Ten Whats With…Sheila A. Smith
from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Ten Whats With…Sheila A. Smith

Sheila A. Smith is a senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China (Columbia University Press, 2015) and Japan’s New Politics and the U.S.-Japan Alliance (Council on Foreign Relations, 2014). 

1. What is the most interesting project you are currently working on?

I just finished a book that looks at Japan’s adjustment to a rising China. The research led me to all sorts of groups and interests within Japanese society that are increasingly affected by the massive transformation underway in China and across the Asia Pacific. Here in Washington, we often get focused solely on policymakers who think about foreign policy choices and we forget that, in today’s world, there are a whole host of actors who feel the impact of the geostrategic shifts afoot. For those of us who analyze Asia, the challenge of a rising China defines the U.S. policy debate, but Washington often forgets that this is a challenge that many people in the region also face. Perhaps more than any other society, Japan has felt the impact of this dramatic shift in its neighbor and the regional consequences for some time. And as Japan’s ally, this has considerable influence on the U.S. relationship with Tokyo. Japanese expectations of the United States are changing. Another fascinating aspect of this research was learning how domestic advocates and interests shaped Japan’s foreign policy choices. We often think that domestic politics drive U.S. foreign policy, but then forget that they can also drive the foreign policies of others. Tokyo’s domestic politics surrounding relations with China are far more complicated today than they have ever been, and those currents of change need to be understood by Americans.

2. What got you started in your career?

I grew up largely in and around the Pacific. My father was a U.S. naval officer who spent much of his career in the Pacific and I was lucky to spend time as a child in the region. But I also inherited by parents’ desire to see the rest of the world, not simply through the eyes of American experience but to live abroad and gain insight from the perspectives of other cultures. My interest in Japan was really sharpened by working at the Japanese embassy and then going to Japan to study Japanese. I lived with a Japanese family and had the wonderful opportunity to learn about their history and views of the United States. I’ll never forget the moment when my father, a Cold War cryptographer and Soviet analyst, came to the home of my host family to thank them for their generosity and he sat down to chat with the father of that family, who was a young fourteen-year-old cadet in the Imperial Navy as World War II ended. They were from different generations, but got along well through my translation. However, I could tell that the war was clearly on the mind of my host father. He said to my father: I hope you will not hold Pearl Harbor against us, and my father responded that the U.S. Navy had learned much from the experience.

Postwar reconciliation comes in many ways, and across generations our discussion of our past shifts as younger Americans and Japanese see each other in new ways. I have always had a keen sense of how the twentieth century continues to inform how we all think about today’s Asia, and this year across Asia, it seems that looking back at the wars of the past has yet again become a focal point of political leaders. Little did I know that years after I got my PhD at Columbia University, studying international relations and the modern history of East Asia that I would still be trying to understand how the world of the last century shaped Asia, and how the Asia of today shapes the world.

3. What person, book, or article has been most influential to your thinking?

I cannot pin down one book that has been most influential, frankly. I can say that I love history and, in my own field, I have several books that I would recommend to those thinking about contemporary Japan. The history of the Pacific War written by Harvard historian Akira Iriye, especially Power and Culture, opened my eyes to the need for gaining perspective on events and narratives that we take for granted, and understanding that our narrative on conflict is not the only one. Similarly powerful books on Japan include Carol Gluck’s Japan’s Modern Myths and John Dower’s Embracing Defeat. Both impressed me with the depth of their research, but also their definition of the Japanese nation.

I was fortunate to be one of the last of the many Columbia scholars on Asia to work with Professor James William Morley. He was my advisor for my undergraduate honors thesis, and it was his mentorship and faith in me that convinced me to finish my PhD. Every time I sit down to write, I can hear him asking me, "but Sheila, why does it matter?" I’m never quite sure I am up to the task of answering Jim’s question, but I do keep trying.

4. What kind of advice would you give to young people in your field?

I am always heartened by how smart and savvy younger professionals are, but I often feel that they need permission to think about the balance in their lives. Especially in Washington, DC, everyone seems in such a hurry to get there (wherever that is), and they often give less time to considering what makes them happy. I encourage them to have confidence in where they will be and what they can accomplish, but to arrive—wherever it is they think aspire to work—knowing, most of all, what matters to them. I also warn that the person they might aspire to be in their twenties may not be who they aspire to be a few years later, and urge them to try on a few options, take a few risks, and always, always travel. They will create the careers of the future. No one wants to live a life someone else designs—we should all design our own (with a paycheck, of course).

5. What was the last book you finished reading?

I find these days that I read a bit of this and a bit of that, but rarely find myself ensconced in a book all the way through. However, I have some good reads to share. Three non-fiction: From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra, Bending Adversity by David Pilling and Sea Room by Adam Nicolson. I bought the first book after meeting Pankaj while speaking on a panel discussion on Asia, and it is an amazing tour de force of the intellectual sources and complexities of the writing and rewriting of Asian identity. The second is the best book written of late on Japan by the Financial Times’ Asia writer, David Pilling, who lived in Tokyo for years and went back after the disasters of 2011 to take another look at this complex society. Finally, I bought Sea Room on a trip to the northwestern isles of my native Scotland a few years ago, and, when I finally opened it up, I could not put it down. It may speak to my desire for isolated, uninhabited islands…so read it only if you have a hankering for the sea and seagulls in the northern Atlantic. Not one iota of Asia there…but perhaps there are parallels to be found in all remote islands.

