Realism, Liberalism and a New Japan

by Rayan V Bhagwagar - 13 April, 2022, 12:00 2483 Views 0 Comment


Defeated and devastated with rampant destruction, the Empire of Japan ended with the end of the second world war and was followed by the signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender (1945) and the birth of new guiding light for the state that emerged in the form of the 1947 constitution. This new constitution ensured that Japan would forgo its old ways of utilizing war as a means of furthering state policy and objectives, instead of becoming a pacifist state with only a smaller self-defence force. Article IX of the Japanese constitution reads:

“Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

Since then, Japan has largely remained true to these values of the preservation of peace and political morality. It has been under the American defence umbrella throughout the entirety of the cold war and continues to remain so today. As such, Japanese political leadership were focused more on issues of economic and social importance, leaving its foreign policy to be reliant on the United States. The economic miracle had brought the Japanese back into global recognition as the second-largest economy in the world by the end of the cold war.

Despite the staggering performance, Tokyo’s economic might did not bring it a lot of political sway in the international arena. In a world that is anarchic by nature, where there are no higher authorities to regulate international conduct, Japan did not hold balanced, political power and military might assert its interests internationally. During the administration of Kofi Anan as General Secretary of the United Nations, ideas of expanding the membership of the United Nations Security Council were discussed, to include the prestigious group Japan, India, Germany and Brazil. These ideas continue to remain ideas, representing the flawed structural system of international politics to cope with a changing geopolitical landscape.

The exponential growth of China’s economy[1], followed by its rapid modernisation, has further destabilised the world order. Extreme political polarisation in American society has led to the United States being a fractured global power, with declining authority in the politics of the world. Washington faces the challenge of a revanchist Russia trying to ensure breathing room for itself in Europe, against an expanding NATO presence, while also facing the challenge of a revisionist China attempting to mould and reshape the current global order in its favour. The North Koreans completed several tests of their nuclear capabilities and are estimated today to hold over 60 nuclear warheads in their arsenal, adding to the list of challenges faced today. While the Americans sit – quite literally – oceans apart from either theatre, the Japanese are located in an area where all three challengers exist. This paper will attempt to look at how Japan is acting to counter the ever-increasing threats that it faces in the volatile region of East Asia, through the lens of Realism and Liberalism.

Threat perception

Japan is a sea-going nation of five major islands, surrounded by smaller ones. To the north of Japan lies Russia’s far east. The Russian Federation has historically given its eastern and far eastern regions lesser importance and attention than it has to its European west, identifying itself as a European power. The only point of contention in Russo-Japanese ties is the territorial dispute in the South Kuril Islands. While Vladivostok serves as the home port to the Russian Pacific Fleet, it poses little threat to the Japanese, given that Moscow does not hold any revanchist interests in the region. In his paper on how Russia can become a responsible player in East Asia, Wade Turvold (Russia in the Pacific: Strategic Opportunity in the Far East, 2020) discusses how in recent times, the leadership of the two countries have attempted to bring this long-standing dispute to an end, and how that could be beneficial to both the Russians and the Japanese, with the former being a supplier of energy and the latter being a mega-consumer of it.

To its northwest lies the Korean peninsula, home to the rogue communist regime in Pyongyang. Japan’s imperial past and history of oppression in Korea makes it a prime target of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) newly acquired and yet developing a nuclear arsenal. The North Koreans regularly display irregular foolhardy behaviour by test-launching ballistic missiles into the international waters of the Sea of Japan. This keeps both Tokyo and Seoul on their toes, to be prepared to intercept any missiles or avert any other military operations incautiously and thoughtlessly launched by the North’s rogue dictator. The missile tests conducted by DPRK are driven by Pyongyang’s security dilemma and desire for deterrence to ensure the survival of the oppressive regime and contradict international hopes for dialogue to regulate their weapons of mass destruction.

Japan only faces the threat of nuclear war from the DPRK, chances of which are arguably low. The single greatest conventional threat, however, is faced by the other oppressive, communist regime in the neighbourhood to Japan’s west – the People’s Republic of China. Prof Christopher Hughes writes in his work that “Japanese perceptions of China’s increasing ideological estrangement have been reinforced by concerns over a new Chinese unwillingness to demonstrate benign intentions by committing to bilateral and international agreements and conventions” (Japan’s ‘Resentful Realism’ and Balancing China’s Rise, 2016, p. 20). China can very aptly be defined as a revisionist power, with its actions in several theatres including the East and South China Seas attempting to change the status quo by asserting its military dominance. In the East China Sea, the Chinese have since 2013 escalated activities in and around the Senkaku Islands, which China claims as its own. In November 2013, for instance, China established its Air-Defence Identification Zone extending into the East China Sea, overlapping with that of Japan over its Senkaku islands. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) regularly prepare themselves for amphibious operations, keeping in mind that China’s ever-increasing naval power poses a major threat to the several islands of the Kyushu Prefecture, especially those in the Senkaku Islands chain which form the North-eastern end of the first chain.

