Tokyo Report

Has Japan’s Foreign Policy Gone Beyond the Yoshida Doctrine?

The principles of Japanese foreign policy have evolved.

By Ayako Kusunoki for
Has Japan’s Foreign Policy Gone Beyond the Yoshida Doctrine?
Credit: The White House

Japanese foreign and security policy in the postwar period is often described as having been guided by the Yoshida Doctrine. The doctrine can perhaps best be described by its three core principles: i) Entrust most of Japan’s security to the United States; and ii) Minimize Japan’s own defense efforts; and at the same time iii) Dedicate its resources to economic development. The Yoshida Doctrine is so-called because these principles, which reflected decisions made by then Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida around the time Japan regained its independence in the early 1950s, formed the framework for subsequent Japanese foreign policy.

Both Yoshida’s principles and subsequent Japanese foreign policy were largely formed in the context of the Cold War. With the Cold War now long over, can Japanese diplomacy still be explained by the Yoshida Doctrine?

Japanese diplomacy was certainly shaped by the principles of the Yoshida Doctrine until the early 1970s. By the late 1960s, Japan has become the second largest economic power in the West. Rather than turn this economic might to developing military power, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party began to think about how to contribute to international peace and stability. From the late 1970s, ODA expanded rapidly, with Japan becoming the world’s largest donor country in 1991, maintaining that status until 2000. Japan’s economic cooperation is significant not only in terms of rectifying global inequality; the purpose of economic cooperation with countries such as South Korea and Thailand is to support conflict zones or areas bordering on communist countries. China had embarked on reforms and open-door policies and Japan’s large yen loans to China were positioned as a means of drawing the country closer to the West.

Japan’s economic strength certainly functioned as a source of power, so it would be appropriate to interpret the third principle of the Yoshida Doctrine as “contributing to global peace and security through non-military means.” Let’s call this Yoshida Doctrine II. Since the 1990s, the participation of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) in PKO and international disaster relief activities has been an important component of this new third principle.

Although the basic structure of Japan being dependent on the extended deterrence of the United States articulated in the first principle remains the same, security relations between the two countries are not a constant. Until the 1970s, U.S.-Japan “cooperation” meant the smooth operation of U.S. military bases in Japan. By the 1980s, however, cooperation between the JSDF and United States Forces Japan (USFJ) had evolved to become the “[Japan-U.S.] Alliance,” the essence of which is joint defense. In the mid to late 1990s, the United States and Japan confirmed the maintenance of the Alliance as a regional security mechanism even after the Cold War and agreed to expand and deepen bilateral cooperation. Since the 2000s, numerous faits accomplis have been accomplished by the Alliance, supporting global security through cooperation in respect of the war on terror and reorganization of the U.S. military. The Legislation for Peace and Security that Japan passed in 2015 provided a legal basis for this as well as enabling limited use of the right of collective self-defense. The JSDF’s “use of force” is still subject to strict legal restrictions but it has enabled joint action with the United States and its allies as well as limited logistical support in respect of collective security and similar cases.

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In the thirty years since the Cold War ended Japan has gradually expanded its role in the Alliance, taking on a certain degree of responsibility and risk. Today, it is clearly moving toward strengthening its security network centering on the United States, expanding its security cooperation with countries such as Australia and India and taking a more proactive stance in supporting capacity building in Southeast Asian countries in the field of maritime security. These robust actions are being taken to respond to a rising China, and together constitute a package termed “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP).” The fact that Japan began to consciously use the JSDF and the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty as a deterrent while calling for cooperation between nations that share fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, human rights, freedom of navigation, free and fair markets and the rule of law is a dynamic change in Japanese diplomacy that is not captured by Yoshida Doctrines I and II. The actual situation accords with an understanding of the first principle as “maintain and expand security cooperation with the United States and other countries with shared interests” and of the third principle as “proactively engage in international peace and security in order to maintain the liberal international order.”

It seems certain that the driving force behind this foreign policy, which we might call Yoshida Doctrine III, is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s traditional view of nation and strong ideology and value orientation. Fundamentally, however, the rise of China is transforming the international order shaped by American-British leadership after the Second World War, and Japan should be fully cognizant of the structural factors that are accelerating the trend toward America’s diminished involvement in international politics. Japan’s slowing economy and the relative decline of its presence in the global economy may be strengthening the inclination toward an ideology-based policy. Japan’s basic foreign policy strategy now is to demonstrate the will and ability to maintain the liberal international order from which Japan itself has benefited, with a view to anchoring the United States to the Asia-Pacific region.

However, this strategy does not represent a complete parting of the ways with the Yoshida Doctrine. The basic structure of maintaining self-defense within the framework of the Japan-U.S. Alliance as the nucleus of the security policy has not changed. For the past 70 years, through defeat and occupation, the identity of a “peace-loving nation” has become broadly entrenched among the Japanese people. The benefits of the Alliance and its track record of international cooperation in non-military fields have given Japan’s political leaders confidence. This basic structure will only change if Japan or the United States seek to dissolve the Alliance.

Ayako Kusunoki is an Associate Professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies.