Values in Japan’s Foreign Policies

Values in Japan’s Foreign Policies

Looking back from the perspective of 2018, the values underlying Japan’s foreign policy today can be seen in a historical context. The ability of Japan to have resisted Mongol attempts at invasion in the 12th century, albeit with the help of the “ Kamikaze- the Divine Wind”, which sent the Mongol fleet to its watery grave, has influenced the manner in which Japan viewed the world. There has been a belief in this ‘divine’ country, ruled by an Emperor who has ‘divine’ origins, tracing his descent from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu O Mikami. The emperor is at the centre of the indigenous Shinto which extols worship of the emperor, purity in matters concerning ritual and preservation and nurturing of non- human Nature.

Japan has been a great learner; imbibing and absorbing values and technologies from abroad. Confucian values of filial piety, benevolence, respect for the literati along with the script, the art of pottery and tea ceremony came from China. In Japan, the ruling samurai class were the military version of civilian Chinese mandarins; they both commanded unquestioning loyalty.

The indigenous Shinto base layered with Confucianism was further enriched by Buddhist values imported from India; non-violence, egalitarianism and living in harmony with human and non-human Nature. Prince regent Shotoku, 1600 years ago, gave the full backing of the Imperial court to spread Buddhist values in Japan. The imported Confucian and Buddhist values blended with indigenous Shinto ones. The amalgam was essentially eclectic and non-doctrinal.  From this emerged the concept of Bushido, the way of the warrior, not too dissimilar to the Hindu concept of karamyogi; fierce loyalty and sacrifice in doing one’s duty were bushido values which influenced Japan’s foreign and domestic policies.

The arrival of St Francis Xavier 500 years ago did not lead to any major transmission of Catholic values to this Shinto-Confucian-Buddhist amalgam.   This was because the Portuguese were soon expelled on account of their predilection for proselytization. The ruling samurai elite were suspicious not so much of Christianity, as the political power that threatened to flow from it.

During the Tokugawa period of 260 years which lasted till 1868, Japan’s foreign policy was based on ‘Splendid Isolation.” After the expulsion of the Portuguese, Japan’s window to the external world was restricted to seeing Western knowledge, including technology, through Dutch eyes; they were the only foreigners permitted to live in and trade in the tiny port of Dejima near Nagasaki. The Dutch did not spread their religion, but in south Japan, in Miyazaki and Kagoshima, ideas of the European Enlightenment and perhaps shades of the Protestant ethic, trickled in and influenced a small group of lower samurai. Among these was Yukichi Fukazawa, the intellectual father of modern Japan. His influence on policies both, domestic and foreign in the Meiji era was enormous. His portrait still adorns the highest denomination currency note of 10000 yen.

Japan’s isolationist foreign policy ended with the Meiji Restoration in 1868. What followed was a repetition of earlier periods: “emulation, absorption and Japanization”; in this case of the Western philosophies and technologies that had forcibly pried open the closed Japanese ‘oyster’. The last quarter of the 19th century was the apogee of the ‘age of Empire.’ Japan’s foreign policy was determined by a bid to catch up with the Western colonial powers.

The values that underlay these frenetic attempts were the Shinto – Confucian ones of loyalty to the emperor and the samurai leadership, underscored by a “me too-ism’, which remained a strong element in relations with the external world.

Victory against China in 1895, acceptance into the ‘ white man’s club in 1902 with the Anglo –Japanese Treaty and the subsequent victory over Russia in 1904-5, reinforced the belief in Japan, that the value system which propelled Japan in 30 years into the forefront of the world powers, was clearly the right path to follow.  Japan’s foreign policy was motivated in this period and also during and after the First World War, by a determination to acquire an empire and so be equal to Britain, France, Holland and before 1918, with Germany and Italy.

Because of infirmities in the Meiji Constitution which were designed to rule Japan and not an overseas empire,  serious diarchy developed between the Foreign Office answerable to the elected Diet on the one hand and the ‘ Military ‘ sheltering behind the emperor on the other. Consequently, there was a constant pendulum in the conduct of foreign policy which made Japan appear ‘duplicitous’ in the eyes of its western critics. It was this constitutional dichotomy which led to the military adopting postures which were aggressive based on the concept of ‘kokutai’, the mystical belief in the emperor as a father of a family. The more liberal civilian leaders in the foreign ministry and other ministries were unable to match the military who would accuse them of the cardinal sin of “thwarting the will of the Emperor”.

