Q & A: Japan’s Search for a Secure Future

Professor of Government Peter Rutland, back from a year in Japan, discusses that country’s outdated security arrangement with the United States and why both sides need to change.


Japan and the United States are locked into a security relationship spawned by the Cold War that is no longer in the interest of either, according to Professor of Government Peter Rutland. He spoke to Wesleyan about Japan’s dependency on the United States in August just after returning from a year in Tokyo spent teaching American foreign policy to Japanese students under a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship. Rutland taught at Kyoritsu Women’s University and at Sophia University, a nondenominational private university founded by the Jesuits before World War I. Sophia, where he and his family resided in an apartment overlooking the gardens of the Imperial Palace guest house, is known as the best university for language instruction in Japan.


Q: What were the challenges of teaching in Japan?


Peter Rutland: I was teaching students who did not have a background in history or social science. Every time I used a phrase such as “balance of power,” I had to explain. My students all had pocket translation devices, and they all feverishly tapped away when strange terms came up.


Q: How did the students react to you?


PR: The classroom culture is geared to lecturing. Students told me it’s not unusual for a professor to come in and read from a book. It’s not unusual for professors never to return papers. Students were quite shocked when I actually gave papers back with comments written on them. They’re also very reluctant to ask questions in class. It’s a status issue. If you ask a question that makes you appear ignorant, then you are humiliated. If you ask a question that makes you look clever, you look as though you are showing off. That’s not acceptable in a group-oriented society.


Q: What were their views on the United States and its foreign policy?


PR: When I asked my students what they disliked about America, they named guns, violence, and military power. The violence in Hollywood movies, news about crime, and films like Bowling for Columbine reinforce this view of America as a gunslinger culture. They extrapolate?correctly, I suppose?from that to foreign policy, to violence as a solution to international conflicts. Japanese culture does not like confrontation or violence. But the Japanese like American individualism, our sense of freedom, our multiculturalism. At the same time they dislike lack of security and order. It’s a contradictory attitude.


Q: How do they perceive Japan’s security situation?


PR: They recognize the role of America in protecting Japan from potential threats such as North Korea and China. They see Japan as surprisingly vulnerable, as small, weak, and isolated. Japan doesn’t have a big army; it doesn’t have an alliance like NATO; and it doesn’t have good relations with any of its neighbors.


Q: Are those attitudes reflected in the larger Japanese culture?


PR: The Japanese are happy with the status quo in security. They trust America. They figure the relationship has worked for 30 to 40 years, so why rock the boat? The United States wants Japan to play a more active role, so we’ve been gently pressing Japan to integrate its forces more with U.S. forces, to have more joint exercises and planning. The Japanese government has moved along with that. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is committed to revising the constitution, which formally bars Japan from waging war or having armed forces capable of waging war. It’s not clear that the Japanese public is in favor of that. They see that they are insecure, but with the United States launching wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as playing hardball with North Korea, they are not sure that marching behind the Americans is the best way to beef up their security. The Iraq war complicated things as well. Sending troops for peacekeeping operations was barely supported by the public.


Q: Have developments in North Korea unsettled this view?


PR: The Japanese place a high priority on keeping North Korea calm. They are nervous that the United States sees North Korea as just another point in the axis of evil. For them North Korea is an existential threat; it has the capacity to throw nuclear weapons at them.

Japan’s relationship with North Korea has had a particularly awful side. Earlier this year in the Maritime Museum the Japanese government had on display a North Korean spy ship, which Japan sank on the high seas in November of 2001?something the government wouldn’t have done prior to 9/11. They later salvaged it. At first glance, it looked like a beaten-up fishing boat, but it had buoyancy tanks underneath that would lift the boat, revealing doors that would open for a speedboat hidden within, James Bond style. On board they had Russian SAMs, American GPS gear, and Kim Il Sung pins. Boats such as this systematically cruised the coasts of South Korea and Japan for decades, kidnapping hundreds of people. The biggest political issue in Japan last year was the return of these people and their families. Whenever anyone came back, it was all over the television with continuous live coverage of the kind American television gave O.J. Simpson. The event tapped into emotional depths of fear and insecurity, a sense of outrage, and victimization.


Q: To what extent is Japanese foreign policy a legacy of the Cold War?


PR: The legacy is strong. Asia still has communist parties in power and still has divided countries (China, Taiwan, and Korea) with unresolved issues. A general feature of globalization is the disconnect between economics and politics. Economic integration doesn’t necessarily lead to the spread of democracy, the spread of peace, and stability. As Benjamin Barber said, You read the front page of the newspaper and it’s war, death, destruction; you read the business section and it’s stock markets are strong and investments are surging ahead. Is it the same world? This disconnect struck me particularly in East Asia.


Q: What would change Japanese views about their security relationships?


PR: It’s very difficult to see alternative futures. It’s unlikely that Japan will assume full responsibility for its defense and the United States will pull out. The reaction from China would be very negative. The United States and Prime Minister Koizumi want more sharing of military duties, but I don’t think that’s where the Japanese people want to go. Unfortunately, Japan’s dependency upon the military strength of the Unitd States prevents it from finding a new role in Asia. Both sides need to look for a new relationship that promotes ties to other Asian nations.


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