Japan’s ‘Yoshida Doctrine’ as It Stands Today

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by Nayana Das

Statue of former Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru in Kitanomaru Park in Tokyo, Japan. Photo by  Toshihiro Gamo/ Flickr.
Statue of former Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru in Kitanomaru Park in Tokyo, Japan.
Photo by Toshihiro Gamo/ Flickr.

The basic premise for Japan’s foreign policy in the aftermath of World War II was laid by then Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru’s diplomatic ‘grand strategy’ known as the Yoshida Doctrine. The strategy which sought to make reconstruction of Japan’s domestic economy as the top policy priority, comprises of three key elements: reconstruction of domestic economy through an emphasis on economic relations overseas, maintenance of a low profile in international politics and reliance on security guarantees from the United States.

In light of this, we can identify two clear dimensions of the Yoshida Doctrine i.e. military and economic. In terms of the former, a key element in the doctrine is pacifism. The main purpose of this element was to remove any suspicions of a Japanese threat among neighbours and thus to repair the damage which had been done to diplomatic relationships through the course of the war. Such a pacifist foreign policy institutionalised itself during the occupation of Japan by the U.S. military between 1945 and 1952. The United States, driven by its own concern about the re-emergence of a military threat from Japan, exploited this historic timing to pacify and democratize Japan through the Constitution of 1946. Not only did this Constitution provide Japan with “a democratic framework for postwar politics”, it also severely restrained any attempts to develop an independent security or defense policy after 1952 through the ‘Peace Clause’ – Article 9.

Article 9, in very basic terms, is a unilateral renunciation of the use of force under any circumstances for the settlement of disputes. Through this renunciation, Japan’s defense policy was made dependent on security ties with and security guarantees from the United States. As a result of this, Japan’s own military capability became limited to the relatively small Japanese Self-Defense Force (JSDF). The Article, therefore, became a means of projecting Japan as “a country dedicated to world peace”. Such a guarantee was detrimental to restoring the country’s ‘international respectability’ given Japan’s drastic defeat in the war and the public revulsion against militarism which the defeat had domestically cultivated. Moreover, such revulsion helped to mobilize “widespread commitment to pacifism”, thus helping to build up national consensus for the Yoshida Doctrine.

Such pacifism is also linked to the second dimension of the Yoshida Doctrine i.e. the economic. Throughout the Cold War period, Japan’s foreign policy was guided exclusively by its economic interest which diverted all its priorities and resources into economic development that was based on integration into the international market. Japan’s commitment to pacifism and demilitarization enhanced confidence-building with neighbours thereby helping to remove trade disruptions which to a great extent explains the post-war ‘economic miracle’ of Japan. In this way, the rise of the Yoshida Doctrine is also linked to Japan’s ‘economic miracle’ between the 1950s and 1990s. By reinstating Japan’s place as a respectable and reliable player in the international order and eliminating trade disruptions, the doctrine ensured the success of Japan’s export-led growth which helped to jump start its economy.

Such export-oriented growth (which subsequently became known as the Asian Model of Development) mainly relied on developing a sector that was in demand in the Western market but for which interest in production was lost. As a result, Western technology was shifted to Japan for the purpose of production for the international market. Starting with smaller sectors like plastic and toys, Japan eventually exploded into major sectors like automobiles, consumer electronics and high-tech materials. Evidently, reliance on the United States under the Yoshida Doctrine was not solely military but economic as well. For instance, the United States became Japan’s largest trading partner and export to the United States became “a major pillar of economic reconstruction”. Therefore, the post-war pacifist policy as well as the bilateral alliance with the United States became a historic opportunity for the Japanese in exchange for a slight compromise of autonomy under a restrictive framework of U.S. hegemony.

