Foreign Policy Blogs

Is Japan still relevant?

As the introductory post to the Japan foreign policy blog, I pose the question, “Is Japan still relevant?”

Twenty some years ago, no one would have thought to raise this question. In 1989, Japan was at the height of its asset price “bubble.” Japan’s post-war economy was dubbed an “economic miracle,” and it maintained the world’s second largest economy from 1968 to 2010. Japan was seen as the U.S.’s economic rival, as illustrated a few years too late in Michael Crichton’s 1993 novel, Rising Sun, which seemed to advocate an economic war with Japan.

But like literal bubbles, Japan’s figurative economic bubble turned out to have been inflated with no real substance and subsequently burst once it got too large for its thin outer layer in 1990. Since then, the economy has been stuck in stagflation, growing by barely 1 percent per year, compared to annual rates of around 10 percent in the ’60s, 5 percent in the ’70s, and 4 percent in the ’80s. In 2010, China replaced Japan as the world’s second largest economy. Since then, Western economists no longer concern themselves with applying the Japanese model, aspiring businessmen are no longer eagerly studying Japanese, and foreign investors shun Japan.

So this raises the question, “Is Japan still relevant?”

I say yes. Very much so.

Despite over two decades of stagflation, Japan is still the most stable country in East Asia, both politically and economic. It is still the world’s third largest economy. And the verdict is still out on how long the economies of China and India will be able to sustain astounding growth rates. (My guess is China is at its peak, and its own bubble will burst once its government can no longer afford to subsidize domestic consumption keeping Chinese companies afloat.)

Japan is also the U.S.’s closest ally in the region. The U.S. military maintains bases in Okinawa and Yokosuka, which is often a source of contention between the two countries. With tensions again on the rise on the Korean Peninsula, the location of the U.S.’s bases in Japan could prove to be of strategic importance.

Japan also wields a disproportionate amount of “soft power” through its pop culture and aesthetics. Large American bookstores have ever-growing shelves dedicated to translations of manga titles. New audiences are still discovering Kurosawa’s films. Japanese art and culture have always held a special appeal to academics. Twenty years ago the idea of eating raw fish was, like, gross!, but now sushi is as American as Taco Bell. The amount of Japan’s soft power alone makes Japan relevant.

So given Japan’s position in the world, it is important to understand this country’s politics.

Japan, politics included, is fraught with contradictions to outside observers. While Japan tends to align politically with its Western allies, it still maintains an independent foreign policy. Even as salarymen on commuter trains have Lady Gaga ring tones, the Japanese are decidedly ambiguous about foreigners. As quick as high school girls are to absorb the latest fashion trends, Japanese society is still slow (sometimes stubbornly so) to face change. Outsiders, called gaijin, are baffled by existential questions about how such a society with so many contradictions hasn’t already collapsed on itself. In this blog, I will examine current issues in Japan, and illustrate with historical examples how these apparent contradictions have an internal consistency that are understandable within the Japanese worldview.

Hence, I will attempt to make sense of Japan for a Western audience.



Dustin Dye

Dustin Dye is the author of the YAKUZA DYNASTY series, available through the Amazon Kindle.

He lived in Okayama, Japan, where he taught English at a junior high school through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program for three years. He is a graduate from the University of Kansas, where he received a bachelor's degree in anthropology.

His interest in Japan began in elementary school after seeing Godzilla fight Ghidorah, the three-headed monster. But it wasn't until he discovered Akira Kurosawa's films through their spaghetti Western remakes that he truly became fascinated in the people and culture of Japan.

He lives in Kansas with his wife, daughter and guinea pig.

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E-mail him: [email protected]