Japan is passing through an inflection point in its history that will define its future – perhaps irreversibly – for generations to come. China’s rise as a global power represents a tectonic shift in Japan’s geopolitical environment that requires strategic choices and momentous decisions. How can Japan best secure its peace and prosperity? Is the U.S. alliance flexible enough to deal with the Chinese challenge? Is U.S. support credible? What are its costs relative to alternatives? How does U.S. partisan politics and tendency towards gridlock affect Japan’s options, both in the long run and tactically? How would the revision of the 1947 Constitution of Japan, particularly Article IX, affect the strategic calculations and domestic politics of China and Japan’s other East Asian neighbors? Can economic and political engagement help to constrain China’s regional and global ambitions, or is containment the best policy? What are the conditions under which a larger and more independent military role for Japan would enhance or destabilize its security? Outside its own borders, what is Japan’s best path forward to contribute to regional and global peace and prosperity? Not since the time of Yoshida Shigeru has Japan faced such difficult choices.
On the domestic front, a low birth rate and low levels of immigration put Japan’s population on track to decline by about one million people every year in the coming decades, which will leave a population of 86 million in 2060 – from its peak of 128 million in 2010. Meanwhile, the population on the whole will be an aging one with more than a quarter over age 65. The demographic shift in Japan’s age profile has triggered concerns about the nation’s fiscal integrity and the viability of its welfare state, not to mention a smaller presence in international politics.
Japan’s strategic challenges, at home and abroad, require vigorous domestic political debate. Since changing the rules in 1994 by which the House of Representatives elects its members, Japan has moved towards majoritarian politics and at least the presumption of alternating parties in government. Numerous empirical studies of party and candidate campaigns have shown a healthy increase in attention to policy, away from personalistic politics. However, the Upper House electoral rules and the Lower House proportional representation portion of the ballot create ample opportunities for small parties to thrive, with mixed consequences for the quality of political debate. It is important for Japan’s future to understand the effects of politics on strategic decisions.
The foreign policy and domestic issues faced by Japan require greater awareness and reflection by American scholars and thought leaders. American students today – some of whom will become the leaders of American politics and business tomorrow – are flocking to courses about China or the Middle East. We seek, by way of a systematic project on Japan, to raise the level of interest and understanding in Japan and the exciting promise of stronger engagement between Japan and the U.S.