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Council on Foreign Relations Spotlight on Japan
Summer 2014

Japan's New Politics

Japan's new era of alternating parties in power has deep implications for the U.S.-Japan alliance, argues Sheila A. Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies and director of the Japan studies program, in a new CFR report. Japan's New Politics and the U.S.-Japan Alliance, explores the challenges facing U.S. policymakers as they seek to work with changing Japanese governments. The struggles of alliance management should not be attributed solely to one party, Smith writes, but rather to the complex identity debates currently reshaping the Asia-Pacific region and challenging the postwar order.

This publication would not have been possible without the generous support provided by the U.S.-Japan Foundation and by the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership.

Japan Program Events

The United States and Japan in Asia

On April 28, the Japan program hosted the second in a series of annual seminars in honor of Tadashi Yamamoto, founder and longtime president of the Japan Center for International Exchange (JCIE). The first panel featured regional perspectives on Japan's relations with its Northeast Asian neighbors. Sheila A. Smith, Council on Foreign Relations; Lee Shin-wha, Korea University; Hitoshi Tanaka, Japan Research Institute and JCIE; and Zhu Feng, Peking University, discussed tensions over history and territory issues, as well as the role the United States could play in finding a peaceful resolution to these disputes.

J. Thomas Schieffer, former U.S. ambassador to Japan, presided over the second panel on competing visions of the future of East Asia. Bilahari Kausikan, former permanent secretary, Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Roderick MacFarquhar, Harvard University; and Masashi Nishihara, Research Institute for Peace and Security, shared their views on how the rise of China and U.S. rebalance to Asia will shape the region, including perceptions of Japan's role.

In the day's final panel, four members from the Japanese Diet—Motohisa Furukawa (DPJ), Naoki Kazama (DPJ), Kenji Kosaka (LDP), and Yasuhisa Shiozaki (LDP)—joined Gerald L. Curtis, Columbia University, for a discussion on the domestic political dynamics of Japan's Asia policy. Although panelists disagreed about whether the strategy adopted by the Shinzo Abe cabinet would be successful, there was a general consensus about Japan's foreign policy objectuives, especially the need to strengthen relations with its Asian neighbors.

Japan's New Politics and the U.S.-Japan Alliance

In a new CFR report, Japan's New Politics and the U.S.-Japan Alliance, Sheila A. Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies and director of the Japan studies program, argues that though partisan divisions within Tokyo remain a hurdle to predictable alliance management, none to date have challenged the fundamental premises of the alliance. The end of single-party dominance and transfer of power from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and back to the LDP may have introduced new complications for alliance managers, but even Japan's reformers have not turned away from the U.S.-Japan alliance. The United States is used to adjusting to changing parties in power in its other alliances, and alternations in government in Japan have helped to open up the policymaking process to greater scrutiny and public evaluation. The real challenge is not Japan's new politics, but rather the increasingly complex strategic environment in Northeast Asia. China's rise and North Korea's nuclear and missile proliferation have raised new questions for the alliance, and Tokyo and Washington will need to address their different perceptions of risk and priorities for strategic cooperation.

This report is made possible by grants from the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership and the U.S.-Japan Foundation.

Upcoming CFR Book

Smith's new book, Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China, will be published in January 2015 from Columbia University Press. Through intricate case studies of visits by politicians to the Yasukuni Shrine, conflicts at the East China Sea boundary, concerns about food safety, and strategies of island defense, Smith explores the policy issues testing the Japanese government as it tries to navigate its relationship with an advancing China. Smith scrutinizes the role of the Japanese government in coping with contention as China's influence grows and Japanese citizens demand more protection. Underlying the government's efforts is Japan's insecurity about its own capacities for change and its waning status as the leading Asian economy. For many, China's rise means Japan's decline, and Smith suggests how Japan can maintain its regional and global clout as confidence in its postwar diplomatic and security approach decreases. The book is available for pre-order now from Columbia University Press and Amazon.

Recent Policy Commentary

Pyongyang's New Overtures and Abe's Diplomacy

Sheila Smith says Japan's new agreement with North Korea is only a limited effort in response to Pyongyang's attempts to pursue humanitarian diplomacy, and that Tokyo remains committed to trilateral cooperation with Seoul and Washington. Read the 38 North article »

President Obama and Japan-South Korean Relations

Smith says President Obama's Asia trip should strengthen some important relationships and stimulate constructive attention on a diplomatic logjam between Tokyo and Seoul. Read the Asan Forum article »

From Asia Unbound

On the Asia Unbound blog, six CFR experts analyze issues emerging in Asia today. Sheila A. Smith analyzes Japan's domestic politics and foreign policy. Subscribe to Smith's blog posts via RSS »

Reinterpreting Japan's Constitution

Within Japan, the debate over collective self-defense is less about strategy and more about the efficacy of the broader domestic reforms in civil-military relations instituted in the wake of Japan's devastating defeat in World War II. Read the post »

Reading Japan's Deal With North Korea

Regularizing contact with North Korea is an important first step in improving Japan's ability to pursue its primary domestic interest, providing closure for the families of the abductees. Read the post »

Japan's New Conversation on Its Constitution

Over the remainder of this year and into the next, we should expect to see an important debate in Japan over how to honor the spirit of the postwar constitution while revisiting the question of when and how the Japanese military can use force. Read more »

The above articles are also available via Forbes Asia, where Sheila Smith is a contributor. Her profile page and list of recent articles can be found at

Japan Program in the News

Jiji News: "指針の再改定協議加速へ=米政府、一層の活動拡大期待も―集団的自衛権・海外反響" (July 1, 2014)

NHK News: 集団的自衛権・行使容認 米 閣議決定を歓迎か 日本の役割拡大に期待も (July 1, 2014)

Korea Herald: "Dilemma Deepens for Seoul, Washington" (June 11, 2014)

Yonhap News: On N. Korea, Abe Faces Bigger Hurdle Than Koizumi Did: U.S. Expert (June 4, 2014)

New York Times: Okinawa Mayor Takes Fight Against U.S. Base to Washington (May 23, 2014)

Bloomberg: Cold War Return Leaves Abe's Russia Strategy in Tatters (May 22, 2014)

Okinawa Times: "「辺野古進めるべき」 名護市長に米専門家" (May 22, 2014)

PBS NewsHour: "What's The Beef? U.S. and Japan Tackle Thorny Trade Issues During Obama's Visit" (April 24, 2014)

CNBC: "Obama Reassures Ally Japan, No Breakthrough on Trade" (April 24, 2014)

Voice of Russia: "U.S. Wants to Demonstrate Long-Standing Interest in Asia-Pacific Region" (April 24, 2014)

NBC's Today Show: "Obama Greeted in Japan by Caroline Kennedy" (April 23, 2014)