This is the 10th in a series of Stratfor monographs on the geopolitics of countries influential in world affairs. This was originally published Aug. 31, 2009.
Japan is a bow-shaped archipelago that sprawls along the northeast coastline of the Eurasian landmass. Throughout history it has hung on the outskirts of the Asian world, just within contact of the great Han Chinese civilization. To the east lies only the Pacific Ocean, hence the Japanese name for the country, "Nippon," or "Origin of the Sun." Mountainous, remote, frequently beset by typhoons and shaken by earthquakes, possessing little useful land and few natural resources, Japan appears an unlikely place to set about building one of the world's most powerful nation-states. But the Japanese did so — from scratch — in about 150 years. Now Japan is drifting, and, as in previous transitional periods, it will take outside forces — perhaps a tectonic shift — to spur it into action.
Japan is an archipelago with four "home islands" and some 6,800 smaller islands. Honshu, the central crescent-shaped island that bows out from the continent, is the biggest island (taking up about 60 percent of the country), with well over half the country's population. To the southwest lies Kyushu, Japan's traditional point of contact with the Asian mainland, especially the Korean Peninsula. Shikoku, the smallest and least populated home island, lies nestled between Honshu and Kyushu, while Hokkaido lies in the far north. Okinawa, the largest island of the Ryukyu chain that extends southwest of Kyushu almost to Taiwan, is technically considered the fifth home island but is much smaller and more remote and has a different history than the main four. The numerous other Japanese islands surround these home islands and extend in chains or lie at a vast remove in the northwestern Pacific.
The first salient fact about Japan's geography is the short supply of habitable and arable land. At 378,000 square kilometers, Japan is officially larger than Great Britain or today's Germany. However, three-fourths of this territory consists of steep mountains, ravines, forests and wasteland, inimical to human habitation. Mountains form spines up and down the center of each of the four main islands, and the Japanese Alps, the country's highest concentration of peaks, lie in central Honshu, taking up the bulk of the island most capable of holding a large population. Mount Fuji, an active volcano that has not erupted since 1707, is Japan's tallest mountain at 3,776 meters. Mountainous geography means that Japan is much smaller than it looks, and Japanese society has been confined to thin strips and small enclaves on the coastal plains that surround the main islands. Only about 12 percent of Japan's land is arable — compared to 13 percent in Indonesia, 16 percent in South Korea, and about 28 percent in California (which is similar in size to Japan).
The vast majority of the Japanese population lives beneath the line that marks the northern limit for winter cropping, which runs through central Honshu, north of Kyoto and Nagoya, and terminates in Tokyo. Japan has three major plains areas that host the largest concentrations of people, all in central Honshu. The largest is the Kanto plain, with the modern capital Tokyo, the largest metropolitan area in the world with about 35 million people. Second is the Yamato or Kinki plain, which comprises the bulk of the Kansai region, including both the old imperial capital of Kyoto and the country's second-largest metropolitan area, Osaka. Third, lodged between the others, is the Nobi plain, with the third-largest metro area of Nagoya.
Throughout Japanese history, these three plains provided the greatest agricultural potential and served as the economic, political and cultural centers of the island, with the Yamato plain as the original center of power and the Kanto plain later supplanting it. These three chief cities — Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya — are not only seated on prime lands but also overlook spacious bays and thus serve as ports. Together they account for about 45 percent of modern Japan's total population of 128 million and only 6 percent of the country's total land area. Japan's other major cities sit in smaller plains along the coasts.
There is no interconnecting river system to speak of in Japan. Covered with mountains and hills and with high levels of precipitation, the islands have a great many rivers, but they are short and disconnected, descending precipitously from the mountains to the nearest coast. This means they are useful for irrigation but only navigable, if at all, in the lower reaches.
Therefore, to form cross-country connections, the Japanese developed a vibrant maritime culture. The Seto Inland Sea — separating Honshu from Kyushu and Shikoku — served as a highway connecting Kyushu's biggest settlements (Kitakyushu, Fukuoka and Nagasaki) with a line of prosperous cities along the southwestern coast of Honshu, including Hiroshima, Kobe and Osaka. Meanwhile, travel along the eastern coast of Honshu linked the Inland Sea region with the many natural ports along the Pacific coast, including the Nagoya and Tokyo areas. The western coast of Honshu was less developed, but travel on the Sea of Japan brought Niigata and nearby settlements, as well as Sapporo on Hokkaido, into the country's maritime network.