Japan’s defeat in 1945 and the imposition of the ‘Peace’ constitution, including Article 9, renouncing war and armed forces, led to another period of learning again, albeit under the occupation forces. It was once again a period of “emulation, absorption and Japanisation.” Japan’s foreign policy and indeed its new democracy in the post-war period was based primarily on values imposed by the US; the emperor was reduced to being a ’symbol ‘of the state shorn of ‘divinity’. The security system was dependent on the US forces on the ground and the nuclear umbrella of the USA. The pacifism imposed on Japan was accepted by the populace without demur, essentially because of the strong underlay of Buddhist values.

Japanese foreign policy has consequently followed almost entirely in the ‘slip stream’ of the USA. Mao’s victory in 1949, the Korean and the Vietnam wars of the 50s and 60s saw Japan firmly following the USA. In fact, Japan profited from changed US attitudes, which saw Japan not as an enemy but as an ally. The slip stream effect was visible in the opening of relations with China in 1972 by Kakuei Tanaka, immediately after the Nixon visit to Mao. More recently the ‘slip stream’ saw the visit of PM Mori to India in August 2000 following the Clinton visit of March 2000. Both visits were ’ice- breakers’ seeking to mitigate the adverse effect of sanctions imposed after the nuclear tests of May 1998.

The peace constitution adopted by Japan and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki also led to anti- nuclear policies; this was the cause of the harshness of the Japanese reaction to the May 1998 nuclear tests. Foreign policy was imbued with such essentially   pacifist values till the turn of the 20th century. 9/11/2001 and the aftermath, specially the recrudescence of terrorism, brought a return to more assertive policies, reminiscent of the era before 1945.

The ‘muscularity’ now visible in Japan’s foreign policy under Abe, found a beginning under PM Koizumi [2001 to 2006] who made major departures in foreign policy, including sending of Aegis class ships to the Indian Ocean and   allowing a US nuclear powered ship to  dock in Japan [albeit with its engines switched off]!

Abe ‘s foreign policy seeks to  follow the Koizumi line and indeed to take it further; one of his principal objectives  is the amendment of Article 9 of the Constitution which will permit Japan to engage in ‘ collective security’. Already Japan is deeply engaged in security matters with countries like India, Vietnam, Indonesia and of course the USA, which still has troops in Japan. The objective of Abe, like Koizumi is make Japan a more “normal” country.

Has Japan followed a value system built on layers of Shinto, Confucian, Buddhist and Western democratic ideals?

During the Tokugawa period of 260 years lasting up to 1868, Japan was a peaceful country by and large internally, with no aggressive moves towards the external world. The period of expansion post 1868 and up to 1945, saw policies that were aimed at preserving  Japanese values and defending them from  western  countries that sought to’ deny’ Japan  a  ‘ Place in the sun’  , including overseas colonies. In Japan’s view, the west sought to ‘persecute, encircle and deprive’ it of its rightful place, driving it in to a corner from which war was the only escape. The sense of persecution and feeling of encirclement was most dramatically expressed by Yosuke Matsuoka who led Japan out of the League of Nations, in 1933, declaring that Japan like Jesus Christ was “crucified by world opinion.”

We have seen that the post war pacifism imposed did not find much opposition because of the innate values that underpin Japanese society. The 21st century’ muscular approach’ is a recrudescence of earlier value systems; an effort to preserve Japan’s unique society and defend it from those who seek to undermine it.  China’s aggressive policies towards neighbours like Japan, terrorism, Russian refusal to compromise on the” Northern territories’ and sign a peace treaty and US ‘unilateralism’ under Trump, are some of the external factors driving Japan under Abe, to pursue a ‘forward policy’ which has some similarities with earlier periods in Japan’s history.

Perhaps Japan will become “normal country” after all!


Aftab Seth is a former Indian diplomat who served as Ambassador of India to Greece, Vietnam and Japan.

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