Security Studies Program Seminar

Japan's Grand Strategies: Past and Future

Richard Samuels
Ford International Professor of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

September 13, 2006

Many Japanese analysts do not believe Japan has a coherent grand strategy because it is trying to pursue a policy that is simultaneously UN-centered, Asia-oriented, autonomous, and consistent with the goals of the bilateral alliance with the United States.

The most common explanation for Japan's purported strategic deficit is its partnership with the U.S. American security guarantees have left Japan with only a limited sense of external threat. According to Prof. Samuels however, Japanese strategists have for the most part played a very successful game.

A debate over Japanese security has been punctuated by three moments of consensus about the Japan's international role since 1868. And a fourth is now under construction.

First, a widespread belief in the efficacy of “catching up and surpassing” the West helped elites forge the Meiji consensus on borrowing foreign institutions, learning Western rules, and mastering Western practice - “Rich Nation, Strong Army” model.

Second, Prince Konoye Fumimaro's “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” attracted support from across a wide swath of Japan's ideological spectrum. The disaster this effected is well known.

Third, after the WWII Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru forged a pragmatic path that would provide security cheaply but it would cost Japan its autonomy, an expenditure that today increasingly is seen by some as more than Japan should pay.

A fourth (possible) consensus has yet to reveal itself, though its contending political and intellectual constituents are clearly identifiable. Prof. Samuels calls it the “Goldilocks Consensus”.


Various Japanese security preferences and changes of their applications across the time:



Liberal Internationalism

(The Yoshida Doctrine – the Cold War security choice – was inspired by the liberal internationalism)


Four groups emerged from the Konouye Consensus:

  1. Pacifists who argued for a doctrine of unarmed neutralism.
  2. Neo-militarists who never got much traction, but who found some succour within the revisionist right of the LDP.
  3. Revisionists, like Kishi Nobusuke and Hatoyama Ichiro, who had a checkered past, but who came to hug (and be hugged by) the United States.
  4. Pragmatists, particularly Yoshida Shigeru, who co-opted the Pacifist's agenda, and formed the ruling mainstream of Japan 's cheap riding realism.

The battle between these last two groups was the dominant domestic dynamic driving Japanese security policy during the Cold War. Yoshida's mainstream successors expelled the ultranationalists, pacified the revisionists, and watched as the pacifists revised their own position.

A new consensus - Japan - “non-nuclear, lightly armed, economic superpower.”

The Yoshida Doctrine borrowed considerably—but selectively—from the past - “rich nation, strong army” - it eschewed the military component, yet hard-nosed in defense of Japan's commercial interests.

General orientation - pragmatic small Japanism of Ishibashi.

The Yoshida Doctrine was not built for the post-Cold War world - too little muscle and too little autonomy — a new debate over Japan's national security.

No matter how rich Japan becomes, it will have no influence without independent military power – Neo-autonomists.


Different preferences:

One extreme – U.S. is Japan's most important source of security, and must be hugged closely.

Other extreme — the U. S. is a bully that must be kept at some distance, for fear that Japan would become entangled in American adventures.

Middle of this axis – call for rebalancing its Asian and American relationships more effectively.


According to “Normal Nationalists, ” the statute of limitations for Japan's mid-20 th century aggression expired long ago; it is time for Japan to step onto the international stage as an equal of the United States.

“Middle Power Internationalists,” believe that Japan must remain a small power with self-imposed limits to its right to belligerency. Prosperity is the way to prestige and security.

“Neo-Autonomists” – are for an independent, full spectrum Japanese military that could use force.

“Pacifists” eschew the military institution altogether.


Normal Japan

Japan's current path - “globalization of the alliance,” per Prime Minister Koizumi's promise to President Bush at Crawford in May 2003 and reaffirmed in the 2004 Araki Commission Report and National Defense Program Guidelines. Joint military operations far afield, formal commitments to policing SLOCS out to the Arabian Sea, collective self-defense, and the joint use of force would each be fully legitimated.

Armed Neutrality

A second alternative would be to achieve national strength to achieve autonomy, the preferred path of Japan 's neo-autonomists – building a better military shield that would be nuclear and operationally independent of the United States. Neo-autonomists shift the doctrine from tethered defensive realism to an untethered offensive realism. Japan would then truly be “normal”. (elimination of the U.S. bases necessary.)

Mercantile Realism Redux

A third choice: the Asianists in this group would embrace exclusive regional economic institutions to reduce Japan's reliance on the U.S. market. They would not abrogate the military alliance, but would resist U.S. exhortations for Japan to expand its roles and missions.

Goldilocks Consensus

According to Prof. Samuels none of these will prevail on its own. If the past is any guide, a new consensus will emerge - Japan will consolidate the significant security gains it has accumulated during the past decade - a security posture that is not too strong and not too weak, not too close to the US and not too far. One that has insured Japan against both abandonment and entrapment, as well as against predation and protectionism - “Goldilocks Consensus.”

The Yoshida consensus won't be displaced entirely. There are advocates who seek greater autonomy, just as there are autonomists and pacifists who are not yet ready to sever all ties to the United States. No significant party refuses to accept the legitimacy of the SDF. This possible new consensus is likely to resemble Goldilock's preferences: Japan 's relationships with the United States and China will be neither too hot nor too cold, and its posture in the region will be neither too big, nor too small. 


Over the course of the past century, two substantial national security consensuses-- the first militarist and the second pacifist-- were established.

Japanese grand strategy was buffeted by shifts in the domestic civil-military relationship from political leadership to military leadership in the 1930s, from military leadership to bureaucratic leadership in the 1950s, and from bureaucratic to political leadership today.

The Yoshida Doctrine has not yet been replaced, but by making Japan more muscular and by incrementally eliminating some of the constraints on the use of force, revisionists have made sure that its contours are forever changed.

Barring a collapse of China and a reversal in its “rise”, it seems most likely that Japan will never again be as central to world affairs as it was in the 1930s. But neither will it be as marginal to world affairs as it was during the Cold War and still is today. Most likely, Japan will have constructed for itself a policy space in which it can be selectively pivotal in world affairs.

It will have done so by creating new security options for itself. In short, it looks a new, fourth grand strategy is under construction in which Japan will be more muscular than the mercantilists would prefer, but less so than the autonomists would prefer and that Tokyo will continue to balance its military and economic security-- albeit both at higher levels with greater degrees of freedom.


Rapporteur: Magdalena Rieb

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Fall 2006