Another crucial feature of Japan's geography is that the archipelago lies far away from the Asian mainland. The nearest point between Kyushu and the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula is about 190 kilometers, one-fourth farther than the distance between Florida and Cuba and more than five times that between England and France. China lies some 800 kilometers away, with only a few lily-pad islands in the East China Sea to bridge the gap. Hokkaido in the north comes close to Russia's Sakhalin Island in the Sea of Okhotsk, but this part of Siberia has always been sparsely populated, if at all. Japan's other neighbors lie across even vaster distances. Though the ocean current known as the kuroshio, or "black current," has long served as a means of wafting seafarers from Southeast Asia to Japan's western Kyushu via the Ryukyu island chain, it is a long ride. Japan's other minor island chains and atolls sit alone in the seemingly limitless expanse of the Pacific. Japan's distance from the Eurasian mainland means that for most of its history it was barely within reach of its neighbors.
With a mountainous landscape, disconnected river system, lengthy coastal plains and dangerous sea travel as the major link between homeland and neighbors, Japanese society developed as a series of islands within islands — that is, small social islands within only slightly larger geographical islands.
Much of Japanese history relates the internal struggles that consumed Japan as it attempted to create a centralized and unified state. Its history of internal strife is a result of the terrain and short supply of arable land, which made struggles over land rights and food supply both bloody and inevitable. Throughout most of the country's history, farmers eked out a living growing rice and, to a lesser extent, wheat and barley on small plots. The temperate climate and rich soil were conducive to high crop yields, and Japanese farmers historically have been highly efficient. But the scarcity of arable land meant that it was highly sought after, fiercely contested, jealously guarded and frequently monopolized. From the advent of wet-rice cultivation in the third century B.C. until the 19th century, Japan's social and political systems were founded on a rice economy. Political power rested in the hands of those who could control farmland and food stores and command taxes paid in rice yields.
Primarily, this meant that rival clans battled back and forth for control over the principal plains — the Yamato (also called Kinki) plain and the Kanto plain. According to Japanese mythology, Emperor Jimmu, having descended from the gods on Kyushu, conquered central Honshu and established the imperial seat on the plain that would take the Yamato name in 660 B.C. The historical Yamato tribe seems to have risen to power above other tribes around 300-400 A.D. after Yamato chiefs drove the islands' prior inhabitants, the Ainu, into northern Honshu and Hokkaido. Early Yamato burial mounds are common in the Osaka area. Later, Chinese-style centralized government and far-reaching bureaucracy was established with collectively owned land, enabling a taxation system based on agricultural output that kept the dominant clan in power. The early Yamato chiefs founded the hereditary line of Japanese emperors — the longest-ruling family in the world, still formally reigning today. The capital was established in Nara in 710 and then moved to Kyoto in 794. The Yamato plain was strategically located to allow rule over most of the other regions, with a backdrop of mountains for protection, fields for cultivation and the Inland Sea for fishing, trade and communications overseas.
However, centralized rule was inconsistent with Japan's mountainous geography. The imperial court faced challenges consolidating power over distant territories, retaining loyalty among regional powers, enforcing laws and collecting taxes. By the mid-ninth century, provincial nobles had sealed off their lands from the imperial bureaucracy and knit themselves into military groups that contended for local and regional dominance. Powerful clans turned the imperial court into a puppet government, inaugurating the lasting Japanese tradition of rule from behind the scenes.
By the 12th century, power had devolved into a loose feudal order commanded by a shogun, a revived Yamato-era term for war chief. The first shogun established his bakufu, or "tent government," on the Kanto plain in Kamakura, near Tokyo. Though weak emperors continued to hold court formally in Kyoto, the shogunate became the real center of power. The Kanto plain was not only far larger and more productive than the Yamato, it was also more strategically located. It sat at a remove from the multiple urban centers striving for power along the Inland Sea and had excellent sea access for fishing, trade and transportation through Tokyo Bay. In addition to their own agricultural bases, the powers established on Kanto were able to lord over neighboring plains on the Pacific coast and the surrounding fish-filled waters.
