Professor Dennis Yasutomo on the Rise of Japan

Trang Le '17

Assistant Features Editor

On April 13, Dennis Yasutomo, professor of government and East Asian studies at Smith, presented a chaired professor’s talk on Japan’s military and foreign policy titled “Proactive Pacifism: The Rise of Japan, Part Trois?”

Yasutomo’s parents met and married in an American relocation center during World War II and, after their release, moved back to California, where he studied international relations as an undergraduate.  He focused on Japan after his first trip there with his parents and decided to study Japanese politics and foreign policy at San Francisco State University.  Yasutomo went on to receive a doctorate in political science from Columbia University.   

Much of Yasutomo’s research was conducted during research stays in Japan’s bureaucracy, resulting in a trilogy on Japanese development assistance: “The Manner of Giving,” “The New Multilateralism in Japan’s Foreign Policy” and “Japan and the Asian Development Bank.” The subject of his talk was the current effort by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to revive the Japanese economy and security policy, with Abe declaring, “Japan is back.”  Yasutomo raised the question of whether Abe will be able to revise Japan’s national identity by strengthening its military and its economic power, along with the use of Japan’s “soft power.”

Historically, Japan has risen and fallen twice as a military and economic power–could it rise again?  Japan’s image is that of a merchant state with a peace constitution, minimal defense and reliance on the United States regarding its foreign policy,  Yasutomo argued that Japan may be on a path to a more civil-military foreign policy that includes the exercise of collective self-defense by the Self-Defense Force (SDF) overseas.   

Yasutomo noted the obstacles to Abe’s effort to strengthen the military dimension of Japan’s foreign policy, including the self-image of the Japanese as a peace-loving pacifist nation and public opposition to collective self-defense.  In public opinion polls younger Japanese citizens indicate a reluctance to defend their nation or to build up military power. Yasutomo noted that changes in their security policy are already underway based on Abe’s high popularity ratings and the growing support for the Self-Defense Force, especially after the Fukushima nuclear crisis when the SDF aided in the recovery process.  He also said that previous experiences overseas, especially participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, provide the experience necessary for future operations.  Therefore, Yasutomo said, “Abe is a catalyst and not the originator” of this evolution of a foreign policy that balances both non-military and military methods.  Abe is not leading Japan in a new direction, but is building on a previously established direction.  Though it may appear new because of national identity as a pacifist nation, Yasutomo stressed that the national identity has shifted toward a more “active pacifism” represented by Abe’s slogan of “proactive pacifism.”

Part of this ideology is the non-military foreign policy tool for uses other than sustainable development.  Foreign aid can now potentially be used to support non-combat operations.

However, Yasutomo also noted that the Japanese will remain cautious and work incrementally in future operations.  Japan has a small military force of only 240,000 personnel compared with over a million troops in some neighboring countries, like China. The unrevised constitution, the symbol of Japanese pacifism, still remains a firewall with its stipulation that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as sovereign right of the nation and the threat of use of force as means of settling international disputes.”  Yasutomo noted the gap between elected Parliamentarians’ support for constitutional revision and the opposition among the public, who hold the key because voters must ratify any constitutional amendment.

The recent crisis in which two Japanese hostages were killed by ISIL illustrates the difficulty for any Japanese government to actually use its military power.  Japan does not have a special unit to rescue Japanese citizens abroad, and even if such a unit existed, under current rules, it could not use weapons to protect those hostages.  Therefore, Abe does not have the power to initiate operations unilaterally.  The public remains critical.

However, Abe is likely to remain in office for another three years and Yasutomo speculates that this may provide the time for Abe to achieve his objectives, especially given his popularity, shifting public opinion and the experience gained in previous participation in international operations.

Yasutomo concluded his talk by illustrating Japan’s use of soft power to complement hard power, noting that even a prime minister noted for hard power relies on soft power to achieve foreign policy objectives, including Doraemon to attain the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Captain Tsubasa in Iraq.  These popular cultural figures also seem to be a part of “proactive pacifism.”