So is Japan now finally a normal country? The question has been asked and debated for about two decades, the answer quite naturally depending on the definition given to the concept of “normal country.” A first step to address this question is to approach it in reverse, asking why Japan was seen as “abnormal” in the first place. The answer lies in the contextual reality that surrounded the emergence of the debate on Japan’s “normalcy.”
That debate began with the end of the Cold War, which marked the most important systemic change in international relations since the Second World War. Ichiro Ozawa’s Blueprint for a New Japan, a book that pioneered the debate on Japan’s normalcy, was written shortly after the bitter experience of the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Mainly because of constitutional and other legal impediments, Japan was able to offer only financial support to the multilateral war effort against Saddam Hussein, aid that went almost completely unacknowledged by the international community despite the huge amount of money it entailed.
Ozawa’s book drew lessons from this experience and consequently called for the re-appropriation of Japanese politics by politicians at the expense of the slow and inefficient bureaucracy and for a more active role for Japan in international affairs, including through deeper participation of the Self-Defense Forces to U.N. peacekeeping operations.
Japan thus started being labeled “abnormal” because its legislation that framed the use of armed forces prevented the country from adjusting its foreign policy to a rapidly changing international environment and from playing an active role in the redefinition of the international order underway in the wake of the Cold War.
In other words, Japan was abnormal because of the discrepancy between the foreign policy tools at its disposal and the nature of the international system the country was dealing with. If a foreign policy almost exclusively based on economic power was judged adequate to cope with the relatively stable and slowly evolving East Asian environment during Cold War era, the early 1990s showed Japan that this policy could rapidly become outdated in the new, more flexible international environment. To return to normalcy, Tokyo had to find its place and redefine its role in the new international order, which implied a reorientation of its foreign policy and thus a diversification of the instruments for implementing this policy.
The next step to assess whether Japan is today a normal country is to look at what it might have been lacking in the post-Cold War era. The near consensus among scholars points to greater military power and an upgraded and independent military apparatus. The gradual modernization of the Self-Defense Forces, such as the development of an independent intelligence gathering system, new legislation to allow greater involvement in U.N. peacekeeping operations, and the 2007 decision to upgrade the Defense Agency to ministry status, are often cited as examples of Japan’s drive to normalcy.
The recently released planned increase in the defense budget for fiscal 2014, the first such increase in 11 years and the biggest in the past 22 years, made headlines and will certainly be taken by some as further proof of Japan’s normalization. Political initiatives to revise legislation related to military affairs, including the Constitution, are another aspect of Japan’s alleged normalization. The current debate about the revision of the three principles on arms exports is a good example of this fact.
Yet none of these elements determine the normalcy of Japan as country. According to the definition of “normal country” proposed above and based on the historic debate in the Japanese case, the key feature that Japan needs to be considered “normal” is different in nature: It is the re-appropriation of the military as a tool of foreign policy by the civil executive. For Japan to reach a state of normalcy does not necessarily require more powerful and independent Self-Defense Forces, or amendments to the Constitution or other legal constraints related to the use of armed forces.
The re-appropriation of the military as an instrument of foreign policy is for Japan essential because of the nature of the post-Cold War East Asian regional system. This system is characterized by rapid economic development and growing interdependence, but also by historical, territorial, and political tensions, by exacerbated nationalism, and by rapidly changing military power differentials between the major countries involved in the region. Military power is an important component of all East Asian countries’ foreign policy, except Japan’s.
The end of the Cold War was soon followed by another systemic development that took place closer to Japan: The emergence of China as a major regional – some would say global – military power. The quantitative and more importantly qualitative improvements of the People’s Liberation Army triggered the emergence of the so-called “China threat” theory in Japan and the U.S. The relative regional decline of the United States compared to China’s growing military might and power projection capacities and the increasingly coercive stance adopted by China on security- and sovereignty-related issues have made it imperative for Japanese leaders to look for improved defense capabilities, and more importantly for a stronger grip on and a better use of their military establishment to address external challenges. It is this gradual adaptation of Japan’s foreign policy to these regional developments that has returned Japan to a state of normalcy.
The question of whether Japan has become “normal” can now be positively answered. Japan has indeed recently evolved into a normal country in view of its surrounding environment by regaining control of the military instrument in international relations. This normalcy was institutionalized by the recent establishment of the National Security Council, with the subsequent formulation of the new National Security Strategy being the first concrete consequence of the institutional reform on Japan’s foreign policy.