Later, in the mid-14th century, power returned to the Yamato plain when the Ashikaga clan overthrew the Kamakura government and established its own shogunate back in Kyoto, taking advantage of the old imperial institutions. This reassertion of the Yamato plain as a political base was not entirely successful, and civil wars broke out across the regions throughout the following centuries. Firearms gained from first contact with the Portuguese in the mid-16th century changed the nature of the conflicts but also opened the way for greater centralization. Three powerful shoguns unified the country, disarmed their rivals by banning the lower classes from possessing weapons and paved the way for the Tokugawa clan to establish a new shogunate in Edo, now Tokyo, in 1600.
This time, the triumph of the Kanto plain was permanent. Even when the Tokugawa clan was overthrown and the emperor brought back to power in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the imperial court was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo, in recognition of the reality of where national power lay. By moving the emperor's seat to Tokyo, the Japanese virtually eliminated the Yamato plain as a rival source of political authority, thus concentrating all power in the country's economic core, the Kanto. The unification of the country under a single power center would make it difficult (though not impossible) for Japan's historical problem of fragmentation to reassert itself, and would require that future struggles between regional powers play out in the capital region.
Externally, the crucial factor for Japan is its geographical separation from the Eurasian mainland. This created several advantages and disadvantages, but primarily it ensured that Japan's behavior would reflect both its insularity and its need to overcome it, i.e., a proclivity for alternating between introversion and extroversion.
The first salient fact arising from Japan's distance from the Eurasian mainland was that Japan was not subject to constant inflows of migrants or invaders. After the wave of immigration around 300 B.C. that brought the Yamato people (considered the original "ethnic" Japanese) to the archipelago, the island has seen no massive influx of people. The Ainu, the original ethnic group on the home islands, were driven into the northern parts of the country by the early Yamato and over the centuries merged with the dominant Japanese group. There were only a few other tiny ethnic groups, so the Japanese people became linguistically and culturally uniform. Ethnic strife and separatism were not problems Japan would have to face, though they were supplanted by regional and clan struggles.
The second salient fact was that the threat of foreign military invasion was virtually nil. To this day, in fact, Japan has never been successfully invaded. At the height of their power in the 1270s and 1280s, Mongol forces tried to invade Japan, but after launching from the Korean Peninsula and reaching Kyushu near modern Fukuoka they had to lay siege to a well-fortified and mountainous fortress from a scraggly coastal foothold and maintain supply chains across the stormy Korean Strait. On their second major invasion attempt, the bulk of the massive Mongol fleet was destroyed by a typhoon, which the Japanese called kamikaze, or "divine wind." Japan's position has remained nearly impregnable even in the modern world — the difficulty of staging a ground invasion was the United States' primary rationale for dropping the atomic bombs to bring Japan to its knees in World War II.
One of the disadvantages of Japan's remoteness was that new ideas and technology came late. The early Japanese lacked the means to make great innovative leaps by themselves, hence their recurrent periods of insularity and isolation. The earliest days of the Yamato period are recorded only in mythology, and the first historical records of Japan come from foreign observers such as the Chinese and later the Koreans. Only later, in the eighth century after adopting and modifying the Chinese written language, did the Japanese fully make their history known.
Periodically the Japanese have deliberately turned away from the outside world, closing off communications and focusing attention on internal matters. In some cases Japanese culture reasserted itself against foreign ways, in other cases outside influences posed a threat to the authority of the political elite or to national security. When China's Tang and Song dynasties passed, Japan's imperial court, though an imitation of China's, became more self-sufficient and discontinued regular diplomatic exchanges with China. Later, Japan had much to fear as China and Korea were overrun by Mongol hordes. Thus, Japan was mostly isolationist from the ninth century until the 13th century.
Similarly, when Europeans first made contact with Japan, Christianity and European mercantilism spread so quickly that the country's leaders were faced with insubordination and instability among elements of society that were adopting European ideas and practices. The Tokugawa clan rose to power around 1600, purged the Christians and cordoned off a few small places for trade with the Dutch and Chinese, otherwise maintaining a hermetically sealed but relatively stable feudal Japan for nearly three centuries. Essentially, when Japan saw more risk than reward in remaining externally engaged, it tended to shift back to seclusion, and unlike most countries, it was able to do so because of its geographical remoteness.
At times, the Japanese would overcome their insularity by energetically imitating and borrowing from more advanced cultures in order to quickly catch up with them. Being far away from foreign cultures, they were not susceptible to common fears about adopting foreign practices and would often do so with relish. During imitative periods, Japan's combined energies would naturally become focused outward, toward the source of the knowledge and skills that the Japanese felt themselves sorely lacking and hoped to acquire from other (potentially rival) states. While all culture spreads through imitation and replication, the Japanese are nearly unique in their ability to adopt foreign practices quickly and expertly.
The first major borrowing phase began around 550 A.D., when the Yamato court adopted Buddhism and Confucianism and all the administrative and organizational skills they entailed after introductions by Korean and Chinese embassies and missionaries. From the seventh to 10th centuries, Japan sent scholars to study abroad and sought very carefully to recreate Chinese political, military and cultural systems, including Chinese civil engineering as well as China's written language.
Similarly, when the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, the Japanese avidly learned to make and use firearms and cannons. As mentioned, Christianity initially spread like wildfire. From the Dutch the Japanese learned bookmaking and early scientific study, and from various European visitors they kept up with state-of-the-art shipbuilding. In the 19th century, Japan also imitated British, French, American and especially German industrialization and socio-political development, and in the post-World War II period Japan closely mimicked the United States in developing a capitalist and consumer-based economy.
But Japan's eagerness to obtain what it does not have at home and stay on par with its neighbors periodically translates into extreme extroversion. Japan's maritime capability has enabled it to aggressively pursue strategic objectives abroad, through both mercantilist or militarist means. Korea, Japan's closest neighbor, has frequently been the first target because its geographical proximity makes it the closest continental location and hence a strategic threat. Trade routes on the peninsula were susceptible to foreign influence, and any potential invader, from the Mongols to the Chinese or Russians, could attack from the peninsula. Japanese forces invaded Korea during the fourth through seventh centuries, in the late 16th century, and in the 19th and early 20th centuries, establishing military dominance and often semi-colonial trade relationships.
Mercantilist endeavor reached a frenzy during the Ashikaga period, when Japanese merchants and pirates (known as wokou) extended their control along the Ryukyu islands to Formosa (Taiwan), up and down the length of China's east coast, and through Hainan to the Vietnamese and Thai coastlines and the Strait of Malacca. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Japan's outward push took a militarist turn, with Japan invading Taiwan, Korea, Siberia, Manchuria, China and most of Southeast Asia, until the move was cut short in World War II.
Japan's vacillations between extroversion and introversion are usually short, creating stark contrasts in behavior, usually due to jarring external forces beyond its control. Just as the coming of Buddhism revolutionized the imperial court in the sixth century, opening it to China, so the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century generated a new isolationism, while the forced opening of trade with Western powers in the 19th century triggered a renewed outward-looking period. Hence the analogy of Japan as an "earthquake society," one that periodically experiences social and political change as sudden and overwhelming as the tectonic movements that frequently shake its foundation to the core.
The following geopolitical imperatives have governed and will continue to govern Japan's behavior as a geographical and cultural entity:
- Establish and maintain central authority and internal unity in the home islands.
- Gain sovereignty over peripheral seas and islands.
- Secure autonomy by controlling strategic approaches to the home islands, especially from Korea and Taiwan but also Sakhalin Island and the Kuril Islands in the north.
- Acquire necessary goods, resources and labor by expanding military or mercantilist power farther abroad, including Siberia, Manchuria, China and Southeast Asia.
Japan's geopolitical imperatives gained sharper definition in the modern era due to the rapid pace of events, especially leading up to the confrontation with the United States in the Pacific during World War II.
The first imperative required establishing centralized control and national unity. During the Tokugawa period from 1600 to 1868, Japan had a relatively decentralized, feudalistic governing structure and was almost entirely withdrawn from the outside world. Though the society was remarkably stable for most of the period, with only a few rice riots and peasant rebellions, different factions emerged throughout the 19th century as Western powers became more persistent in demanding that Japan become commercially engaged with the outside world.
In 1853, U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry famously demanded that Japan open its doors to foreign trade. The Japanese faced the prospect of either being colonized like their neighbors (including the long-admired Chinese) — violating the first imperative — or industrializing in order to negotiate with the West on an equal footing. This confrontation triggered the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when a radical group of young samurai from the western territories launched a coup against the Tokugawa shogun and restored the emperor as the formal national leader, igniting a rapid process of re-centralization and modernization of Japan's socio-economic, political and military systems. Newly unified under a stable leadership, Japan had met its first imperative.
