Kenneth Pyle is the Henry M. Jackson Professor of History and Asian Studies at the University of Washington and Founding President of The National Bureau of Asian Research. Among many other posts, he has chaired the US-Japan Friendship Commission, and co-chaired the US-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange. Prof. Pyle’s 1992 book, The Japan Question: Power and Purpose in a New Era, was a must-read among the handful of US government officials who helped Joseph Nye and Ezra Vogel engineer the “Nye Initiative” to upgrade US-Japan defense relations during 1994-1996; a precursor to today’s debate about Japan’s future security policy.
DISPATCH JAPAN: You argue that Japan’s foreign policy is in the midst of a “sea change,” and a “quiet revolution.” I suspect you chose those words carefully.
PYLE: There is no question that what is happening in Japan is very important. Taken as a whole, since the end of the Cold War, Japan’s foreign policy strategy has been undergoing a sea change. The two terms I used may seem overly-dramatic, but that is because the change has been proceeding incrementally, and evolving slowly. We are seeing a major change in Japan’s international role.
DISPATCH JAPAN: The move to exercise the right of collective self-defense seems to have become mainstream. It is not only the Liberal Democratic Party under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that is pursuing this policy. There were moves in this direction when the Democratic Party (DPJ) was in power in 2009-2012.
PYLE: Yes. Under Prime Minister Noda, in particular. He made some important changes that did not get much attention at the time. In certain ways he laid some of the groundwork for the policies Abe is pursuing.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Abe seems to view the collective self-defense issue as a rejection of the existing Constitution, while liberals look at the issue as involving adjustments to existing policies, rather than a mark against the postwar order.
PYLE: People are approaching the collective self-defense issue from different directions, but it is unquestionably being driven by the rapidly changing international environment. This has been a historical pattern in Japan since the Meiji Restoration: to adapt pragmatically to the international environment, and to organize domestic institutions to fit the new global structure.
Abe’s “revisionist” views may be an additional motivating factor. But overall, Japan is being driven by the increasingly menacing environment facing the country.
DISPATCH JAPAN: China seems to be misplaying its hand, almost pushing Japan in this direction.
PYLE: Yes. The new president, Xi Jinping, seems to have put high on his agenda the adoption by China of a much higher profile foreign policy, to be more assertive. We see evidence of this every day. This is going to be a big challenge for the Japanese, because the Chinese administrative apparatus is giving a strong, anti-Japanese nationalist flavor to the country’s foreign policy. Xi Jinping is scheduled to be in power for 10 years, so this is going to be a continuing challenge for Japan. It is not going to just go away.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How do you assess the quality of debate in Japan over collective self-defense? Abe was not able to simply push it through. The process seems quite democratic.
PYLE: There is no question that this involves a real debate. It has been quite concentrated. Abe set some deadlines, which sped up the pace.
But this is not a new concept in Japan; it’s been around for many years. Predictably, the left-wing media opposed adopting collective self-defense simply through reinterpretation, rather than a change in the Constitution.
New Komeito remains in a bind. In particular, the women’s bureau within Soka Gakkai is unhappy with the organization seeming to move away from pacifism. Komeito had to put up a big struggle against accepting the full plate pushed by Abe. And Abe made some concessions.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do you think there is a real fear among Japanese that the country could once again become militarized, or is that just political rhetoric?
PYLE: Among the political left in Japan, there is no question that this remains a real fear. This has been a long-lasting worry, since the end of World War II. It is a strong feeling among many in the postwar generation. If you take a step back and think about it: it is a lack of trust in the nation itself.
DISPATCH JAPAN: But is it a fear only among the postwar generation? There are a lot of LDP old-timers opposed to Abe.
PYLE: Sure. Within the LDP there are people who think Abe has moved too fast, and have doubts about his right-wing ties. There is no question about that.
The LDP is not a monolith.
But I think much of this debate goes back to the international environment, especially in East Asia.
The changing environment around Japan puts Abe’s doubters in a difficult position.
DISPATCH JAPAN: You have long argued that Japan’s defeat in World War II, and the subsequent Yoshida Doctrine, put Japan in an unnatural, subordinate position vis a vis the US. To what extent is the new collective self-defense policy a reflection of Japan emerging from that status? In other words, a Japan defeated after World War II now asserting a new identity.