In sum, by putting the military and economic dimensions together, we can describe the Yoshida Doctrine as a strategy to overlook military expansionism and to disengage from conflict for the sake of economic revival. In this way, the strategy produced a coalition of a domestic mercantile realist policy and a pacifist foreign policy which put “explicit brakes on Japan’s defense policies” and helped reinstate the country’s respectability in the international system. In light of all of this, national consensus for the Yoshida Doctrine becomes comprehensible. It is possible to argue that the sustenance of absolute national consensus on the Yoshida Doctrine throughout the second half of the twentieth century was largely because it produced some degree of success for Japan. Not only did it guarantee Japan’s national security “through alignment with the leading superpower” and rehabilitate Japan’s reputation as “a responsible country”, but, by the 1970s it also made Japan the second largest economy in the world.

However, by the late 1990s, national consensus on the doctrine began to collapse. It is not a coincidence that this collapse coincided with the end of the Cold War. During the Cold War, Japan’s greatest threat was from the Soviet Union which was mitigated because of the alliance with the United States. Because of this, Japan could hold on to the pacifist Yoshida Doctrine and “remain in its cocoon”. However, the end of the Cold War brought with it new challenges which led to a speculation over the sufficiency of the Yoshida Doctrine to ensure Japanese interests. Most importantly, three key threats were beginning to shape Japan’s foreign outlook since the early 1990s: a “rising” China, the nuclearization of North Korea, and finally, rising doubts over “abandonment” by the United States. All of these threats, while seeking to justify the modernization of Japan’s military, began to shift consensus away from the Yoshida Doctrine. In the economic sphere, economic globalization from the 1990s which accompanied the end of the Cold War “exposed the structural weaknesses of the Japanese economy” and created a need for an economic strategy which goes beyond Japan’s “catch-up developmental capitalism”. In this way, the end of the bipolar international structure provided not just the motivation but also the opportunity to develop and pursue a new economic and military strategy. Therefore, realist influence began to overpower pacifist influence in internal political debates.

In closing, the rise and fall of the Yoshida Doctrine can be equated to a transition from a reactive to a more proactive approach vis-à-vis Japanese foreign policy. Kent Calder describes Japanese foreign policy during the Cold War as being the policy of a “reactive state” for whom any impetus for policy change was “typically supplied by outside pressure, and reaction prevails over strategy in the relatively narrow range of cases where the two come into conflict”. However, the collapse of consensus for the Yoshida Doctrine has brought about the development of a more proactive foreign policy in which Japan would itself “determine the national interest and choose the instruments by which to pursue it independent of foreign pressure”.

Therefore, it is true that Japan’s foreign policy today is headed towards a more proactive agenda. An explicit break from the reactive post-war mould of Japanese foreign policy was made by Koizumi Junichiro, Japan’s prime minister from 2001 to 2006. Koizumi’s not only introduced administrative reforms starting 2001 in order to implement “a new form of top-down decision-making in foreign policy” but he also fostered an intense political debate regarding the need for a revision of Article 9 so that Japan could lift “the self-imposed ban on exercising the right of collective self-defence”. His successor, Abe Shinzo, seems to be following suit by seizing every opportunity to reform domestic institutions. For example, in 2007 he established the U.S. model-based National Security Council.

However, it is important to keep in mind that any remodelling of Japan’s existing strategy to form a post-Yoshida consensus will be subject to changing Japanese perceptions of the regional and global order as well as to internal political and institutional dynamics within Japan. Given Japan’s geostrategic realities today, consensus over the relevance of Yoshida Doctrine and the need to reform Article 9 is discernable. However, this does not mean that the doctrine has been entirely dislodged. The relevance of the doctrine persists particularly because of the state of Japan’s economy today. Yoshida’s emphasis on the use of government resources to boost up economic development could be relevant for Prime Minister Abe’s efforts to develop Japanese economy through fiscal stimulus and structural reforms, although it does not necessarily have to be so at the cost of national security as was the case in the past. Therefore, the Yoshida Doctrine has not entirely lost its validity today. Its relevance vis-à-vis Japan’s defense policy is likely to persist until a clearly defined post-Yoshida consensus for the direction of Japan’s foreign economic and security policy is established.


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