Next was to establish sovereignty and autonomy in surrounding areas. Tokyo was able to achieve this relatively easily once it had built a modern army and navy. Some Meiji leaders pressed for invading Korea (as Toyotomi Hideyoshi had done after unifying Japan in the 1590s). This was rejected and instead an expedition against Taiwan was launched in 1874, when the Japanese reinforced their claim over the Ryukyu Islands. These islands offered a pathway for any naval power in the South China Sea to approach the Japanese core and were therefore critical for Japan to hold (as the United States would later show after seizing Okinawa and conducting devastating bombing raids from its base there in World War II).
By 1894, Japan looked again to Korea as a potentially threatening land approach. It fought a war with China over influence on the peninsula, increasing its influence over Korea and gaining Taiwan and the Shandong Peninsula, a crucial trading post and launching pad into the East China Sea. (Japan lost Shandong in the treaty that ended the war but would later regain it.) Japan tried to prevent Moscow, whose power was growing in the region, from staking a claim on Manchuria's mineral resources and labor pool and from making advances that could give it a firm position in Korea. From 1904 to 1905, Tokyo crushed Moscow in war and seized these areas as well as the southern portion of Sakhalin Island and other territories in the Sea of Okhotsk, potential approaches to Japan from the north. In 1910, Japan formally annexed Korea and brought Taiwan under its control, thereby meeting its three primary imperatives.
From this position, Japan had the option of reaching out in almost any direction in the region. Its goals were primarily economic. After industrialization, Japan's focus was on obtaining the resources it needed to maintain its vastly expanded empire. The rapid growth of the economy had made Japan painfully aware of its limited natural resources, since as industry grew it required ever-increasing inputs of raw materials such as oil, iron, coal and rubber, among others, as well as food to feed Japan's booming population, which doubled from 30 million to 60 million from 1868 to 1926. Demand very quickly outpaced Japan's domestic production, and Japanese policymakers — who increasingly were military leaders — were keenly aware that the very existence of a modernizing Japan depended on imports and trade routes that were vulnerable to innumerable threats.
Thus, in the 1930s Japan fully appropriated Manchuria and surged deep into China to exploit labor and resources. Yet the situation with China quickly deteriorated and war broke out while tensions with the West were coming to a boil. The United States, concerned about its Pacific territories, especially the Philippines, gave Japan an ultimatum to abandon its territorial acquisitions or face an oil embargo (at the time, the United States provided about 80 percent of Japan's oil). Tokyo had to make a choice: it could either capitulate or lay claim to the vast resources of Southeast Asia — especially oil-rich but Dutch-controlled Indonesia. The latter option involved striking the Dutch and British, both U.S. allies, and thus engaging in war with the United States. This was an excruciating geopolitical dilemma: whether Japan should aim for its final strategic goal or give up on previously achieved imperatives. The Japanese made a hard gamble and lost, pre-emptively attacking U.S. naval forces at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and plunging the country into all-out war with the United States while it attempted to snatch up all of the resources of Southeast Asia to gain economic independence.
The U.S. victory in World War II stripped Japan of its sovereignty, even on the home islands temporarily, thus depriving it of its fundamental strategic imperative. The United States rebuilt Japan but imposed upon it a constitution forswearing the maintenance of land, sea and air forces, to eliminate any future Japanese threat to American strategic imperatives, which include naval domination of the Pacific.
But the Japanese were quickly rehabilitated and back on the trail toward achieving their geopolitical goals, this time with the help of the United States. By returning to Japan its sovereignty through the San Francisco peace treaty in 1952 and admitting it into the U.S. security alliance in 1960, Washington restored Japan's first three strategic goals. South Korea and Taiwan were secure, from Japan's point of view, because of their participation in the U.S. alliance. The United States was also there to counterbalance threats from the Soviet Union and encouraged Japan, from the mid-1950s on, to rebuild some military power. The resulting Japan Self-Defense Forces were mostly aimed toward countering any potential Soviet encroachments in the north. In fact, with the U.S. Navy dominant in the western Pacific, Japan enjoyed the security that it had attempted to win for itself through conquest but without having to shoulder the attendant fiscal burdens. Through the so-called Yoshida Doctrine, Japan developed a limited military capability to preserve the security of its home islands while letting the United States provide for its security abroad.