As such, Japanese threat perception remains sky-high, when discussing the threats faced by rogue North Korea and an ever aggressive and expansionist China, while Russia remains a low-profile threat ever since the dismemberment of the Soviet Union.

International relations theories


In the study of international relations, the Realist school of thought looks into the competitive and conflictual nature of the conduct of international politics. Realists consider the principal actors in the international arena to be states, which are concerned with their security, act in pursuit of their national interests, and struggle for power. Realists place the defence of their homeland as their highest priority, at times superseding political morality. From this same school of thought emerges Neorealism, which suggests that power politics among states is inevitable due to the anarchic nature of the international, citing the low chances of cooperation among states with differing interests.

In East Asia, the balance of power – a realist concept – plays a key role in the politics of the volatile region. The concept suggests that when one nation builds up its military capabilities, another nation that may feel threatened by it will also engage in such activities. The cycle repeats itself and therefore, some sort of balance in power and capabilities is maintained.


Liberalism in international relations, on the other hand, holds a lesser violent outlook of the international arena. This school of thought suggests the establishment of institutions that enable efficient and effective communication to prevent conflict and enhance mutually-beneficial cooperation among states. Liberalism supports the setting up and effective utilisation of international organisations and non-governmental actors. They also believe that enhanced trade among nations can lead to the interconnectedness of economies, thereby reducing the heat of tensions among such states. Neoliberalism emerges from this school of thought, but unlike liberalism also takes into account several realist assumptions, as mentioned above, about the international. In East Asia, this commercial liberalism plays an important role in ensuring the sanctity of geopolitics. For instance, while the THAAD dispute of 2016 disrupted ties between the Republic of Korea and China, commercial ties between the two states ensured a return to normal. It has been noted by several international relations observers that “China is not generally interested in allowing these punitive measures to create long-term damage to bilateral economic ties”.

Analysing Japanese perception through theories

The state behaviour of Japan cannot be categorised accurately into either one of the theories of international relations as described in the above paragraphs. Renowned political scientist Kenneth Waltz in his work Theory of International Politics (1979) discusses that the anarchic nature of the global order drives nation-states to engage in moderate and defensive security policies, calling it defensive realism. The counterpart of this concept would be that of offensive realism, also discussed in the major publication, which discusses that some nation-states may also engage in outright maximisation of international power and influence through increased engagement and investment in the build-up of capabilities to achieve security objectives and hegemony.

Japan has been historically seen as a state engaging in a more defensive realist order of behaviour. They have concentrated majorly on the establishment and development of a self-defence force, which they are constitutionally bound to limit to, for homeland defence. Japan restricts itself from engaging in conflicts or any other engagements beyond the scope of its national defence, except for United Nations Peacekeeping missions, other humanitarian deployments and the global war on terror. The ‘Yoshida Doctrine’ – as Christopher Hughes (Japan’s ‘Resentful Realism’ and Balancing China’s Rise, 2016) talks about – has for long been the staple, go-to policymaking doctrine for the Japanese leadership. It ensured the highest attention of policy-formulators and decision-makers in Japan toward issues of economic interest, and an exclusively defence-oriented security posture reliant on the American defence umbrella.

Liberalism in Japan, in the context of international policy, has been diverted to the co-pilot’s seat. The inability of the United Nations to accommodate the new and rising powers of the world in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has had an impact on the general outlook of the global body. Japan has always welcomed talks with ‘aggressor nations’ such as China and North Korea, being an active participant in several East Asian Summits, ASEAN events and the six-party dialogue. There are now growing calls from many corners of the world for Japan under its new prime minister Mr. Suga to undertake global and regional initiatives to maintain and strengthen multilateral institutions in concert with other like-minded liberal democracies. However, the failure of these bodies to rein in aggressor nations attempting to revise the current global order of a rules-based international system has led to the evaporation of faith in liberal geopolitical thought. At the same time, it cannot be said that Japan does not have a liberal outlook. The island nation, per Nori Katagari (Between Structural Realism and Liberalism: Japan’s Threat Perception and Response, 2018), attributes the source of security challenges to the domestic politics of authoritarian neighbours, lack of diplomatic relations with North Korea, and faltering economic interdependence.

