Identity, Culture and Memory in Japanese Foreign Policy

by Michal Kolmaš (Volume editor) Yoichiro Sato (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection XII, 210 Pages


This book interprets the changing nature of Japanese foreign policy through the concepts of identity, culture and memory. It goes beyond rational interpretation of material interests and focus on values and ideas that are inseparable and pervasive in Japanese domestic and foreign policy. A set of chapters written by established Japanese and foreign experts show the nuances of Japanese self-images and their role in defining their understanding of the world. Stemming from historical memories of World War Two, the reconciliation between Japan and other Asian countries, the formation of Japanese self in media discourse to the role of self-perception in defining Japanese contemporary foreign and economic policies, the book offers a holistic insight into Japanese psyche and its role in the political world. It will be of utmost interest not only to the scholars of Japanese foreign policy, but also to a wide public interested in understanding the uniqueness of Japanese state and its people.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface: Yoichiro Sato
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: National Identity and the Study of Japan: Michal Kolmaš
  • 1. National Identity and Asian Diplomacy under Abe: Hidetaka Yoshimatsu
  • 2. Ideational Factors behind the Erosion of Japan’s Pacifism: Yoshinori Kaseda
  • 3. Japan-UK Relations before and after the Brexit Referendum: Utpal Vyas
  • 4. Industrial Policies, the East Asian Miracle, and Regional Integration after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis: Yoichiro Sato
  • 5. National Identity, National Pride, and Armed Force in Japan: How to Verify the Existence of Pacifist Culture in Japan: Takashi Hosoda
  • 6. Collective (Historical) Memory and National Identity in Contemporary Japan: Contested War Narrative and Myth-Making in Japan’s Longest Day: Jan Sýkora
  • 7. Through the Eyes of Others: Postwar Reconciliation Narrative in Contemporary Japan: Emilia S. Heo
  • 8. China as an Other in Japanese Media: Construction of National Identity: David Kozisek
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

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Yoichiro Sato

Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University

The return of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to power in late 2012 under the leadership of Abe Shinzo left an important mark in Japanese politics. Who would have expected Abe would renew the Japanese record of the longest serving prime minister, previously held by Katsura Taro who led the nation through the challenging war against Russia and for two more terms afterward? Abe’s resignation in September 2007 at less than a year of serving as a prime minister in his first term cited a health issue. The LDP lost power in September 2009 as its two prime ministers after the first Abe Cabinet failed to recapture popular support for the scandal-tainted ruling party amid the stubborn economic deflation and the deteriorating regional security environment.

The typical characteristics of prolonged leaderships in Japan—do nothing controversial to avoid making enemies—is probably not the way most observers would describe Abe. While making compromises is required of him just as his predecessors have gone through, Abe has from time to time pushed through considerable policy changes, such as endorsing the country’s participation in collective defense (Sato 2017b). The conservative vision he presented has guided the policy recourse during the past seven and a half years.

When we held our workshop to critique the initial chapter drafts of this book in November 2018, Japan was booming with international visitors under the government’s drive to promote inbound tourism as a new source of economic revenue. With the upcoming Tokyo Olympic then scheduled in summer 2020, both “whole-of-government” and “public-private” cooperation was at work under the central government’s slogan, “Yokoso [welcome to] Japan.” The reflationist economic policy Abe promoted by placing like-minded Kuroda Haruhiko in the governorship of the Central Bank of Japan brought back a period of economic growth, which albeit limitedly resembled ←vii | viii→the bubble economy boom era from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. All came to a sudden halt in the spring of 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic reached the country.

Japan’s responses to the pandemic under Abe have revealed some of its core values. Japan did not have a law that would give its executive leader a power to declare and enforce a mandatory lockdown of any part of its territory for a reason of epidemic. Abe had to propose an amendment to the existing law against influenza epidemic, which was put in place several years earlier to deal with a new more toxic strain of influenza virus, to expand its scope to cover the new coronavirus (SARS COV-2). The law, however, merely authorized the prime minister to declare an emergency to specific municipalities and the relevant governors to request a voluntary curfew and business closures. Success of Japan’s attempt to curb the rise of infections depended on compliance of its citizens. The country’s relatively small number of available intensive care units per population invited a major concern, but in the end Japan wiggled through the tense months of April and May 2020 with one of the lowest rates of deaths per population. Hotel rooms and public halls the municipal governments earmarked for transferring the patients in less serious conditions in order to free up hospital capacities for those in serious conditions were barely utilized. The contrast between Tokyo’s calm restraint and similarly gigantic cities like Wuhan and New York where the infected overloaded the medical systems despite the more forceful lockdown orders was stark.