With U.S. security guarantees in place, the Yoshida doctrine called for Japan to pursue its fourth geopolitical imperative — acquisition of resources — through mercantile rather than military means. By 1948, the United States began to focus on rebooting Japan's economy, a process that was soon accelerated by the U.S. need for military supplies during the Korean War. As the Cold War developed, the United States wanted Japan to be a strong example of capitalism in East Asia to counterbalance communism. Japanese government and industry took advantage of the opportunity with the same zeal they had previously committed to warfare.
The first step involved developing an industrial policy. Japan's prewar economy was powered by zaibatsu, giant industrial conglomerates that had been established by oligarchs during the Meiji period. The chief conglomerates were Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Sumitomo and Yasuda. The zaibatsu operated in strategic industries, like steel, mining, chemicals, construction, machinery and shipping, and were intimately connected with the wartime government and the war effort. In a purge during the postwar occupation, the United States ousted many of their top executives and demanded that the companies be broken apart in order to bring more competition to the economy.
However, the United States changed policies as the Cold War ramped up and as it needed Japan to retain its strong industrial backbone, so the dissolution of the zaibatsu was never completed (Mitsubishi, Mitsui and Sumitomo survived). Moreover, new industrial groups quickly took shape from the remnants of broken zaibatsu and emerging companies — this time they were called keiretsu (company groups). The keiretsu retained the same essential structures of the zaibatsu. Each group has a core bank and several smaller banks, each of which owns shares in and grants preferential loans to the group's companies. Meanwhile, the companies are spread out across the breadth of the economy, with one company for each major sector. Each keiretsu is vertically integrated with smaller suppliers, wholesalers and retailers, forming a distribution block. Unlike the prewar zaibatsu, which had a strict top-down chain of command, the individual companies in Japan's modern industrial groups have more freedom to take their own actions and potentially compete with each other. Nevertheless, the keiretsu still exemplified the close relationship between industry and government that characterized Japan's postwar economic development.
The next step was to use this manufacturing power to bulk up shipping capacity and lay claim to the world's sea-lanes, strengthening Japanese manufacturer's supply chains and boosting exports. With trade surpluses surging, and commodity prices relatively low throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Japan temporarily overcame its inherent problem of relying on imports of raw materials. It soon became a giant in global trade.
The economic boom was astounding. The United States granted Japanese manufacturers preferential access to technology and to its massive consumer markets while tolerating the protectionist policies Japan used to boost its domestic economy, such as capital controls to ensure domestic investment and depreciated currency to promote exports. The Japanese government harnessed citizens' high savings rates (through its Postal Savings System) and reinvested them through the Ministry of Finance and the former Ministry of International Trade and Investment to boost capacity in strategic sectors. Politicians, bureaucrats and corporate heads formed an "iron triangle" that ruled Japan both politically and economically. Although Tokyo's deep involvement in directing the economy would later create problems, initially it was hugely successful and Japan experienced an "economic miracle," with its economy doubling in size between 1960 and 1967, when it became the second-largest capitalist economy in the world. Despite a few slowdowns, the Japanese economy continued to surge throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Yet as the economy grew, Japan's need for raw materials increased, raising the perennial Japanese fear of overdependence on the outside world. Tokyo felt vulnerable to events beyond its control, and there was no military option to reduce this vulnerability. As a result, Tokyo began more concentrated efforts to direct its economic might outward, increasing control over its crucial supply lines and forging manufacturing and trading relationships abroad.
Wielding economic power externally came naturally to Japan because of the close linkages between Japanese government and corporations. Japanese banks already provided subsidized loans to businesses in line with domestic policy objectives, and from the late 1960s onward these policy objectives shifted toward outsourcing production, securing resources and opening markets abroad. Japanese investment poured forth, accelerating especially after the oil shocks of the 1970s brought home the dangers of Japan's heavy reliance on imports of essential goods. Outward investment further accelerated in the 1980s, when the superabundance of capital in the Japanese bubble economy enabled banks to go on a lending spree, promoting industrialization in neighboring economies that craved yen-denominated capital and served as suppliers for Japan's manufacturers and consumers.