However, in recent years, Tokyo has begun to pay more attention to issues pertaining to the increasing volatility of the region, tilting toward a more traditionally realist approach to perceiving and responding to the aforementioned threats. The continued development of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal has led decision-makers to comparatively more aggressive approaches than their predecessors. Late in August 2017, Japan was in a state of total panic, with the North Koreans firing a ballistic missile that flew over the northern island of Hokkaido, falling into the North Pacific Ocean after having covered an estimated 2700 km from its launch site near Pyongyang. This prompted then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to look into the acquisition of land-attack missiles, which could terminate North Korean launch pads before the launch of any vehicles for nuclear weaponry. The real threats Tokyo faces from Pyongyang and even Beijing has led to a change in mindset among Japan’s leadership. It has begun to move away from a more ‘free-riding’ position, one that it enjoys as part of the security umbrella provided by the Americans, to a more self-sufficient response. These efforts are materialising. In December 2021, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida approved JPY 5.4 trillion (USD 47.2 billion) defence spending for the 2022 fiscal budget. Carrying on the legacy of former PM Shinzo Abe, the spending plan represents 0.95% of Japan’s estimated gross domestic product (GDP) for the year 2022.

While Japan is more than evenly matched with North Korea, this move is a portrayal of one such step that the Japanese have taken to move towards balancing and deterring a rogue North Korea’s nuclear power in the region. Tokyo has also taken up steps to build up its aerial defence networks, tapping into companies such as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin to provide SPY-6 and SPY-7 radars, which are believed to be succeeding units for Aegis defence platforms across the world.

The conversion of the JS Kaga and JS Izumo helicopter carriers (officially – multi-purpose operation destroyers, due to constitutional restraints), on the other hand, is a direct result of Beijing’s increased illegal activities in the East China Sea, in and around the vicinity of the Japanese islands of Senkaku. The two Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels were successfully converted into aircraft-capable carriers that can deter and dissuade Chinese maritime activities in Japanese waters. While liberal Japan of the past has maintained an inoffensive profile in the past, today’s increasingly realist thinking Japan is indigenously developing and importing capabilities that can engage not only in defensive actions but also engage in first-strike operations.


This paper aimed at looking into how the island nation of Japan is acting to counter the ever-increasing threats that it faces in the volatile region of East Asia, through the lens of Realism and Liberalism. It is very clearly understood that the Japanese outlook cannot be categorised into any one school of thought.

The Japanese are more than willing and somewhat comfortable concerning domestic affairs, to continue with more liberal means of addressing the challenges faced in the region. The Japanese, as per Nori Katagari (Between Structural Realism and Liberalism: Japan’s Threat Perception and Response, 2018), are driven by the peace constitution, non-nuclear principles, and defensive defence doctrine, and as such have no offensive planning against neighbours. Tokyo will continue to seek solutions to issues in the halls of international organisations, grace regional summits with important visits and ensure the continuity of engagement in discussion and discourse to find compromise without violence.

The North Korean launch of missile ahead of the US-China summit of 2019, hosting Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, in Alaska, poses a  major source of demotivation for both the Koreans and the Japanese, to rid the Korean peninsula and the larger region of the nuclear threat. It showcases the on and off inability of China to rein in rogue North Korea, potentially dissuading Japan from engaging in liberal forums and believing in such solutions.

These factors alongside China’s exponential rise and military assertion have pushed Japanese lawmakers into the realist school of thought, deterring power politics through the development of their military capabilities. As is evidenced through these recent developments under the helm of rationally thinking realist leaders, Japan can also be said to be transiting through different eras of politics, assisted by, perhaps, revisionist policies. The continued moving toward realist thinking in Tokyo will be followed by an ever-increasing military build-up and security dilemma. Japan may as such move away from its former self as a reluctant realist dependent on America for its security requirements, and move into a neorealist era of relying on its sole self to deter the great threat emerging in Beijing and Pyongyang. Christopher Hughes (Japan’s ‘Resentful Realism’ and Balancing China’s Rise, 2016) suggests that the Japanese may become ‘Resentful Realists’, generating impulses towards more independent national military action, facilitated by new autonomous capabilities, desiring to reassert national pride and autonomy in Japan. Thus, Japanese behaviour can be explained well, but not completely, through the lens of realism and liberalism.


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[1] “Since China began to open up and reform its economy in 1978, GDP growth has averaged almost 10 percent a year, and more than 800 million people have been lifted out of poverty” (The World Bank, 2021).

Rayan V Bhagwagar
Author is a student of Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonipat and Centre Coordinator at the Centre for Security Studies. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts degree in Diplomacy, Law & Business, specialising in Defence & National Security Studies. His fields of interest lie in modern military history, strategic affairs, tactics, military platforms and national security studies, with a keen eye on Chinese military development and the global initiative toward containing the threat.

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