Japan is one of the most established civilizations of the Asia Pacific region. It has gone through different processes during history and it has made itself one of the most developed countries in the modern world. Japan has a different history and modernization process than other Asian countries. This modernization process first started with Emperor Meiji at the end of the 1800s. The first contacts of the Japanese Dynasty, which lived a closed life in the Meiji and previous periods, were realized through trade routes. Meiji brought a Western perspective to the existing Japanese order and adapted Western civilization to Japanese culture. This adaptation has been implemented in social areas such as economy, law and education. And then Western values have come to the fore in Japan where hierarchical structure and class difference are dominant. Increasing modernization movements were also reflected in the army and defense areas. Japan, which started to get stronger, started to follow an aggressive foreign policy and followed an expansionist policy in its close environment. This expansionist policy showed its first traces on Korea and Japan started to face the great powers.
The Chinese Empire who ruled in Asia for many years, took action against Japan’s expansionist policies, and the first Japan-China war happened. After the defeat of China, Chinese’s hegemonic power was over and the ‘Century of Humiliation’ process began. Japan’s expansionist movements and power peaked in the 1900s, and Japan became the new military and economic power of Asia. But this rise has faced Japan with a new superpower the United States. During this time, the First World War took place, and the war became a great opportunity for Japan. After the war, the United States and Western powers, uncomfortable with Japan’s power and dominance in Asia, tried to build a consensus on stopping Japan, and these policies that began with economic sanctions turned into the use of military force with the Second World War. The US invaded Japan in 1945, and with the dropping of atomic bombs Japan was defeated, and a new era began in Japan.
After the defeat, Japan was a country that could not make decisions in its domestic and foreign policy alone and it was ruled by the occupation forces. With the new independence in 1952, the reconstruction period began in the country. The first steps of this era took place with a new constitution. At the beginning of the prominent articles in the Constitution were the prohibitions on the army and defense. Since these years, economic development and democracy have been at the first of Japan’s domestic policy. Also the demilitarization, ally with the USA and improving relations with countries have been the other policy of the foreign policy. The US alliance is the most fundamental of traditional Japanese foreign policy. The new border and military security of the Japan was provided with the US security umbrella, and Japan was prohibited from building an army and strengthening itself in the military field, it became legal with the signing of the Mutual Security Treaty with the official basis of the security umbrella. Thus, the United States has gained the right to maintain troops and military bases in Japan. With the 1960s, Japan began to recover and improve its diplomatic relations with its neighboring countries. This improvement process took place with the benefit of being a US ally for other countries. The countries began to rebuild their relations with Japan for the opportunity to become allies with the United States. There were also changes in the international arena during the rebuilding process of Japan. With the effect of the Cold War, the world had to take a side between the Eastern Bloc and the Western Bloc, and political tensions and conflicts did not stop. Defense had now acquired a nuclear dimension and core powerful weapons such as weapons of mass destruction had taken their place in the foreign policies of countries. In the 1970s, the effect of the detente period was the contacts between China and the USA, and until these contacts started, there was no contact between Japan and China.
Until the 2000s, Japanese foreign policy continued on the main elements such as the continuation of the US alliance, improving relations with close neighbors, development in the field of economic and technology, and introducing Japanese culture to the world through soft power. Although Japan experienced a Western modernization process, it managed to preserve the Japanese culture and did not assimilate. Relations with China are directly proportional to the rapprochement of the USA with China and have been limited to economic and commercial relations. Because Japan was traditionally part of the Western Bloc and also this is the case today. Since the 2000s, economic and technological developments have been experienced in Japan. So much so that today Japan is one of the best economies in the world. It is an Asian country that hosts technological developments and has a high level of prosperity. The fact that Japan came under the security umbrella of the USA and realized its development with purely economic targets has allowed the trade volume to increase. However, Japan could not rise to the position of a leading country in Asia and become a political power mechanism because it was forbidden to emerge as a military force, which we call “constitutional pacifism”, and it only existed with soft power elements. The changing international conjuncture, especially with the rise of China in the last 20 years, has re-established a Chinese dominance and leadership in Asia. The emergence of the People’s Republic of China as a new power element in the political and economic field has become a source of concern for many states, especially the USA.
The September 11 attacks were a turning point for Japan as well as the rest of the world. With this date, the importance of military power and defense in the international system has come to the fore. In 2004, the first changes in Japan’s defense policies were made, with minor changes in the number of soldiers and in the defense industry. In 2008, there was a little increase in the defense budget. This process was declared as the ‘normalization process’. Thus, Japan looked for new alliances to ensure its current power while aiming to increase Japan’s military power. These quests of alliance created an opportunity for Japan to have rapprochement India which the other rising power of Asia. After 2020, radical changes and developments took place in Japan’s defense and foreign policy. According to the Japanese National Security Strategy documents published in 2022, it is seen that the balances have changed worldwide and new security concerns have emerged since the end of the Cold War. At the beginning of these concerns are the facts and events that affect the whole world, such as the rise of China, the fact that countries began to give more importance to armament and military alliances, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
When we especially look at Japan, the recognition of North Korea as an official threat has been added to the new developments in the world as a source of threat and concern. In the light of all these developments, what did Japan do in its search for military power and foreign policy? First of all, Japan increased its defense budget – the current budget was equal to 1% of GDP – to 2% of GDP and also its defense budget was limited to 5 Trillion Yen; increased this limit to 43 Trillion Yen. The main purpose of this increase is trying to preserve the status quo in Asia. In addition, it is one of Japan’s main goals to protect itself against the nuclear infrastructure and long-range missiles of threatening countries and to prevent possible attacks. Again, according to this report, alliance relations with the USA are important for peace and stability not only for Japan but also for the entire Asia Pacific, and relations should be supported in all areas. China is a serious political concern for Japan due to its regional relations and its competition with the USA. However, cooperation between the two states in economic and commercial fields is important for both individual interests and the economy of the region.
The factors that lead to the search for hard power are divided into internal and external factors. One of the main external factors is the US-China tension which affects the whole world. In addition with this tension, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the North Korean threat and the increasing armament efforts in the Asian region can be other examples. The internal factors, on the other hand, are primarily the changing perceptions of security in Japan, as well as all over the world. Changing perceptions of security have raised new security concerns, and these new concerns are reflected in groups in Japan. These concerns caused for the support of the end of constitutional pacifism and the demand for a new constitution. As a result, when we examine all these data and what has happened from the past to the present, we see that Japan wants to maintain its current position in Asia. The experiences after the Second World War still maintain their importance for the Japanese people and affect the political life of Japan. Even if it reaches its peak economically, it is a matter of curiosity what kind of changes the destiny of being a politically passive country will experience in the future. Because Japan is a country that wants to experience changes in defense and military fields and builds policies for this purpose. However, developments such as the increase in hot conflicts in the world and the ease of transportation of nuclear weapons push Japan to seek military power and increase military power. In the current US-China tension, both being a neighbor to China and having traditional alliance ties with the US are the basic elements of policy making in the political and military field for Japan. In line with these factors, Japan’s central position in US-China conflict pushes Japan to become stronger in the military field.