Tokyo's investment aims followed the same paths as its early 20th-century conquests: South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. Even China received Japanese investment, especially after it opened up trade to the capitalist world and the United States and China normalized relations in 1979. In Southeast Asia, Japan gained access to the same energy sources that it had attempted to seize outright during World War II. Japan solidified its economic dominance in East Asia by recreating its keiretsu supply chains, providing development aid and easily accessible and cheap financing, and forming strong bureaucratic and personal connections.
In other words, Japan largely achieved its fourth geopolitical imperative of economic security in the 1970s and 1980s through purely mercantile means. By the late 1980s, the "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere" that Japanese wartime planners had once imagined now seemed to be taking shape through Japan's regional economic dominance.
Post-Cold War Economy
Japan's mercantilist strategy worked remarkably well until the Cold War ended. Since then, however, Japan has been losing ground in its ability to meet its fundamental strategic objectives.
The early 1990s were geopolitically momentous with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Almost as if on cue, the Japanese economy crashed. America's preferential Cold War policies had done more to boost Japan's economy than was apparent, and as the Soviet machine ground to a halt in the 1980s and as Japan seemed increasingly capable of rivaling the United States' economic dominance, Washington no longer had as much reason to favor Japan. Specifically, the United States leaned on Japan to undertake reforms, especially to open up its financial and consumer markets and let its currency appreciate. The result was a massive stock and real estate bubble that popped in 1990, triggering a decade of financial crisis and on-again, off-again recession.
Thus, immediately in the post-Cold War environment, Japan was cut adrift. The so-called "lost decade" followed, in which Japan struggled with a series of deflationary recessions and bank failures and was propped up by massive stimulus packages and emergency financial measures paid for with public funds, only to slump back into recession as soon as these supports were removed. The government resorted to whatever tools it had to prevent the entire financial system from collapsing; budget deficits bulged, bond issues soared and public debt ballooned to a world record. Only in 2003 did the Japanese finally emerge from more than a decade of economic malaise as it rode the wave of the robust U.S. post-9/11 economic recovery and the optimism of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who briefly seemed capable of penetrating the vested interests of Japan's political and bureaucratic morass to initiate the reforms needed to revitalize the economy.
But Koizumi left office in 2006, and the economic crisis of 2008-2009 gradually came to reverse what little he had managed to accomplish. Japan entered its worst recession since World War II, while another completely unsustainable round of government-secured, zero-interest bank loans and emergency stimulus packages were foisted on the economy. Japan's economic tools were getting dull fast, while Japan's fiscal situation continued to deteriorate.
Post-Cold War Military
Nevertheless, Japan's military powers steadily expanded in the post-Cold War environment, made possible by the changing geopolitical context and made legal through flexible interpretations of Japan's pacifist constitution. In addition to maintaining the alliance with the United States, Tokyo had already developed a credible domestic military deterrent through a rearmament process that had taken place gradually since the Japan Self-Defense Forces were established in the 1950s. This rearmament process accelerated in the 1990s and 2000s, with the U.S. shift in focus away from the region and the resulting increase in Japan's responsibility in developing defense and security capabilities for itself and the region. Most important, the rise of China, both economically and militarily, caused Japan to speed up its military reform, which the United States encouraged. And with the North Korean regime's frequent saber-rattling, Japan has been able to undertake rearmament with a good excuse that does not raise too many eyebrows.
A few sovereignty issues in Japan's periphery remain unresolved and are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. A number of contested maritime boundaries touch on areas potentially rich in natural resources, including Takeshima (Dokdo), in dispute with South Korea; the Senkaku (Diaoyutai) islands, in dispute with China; and the Northern Territories (or southern Kuril Islands), in dispute with Russia. On a lesser note, the Japanese still rankle at the presence of American bases and hope to speed up the process of removing these remnants of the occupation. As far as the island disputes are concerned, these are long-term issues on which few of the interested nations want to compromise, since the disputes stimulate nationalist sentiment and provide a rationale for further defense upgrades and territorial claims.