PYLE: For conservatives in Japan, the entire postwar order has been a bitter pill. The US-Japan alliance was signed while we Americans still had over 200,000 troops in Japan. It was a price that Yoshida and other Japanese leaders at the time had to pay to end the US Occupation. It is easy to forget those circumstances, but they remain a factor in debates in Japan these days.
Remember: John Foster Dulles said to one of his aides: The 1952 security treaty amounted to Japan voluntarily accepting continuation of the Occupation.
The US has subordinated Japan. This is unique within the American-led, postwar order.
The alliance has been a tool to manage and control Japan, as much as anything else.
I think we, Americans in general, have a weak self-awareness of the roots of our postwar relationship with Japan.
We tend to make it sentimental, calling it a “partnership.” Ambassador Reischauer liked to call it an “equal partnership.”
Of course, it has never been an equal partnership.
For Japanese conservative elites, going back to the Meiji Restoration, the goal has always been national autonomy. That has been a goal of modern Japan from the beginning.
The unequal nature of the alliance has bothered conservatives in Japan, and now Abe, for a long time.
In general, Japanese leaders of all sorts want a much more equal alliance, with much more autonomy for Japan in the making of foreign policy. Americans should not see this as unusual. It is quite natural that an independent country would want to have its full sovereignty.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Will this cause troubles in the alliance? For example, Washington wants Tokyo and Seoul to get along, but Abe does not seem in a hurry to make friends with the ROK.
PYLE: Abe’s determination to terminate automatic apologies is not entirely new. Koizumi insisted on regular visits to Yasukuni Shrine, and if the Chinese and Koreans did not like it, well, so be it; he would still do it. This is part of Japan regaining its own voice. Getting a phone call, or having a visit from prominent US officials, is not going to dissuade Japanese leaders from making visits to what they see as a national war memorial. Conservatives in Japan have not taken kindly to that kind of message from Washington.
There is residual resentment in Japan about the hegemonic nature of the alliance.
The challenge now is how to deal with the fact that it will remain unequal for quite some time. That was built into the very nature of the alliance from its start.
There is no simple way to do away with the remnants of this unequal alliance, including the Yoshida Doctrine, in a short period of time.
Japan’s recovery of its independence is going to take time, including a building-up of the country’s foreign policy-making capability.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Would you have recommended criticism of Abe’s visit to Yasukuni?
PYLE: I would have recommended a much more quiet approach. Let’s remember: the Showa Emperor – Emperor Hirohito – was very upset when the so-called war criminals were returned to Yasukuni. This fact cannot simply be ignored by conservatives in Japan. I would have preferred that our disagreements and protests be expressed quietly.
It is important that our policymakers have greater sensitivity to the nature of our relationship with Japan.
I said earlier: we Americans lack self-awareness of the origins of our alliance with Japan. We have unresolved issues that go all the way back to the war.
DISPATCH JAPAN: There is lot underneath the collective self-defense issue.
PYLE: I have been teaching an Honors seminar on the US decision to bomb Hiroshima. One of my closest Japanese friends suddenly told me that his parents were in the city at the time of the bombing. He had never brought this up with me. I was really surprised.
There are deep issues between the US and Japan that take us back to World War II.
These issues were there at the very beginning of our postwar alliance, but have not been much discussed, much less resolved.
We look at Hiroshima one way, and most Japanese view it very differently. We don’t talk about this much.
This is just one issue that is there, below the surface, but factors very much in our relationship with Japan.
I’ve mentioned sentiment among conservatives in Japan. But liberals in Japan have parallel sentiments.
George Kennan called the US-Japan alliance an “unnatural intimacy.” He talked about how two such different peoples, culturally and historically, had been thrown together by history.
DISPATCH JAPAN: The US-Japan alliance is very unusual.
PYLE: Very much so. It goes back to FDR’s demand for unconditional surrender. This was the only war in American history that we demanded end that way. We have fought a lot of wars. In no other did we insist on unconditional surrender.
That set the foundation for the postwar US-Japan relationship, down to today.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do you think the US should help facilitate a resolution of history disputes between Japan and Korea.
PYLE: I have thought a lot about this. If we want to help mediate, perhaps we should start rethinking some of our own decisions. For example: the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. As a nation, we have been reluctant to reconsider.
I would like to see our president make a visit to Hiroshima.
We have never talked much about the fire-bombing of about 60 Japanese cities, which involved deliberate targeting of civilians in the last year of the war.
DISPATCH JAPAN: You think these issues are alive today.
PYLE: Yes. This gets back to the weak self-awareness among we Americans about the origins of our alliance with Japan.