will be the result of a compromise (what Samuels calls a \”Goldilocks consensus\”) that strikes a balance between the alliance with the US and economic integration in Asia and a constructive relationship with China, while lifting some of the limits on Japan\’s armed forces, a process that Samuels shows is well underway.\”This struck me as interesting, not because it is a fairly good assessment of the situation (which it is), but for me, it just seems to be a \”new\” reformulation of the postwar constants. That is, a government that seeks expanded military capabilities to secure \”recognition\” for Japan, held in check by economic priorities and a significant minority of \”anti-militarists\”. The difference now is that the main political arguments form around economic issues not defence. Ever read 日本政治の対立軸? I haven\’t but the thesis sounds similar.


  2. Anonymous

    This last point regarding Samuels\’ realism about Japan\’s foreign policy being a complex messy interaction between the international pressures and domestic political considerations is of course true of the foreign policies of other countries as well. But it is surprising how little this \”universal truth\” is appreciated or even understood in the US Congress and especially in the US mass media. It leads to a tendency to take things at face value and accept arguments based on superficial assessments which ultimately result in bad policies and deep quagmires such as we are experiencing in the Middle East today.


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