The Japanese are also concerned about the vulnerability of seaborne supply routes for the raw materials they need for their economic well-being, since most of their energy imports go through the Strait of Malacca choke point and are therefore susceptible to interference or interdiction. With a view to increasing the security of these lines of supply, Japan has sought specifically to upgrade its Maritime Self-Defense Forces and expand its roles. (Japanese naval vessels have already undertaken missions in the Strait of Malacca, the Indian Ocean and off the coast of Somalia.) Territorial issues and regional naval activity are likely to become even more competitive in the coming years as Japan and other East Asian states react to China's increasing assertiveness in its maritime periphery as well as to each other's actions and the actions of outside forces, such as the United States.
Japan continues to profess a belief in internationalism as an ideal and to take on international security responsibilities, such as peacekeeping and disaster relief. This is at once an effort to create a role with more freedom from the United States in foreign policy matters and a way to expand its range of military action within its narrow constitutional constraints. Japanese ground troops have deployed as U.N. peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, Mozambique and Cambodia, and Japanese forces assisted with disaster relief following the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami.
Yet Japan's military rearmament, despite its many strides in recent years, will eventually face an impasse. The obstacle is not so much legal, since Japan has already shown that it can expand its roles and capabilities far beyond what it once thought possible by re-interpreting the constitution (Tokyo even has an aircraft carrier for helicopters). Nor is the obstacle Japan's non-nuclear status, which could be changed if Japan summoned the will to do so and the United States granted permission. Beneath these issues lies the question of how Japan can continue to expand its military at a time of economic decline, especially given the deeper crisis lurking beneath the surface of both economic and military realities: demographics.
Japan at a Crossroads
The gravest threat to Japan's ability to achieve its strategic imperatives in the 21st century is its rapidly shrinking and aging population. It is important to grasp the full extent of this decline. From 1970 to 1990, the population of elderly people in Japan nearly doubled, which is many times faster than the rate of population aging in comparable European countries. This was a crucial background element to the economic crash of the 1990s, as more retirees began to put greater burdens on the economy. But that was only the beginning.
The generation of the second baby boom, born between 1971 and 1974, has seen a dramatic fall in fertility rates due to a variety of socio-economic factors such as greater population density, divorce rates and child-rearing costs. So as this generation and earlier generations retire, fewer young people will be available to carry the torch. According to the Japan Statistics Bureau, Japan's total population peaked at nearly 128 million in 2004 and is projected to sink to 115 million by 2030 and to 95 million by 2050. Meanwhile, between 2010 and 2050, children under 14 years of age will fall from 13 percent of the population to less than 9 percent, while adults over the age of 65 will rise from 23 percent to nearly 40 percent. The working age group will fall from 64 percent to 52 percent of the population.
With the Japanese people vanishing and growing gray, Japan faces the evisceration of its economic, political and military capabilities. The economy will continue to decline as the workforce and consumer base shrink. Government finances will worsen beyond their already dismal state, as the fall in corporate profits and private incomes translates to smaller tax revenues and as social spending balloons to care for the aging population's pensions and health care (and the Japanese have the longest life expectancy in the world, requiring further public outlays). While these changes cause social and economic dislocation, Japan's national defense capabilities will also weaken as the military budget shrinks and as recruitment becomes more and more of a challenge.
Thus, Japan has reached another historical crossroads. On the present path, the country will slowly diminish in population and economic power over the coming decades, and the result will simply be a much smaller, older and more isolated social-welfare state, with little ability to preserve its minimal strategic imperatives. This path essentially leads to another of Japan's historic periods of introversion.
An alternate path would require Japan to return to the extreme extroversion that it has demonstrated before. With a failing economy and a shortage of labor, Japan could eventually unleash its formidable military power and once again seize the labor and resources it needs to rejuvenate itself. To do so would almost inevitably mean going out in a blaze of glory, but historically Japan has not shrunk from daring all-or-nothing moves.
There also remains a third possibility: that Japan could pioneer a technologically advanced society for the post-consumer age in which it manages both a sustained increase in production despite decreasing consumption and sets an example for many other countries facing similar demographic declines (though it is hard to tell what such a post-postmodern state would look like).
Ultimately, then, Japan is in a period of transition, with its current strategies falling short of meeting its core imperatives. Shifts in domestic politics (likely to occur in parliamentary elections just around the corner) are only a surface reflection of this underlying fact. And much of Japan's future will depend on the evolving global environment. Nevertheless, throughout history Japan has shown an ability to change tack quickly and rejuvenate its national energies. If history is any indicator, the next change will come with the suddenness and force of a Japanese earthquake.