Japan’s soft approach was not only inevitable because of the lack of a powerful constitutional authority of the executive, but also was realistic given the strong public reservation against giving the executive such power even during a crisis. It is not too difficult to imagine a root of such attitude is found in the country’s painful total defeat in World War II. Abe’s Finance Minister Aso Taro, whose outspokenness earned him a pro-Nazi labeling by some liberal Western journalists, caused yet another controversy when he cynically bragged Japan’s success owed to its “[higher] level of civility” [mindo ga chigau].1 Liberal Japanese media and leftist opposition parties were quick to question Aso’s remark, but the silence of the large segment of the public indicated that the pride is a shared feeling. The Japanese displayed the same sense of pride in their own self-discipline and public mindedness during the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake of March 2011.

Outside Japan, the pandemic has sharpened the ideological conflict between the United States and China. The propaganda war over the origin of and responsibility over the pandemic added fuel to the trade war. United States President Donald Trump’s cease-fire after the first stage agreement ←viii | ix→with China to improve the US trade balance is now at the risk of being abandoned. China continues to build up military infrastructure and presence throughout the South China Sea region, and the United States counters the Chinese move by increasing the frequency of its naval transit operations to challenge China’s claims. But, Japan’s previously growing activism in the South China Sea (Sato 2017a) appears to have peaked in the 2017–2018 period. The upgraded bilateral alliance between the United States and Japan as a result of the latter’s reinterpretation of the constitution and the national security legislation in 2015 (Sato 2017b) brings Japan closer to a hypothetical conflict, but a simple neorealist bandwagoning logic does not seem to explain the ways Japan is coping with divergence from its prime ally. Alliance dilemma is present and has grown (Atanassova-Cornelis and Sato 2019), and its material manifestations are inseparable from less tangible ideas, values, beliefs, and cultures. In the ongoing competition for a new order, Japan too utilizes old and new ideas which are consistent with its material interests (Rothman, Vyas, and Sato 2017).

The collection of chapters that follows will illustrate nuanced applications of constructivism and poststructuralism to study of Japanese foreign policy that is more conducive to dialoging with the more traditional materialist-utilitarian theories (Sato and Hirata eds. 2008) as well. We believe that material factors cannot (by any means) give a holistic picture of Japan’s foreign policy behavior, interests, and perceptions; and only through dialogue with these immaterial concepts we can try to grasp hints of Japanese uniqueness and policy conduct. Our collection of chapters brings together scholars of international relations, security studies and policy studies, and offers a compelling food for thought that adds to contemporary debates on Japanese foreign policy and also on Japanese self-perception and understanding of its past.


1Asahi Shimbun Digital, June 4, 2020. https://www.asahi.com/articles/ASN6455 CGN64UTFK008.html.


Atanassova-Cornelis, E., & Sato, Y. (2019). The US-Japan alliance dilemma in the Asia-Pacific: Changing rationales and scope. The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs, 54(4), 78–93.

Rothman, S., Vyas, U., & Sato, Y. (2017). Introduction. In Regional institutions, geopolitics and economics in the Asia-Pacific (pp. 1–10). London: Routledge.

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Sato, Y. (2017a). Japan’s maritime security: Continuity and post-Cold War evolution. In N. Tarling & X. Chen (Eds.), Maritime security in East and Southeast Asia: Political challenges in Asian waters (pp. 125–144). London: Routledge.

Sato, Y. (2017b). Conclusion: Abe’s Japan—Manifestation of a Quiet Transformation in Power and Values. In H. Sato & Y. Sakai (Eds.), Rerising Japan: Its strategic power in international relations (pp. 243–252). New York: Peter Lang.

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We would like to express our thanks to the Czech Science Foundation for its financial support under standard research grant no. 18-05339S. We would also like to thank the Ritsumeikan Center for Asia Pacific Studies (RCAPS) at Ritsumeikan Asia-Pacific University for organizing a workshop in 2018, which helped us to meet and discuss the initial drafts of the chapters. And our thanks also go to our family members and friends for support and advice.

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Introduction: National Identity and the Study of Japan

Michal Kolmaš

Metropolitan University Prague


Has pacifism retreated from Japan? Is the country returning to its prewar militarist identity, or is it just reacting to the security developments in Asia and in the world? Or are ongoing political changes in Japan merely small steps on a long trajectory of incremental “normalization”? These questions have been in the forefront of Japan research for at least three decades now. The reasons are perhaps straightforward: There is indeed something happening with Japan. Japanese politicians have become less concerned with the promotion of pacifism into the world. They have visited the Yasukuni shrine, where souls of dead soldiers are enshrined, and called for the rejuvenation of Japanese role in the world. They have become critical of the postwar Constitution and its war-renouncing Article 9, which they no longer consider as an asset to Japan’s foreign policy, but rather a hindrance to it. They have changed security legislature in order to allow the Japanese military more freedom in participating in foreign missions.