6. What is the most overlooked threat to U.S. national interests?

I think we spend too little time and resources on educating our children for the world in which we live and the world in which they are going to live. I am still struck by how little American schools teach about the world, other civilizations, the evolution of world history, and the complex human responses to globalization. When the Cold War ended, the U.S. government stopped funding some of the country’s most impressive centers of global studies. America’s education budget keeps getting cut, and Fulbright and other programs that help train research and teaching talent seem to be the first target. Funding for language centers is being cut. As vice chair of the U.S.-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange, I can see how much this hurts our relationship with Japan, but it goes far beyond Japan. All of our children should be gaining access to knowledge about the world, about how it will shape their future, and the skills that they will need to compete in this transforming world.

7. What do you believe is the most inflated threat to U.S. national interests?

Compromise. I worry that the United States, at times, carries on a foreign policy debate that is really only for the country’s own ears. The United States resists global institutions because it think its sovereignty will be impinged upon, even those institutions where its self-interest is most obviously served and where everyone else has learned the art of compromise. Take the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), for example. I teach a course on island disputes in Asia and my students must all learn about UNCLOS. Why? Because the regimes of cooperation and dispute resolution for maritime boundaries are new and emerging, and the region that needs these dispute resolution mechanisms the most is the maritime Asia Pacific. The U.S. government behaves as if it has ratified it, and argues for others to abide by the norms and rules established by UNCLOS, and yet the U.S. Senate cannot ratify it for fear that another country might ask the United States to compromise. The United States is the strongest nation in the world. It ought not to be afraid of compromise, especially when it is in the country’s own best interests.

8. What is the most significant emerging global challenge?

A rising China. I do not say that because I believe China is hostile or belligerent. I simply state the obvious. This new power is already transforming much of the way the Asia Pacific lives, and it will likely transform the lives of most of the globe in the coming decades. The ability of the United States—alongside others in Asia—to navigate the complex currents of this transformation will be sorely tested in the years ahead. As much as this is about China itself, this shift in the geostrategic balance is also about a new way of thinking about influence. Economically, few countries refuse to engage with China, yet politically and militarily, many of Beijing’s neighbors are wary. In China, too many argue that it is premature and reactive for others, especially the United States, to see China as a threat, but there is also little awareness of the extent to which Chinese wealth and military power is perceived and felt by their neighbors. My new book, Intimate Rivals, explores how complex this adjustment is for Japan, one of China’s closest neighbors. It is not simply that others must adopt a strategy of hedging, or balancing China’s growing power. Governments must also contend with the growing anxiety within their societies and the somewhat unpredictable effect that this new source of influence has on the balance of advocacy within.

9. What would you research given two years and unlimited resources?

I would research the changing sources of nationalism across Asia. Just as we often talk about China’s rise in a kind of analytical shorthand, we also talk about the growing nationalisms of Asia. Nationalism is on the rise, and there are variants: Japanese nationalism, Chinese nationalism, etc. But my interest is in the interactions between these new evolving notions of identity, their roots in the wartime history of the twentieth century, and their very obvious utility to contemporary politics. As Pankaj’s book looks at the seeds of Asian response to the West, I would want to look today at the way in which various societies in Asia are finding their identity against each other. Northeast Asia, in particular, offers an amazing story of deepening domestic barriers to diplomatic solutions to problems. Again, my book magnifies that for the Japan-China relationship, but that is not the only one. Vietnam and China, South Korea and Japan—all of these relationships are shaped by a popular sentiment that harkens back to moments of discord rather than cooperation. Who are the agents of this effort to define the future in terms of the past? Why sow seeds of discord? Who can build the intellectual foundation for a vision of Asia that returns to cooperation rather than deteriorates into diplomatic estrangements?

10. What are three central findings of your book, Intimate Rivals, that readers would find most interesting?

Intimate Rivals is a deep dive into Japanese politics and post-war experience, but it is also a story of how new sources of global power penetrate domestic politics and shape the balance of advocacy within. It is a story of Japan’s experience with a rising China, but it really raises questions about how this transformation that we are all witnessing is taking place. First, contention with China matters more. I look at four cases of contention, exploring the domestic advocates and interests affected in each case of Japan-China discord over varied issues such as war memory, maritime boundaries, food safety, and national defense. In each case, Tokyo and Beijing, at times, could come to some common understanding of how to mitigate these vulnerabilities and manage their differences. But in each case, too, you see how incidents and events create opportunity for those within to gain political advantage. Second, the lack of diplomatic success at problem-solving creates a legacy of skepticism that governments can protect domestic interests through cooperation. It is not nationalism that breeds diplomatic failure; it is diplomatic failure that opens the door for nationalist advocacy and dissension. Japan, for decades, was Asia’s leading economy, and its challenges with China are viewed with concern across the region. China, too, must be seen not only for how its behavior influences other nations, but how it shapes popular sentiment about what the current changes might bring to the regional order. Finally, this is a story that shapes Asia’s understanding of what it might be like to live with a China that has already risen. This growing wariness of what a future China might become, of course, raises expectations of the United States. The U.S. policy debate on Asia must include this rebalancing of Asian expectations of the U.S. role as well as the United States’ own rebalancing of its interests.

Learn more about or order a copy of Sheila A. Smith’s book, Intimate Rivals.