Indeed, the extent and scope of changes is breathtaking. Japan has become much more active in the world. It has created a first overseas military base in Djibouti and has sent troops in a variety of peacekeeping missions around the world. It has transformed its institutional structure to allow for a better cooperation among ministries of defense and foreign affairs. Under the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it has enacted a series of laws that allow for easier intelligence coordination with its allies, predominantly the United States. But what does that tell us about Japan? Do all these developments signal that the revisionist political leadership has succeeded in transforming Japanese pacifist ←1 | 2→identity? Or is it too soon or even wrong to suggest such a thing? And what would that mean for Japan, Asia, and the world?

There is no consensus on the answers. Some of the commentators (i.e., Dobson 2017; Hagstrom and Hanssen 2015; Hughes, 2015; Schulze 2016) have argued that Japan has indeed transformed into a different country—one that possesses a strong military no matter of the peaceful constitution, that has succeeded in detaching itself from its postwar torpor in foreign and security policy, and whose society no longer feels united under the antimilitarist banner. They have illustrated the ways of how the leading elite—and Abe in particular—have transformed the narrative of Japanese pacifism into Japanese proactive pacifism, which no longer stresses the necessity of following the Yoshida doctrine, but instead calls for a more active and playmaker role for Japanese foreign policy. There are others, however, who are not so inclined to the notion of Japanese change. These scholars (i.e., Oros 2010, 2015; Liff 2015; Lande 2017; Easly, 2017, for a broader discussion on this topic, see Kolmaš 2018, 2019) believe that the change under Abe is much more limited, if happening at all. They speak of Japanese incrementalism and show that the recent security changes are just minor advances on a long journey that started right after the war. Some of them have argued that the Constitution and the institutional brakes that it possesses have—although under attack—remained more-or-less intact in countering revisionist pressures (for in-depth discussion of the continuity/change spectrum see Kolmaš 2019).

Notwithstanding the fact that there is no consensus on the Japanese political trajectory, it is apparent that there is significant interest in the ideational side of Japanese change. The prescription of changing/non-changing Japan simply boils down to the question of Japanese national identity. Since the identity is so closely linked to the postwar constitution and the role of Japanese military, any attempt to transform these is directly linked to the very idea of Japanese self. Aware of this, Japanese politicians aim not only to change Japanese legislature, but also the underlying understanding of Japan as a nation—only by persuading the society that pacifism is no longer necessary—or indispensable—for Japan can they broaden the options for revisionist policy making. We thus believe that it is of utmost importance to engage in the debate of Japanese national identity and its effect on policy making.

We intend to do it by eclectically building on the prevailing scholarship on the role of ideas, identity, and culture in Japanese political change. Our main interest will be in the ideational background of Japanese policy making, but—differently to the abovementioned studies—we aim to broadly analyze these ideas within not merely Japanese postwar pacifism, but also education, ←2 | 3→popular culture, and economic model. We present a collection of chapters connected by the belief that rationality and calculated interests cannot simply explain changing Japanese trajectory. The chapters in our book show that identities and ideas matter, and that they constitute basis from which Japanese state operates. Instead of other identity-based studies, we do not merely focus on the state level of identity, but we illustrate the role of ideas on all levels of Japanese society.

Identity, Culture, and the Study of Japan1

Identity will serve as the main conceptual tool for our understanding of contemporary Japan. For most parts of the twentieth century, however, identity has been overlooked as a concept of interest for international relations scholars. Dominated by rationalist theories, International Relations (IR) scholars were interested in power, cooperation, institutions, and anarchy, rather than identity. If studied at all, state identity was understood in terms of power (superpowers, middle powers, small states, etc.). The surge of interest in identity and its relationship to foreign policy has resulted from the fourth great debate in IR theory during the 1980s and 1990s. The debate emancipated rationalists’ post-positivist enemies; and theories such as social constructivism, post-structuralism, environmentalism, and gender theory became more-or-less widely applied in international relations. Identity has been one of the key concepts these “new” theories worked with. Social constructivists, in particular, have been widely interested in the way how identity works and how it influences individual and state behavior. Building on sociology and psychology, constructivists focused on the context in which meanings are created and believed that this context (cultural, historical, and discursive) is essential for our understanding of the world—and IR.


XII, 210
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XII, 210 pp., 2 b/w ill., 7 tables.

Biographical notes

Michal Kolmaš (Volume editor) Yoichiro Sato (Volume editor)

Michal Kolmaš holds a Ph.D. in international relations from Charles University in Prague and is currently an associate professor at Metropolitan University Prague. His articles on Japanese foreign policy appeared in journals such as The Pacific Review, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Japanese Journal of Political Science and others. His latest book National Identity and Japanese Revisionism was published in 2019. Yoichiro Sato holds a Ph.D. in political science from University of Hawaii and is currently at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University. His more than ten published books include Regional Institutions, Geopolitics and Economics in the Asia Pacific (co-edited, 2017) and Re-Rising Japan (Peter Lang, 2017).


Title: Identity, Culture and Memory in Japanese Foreign Policy