The new Japan paradox

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The paradox about Japan is no longer that of an economic giant and a political dwarf; it is about the lack of significant international cooperation between Europe and Japan

A new Japan paradox has taken root in Europe. Twenty years ago, Japan was perceived as an economic giant and a political dwarf. Today, this is an outdated cliché that no longer describes the reality of Japan’s global outreach.

The perception that Japan is still punching below its weight in international politics retains a lot of traction in Europe. But the perceived paradox about Japan is no longer between economics and politics. It is about the lack of significant international cooperation between Europe and Japan, despite both sides claiming their shared values and the importance of values in their foreign policies.

This finding is the main result of an audit conducted by ECFR regarding the image of Japan as a partner in 9 European countries: Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the UK. The audit – an elite survey among government officials and experts of Japan in academia, the media and think-tanks - shows remarkable similarities in the way Japan is perceived across Europe.

Many in the European policy community instinctively think of Japan as a partner in values – a fellow G7 member supporting democracy, a market economy and an international order based on rules and norms. The ECFR audit shows that Japan is overwhelmingly perceived as a trustworthy partner, indeed reliability is a defining feature of Japan’s image across European capitals. This reliability comes with a reputation of high predictability and the perception that Japan, as a status quo power, is a stabilising factor in the international order.

Such a strong basis of mutual trust explains why despite occasional negative media coverage, the ongoing reforms of Japan’s military policy are widely understood in Europe as a process of normalisation. Europeans tend to see the Abe administration’s new national security posture as a rational adaptation to a changing balance of military power in Asia. Clearly, Chinese public diplomacy efforts to depict the ongoing reforms as creeping right-wing remilitarisation have not been successful in Europe. This is also true of historical issues, which perhaps counter-intuitively to some, and despite a German exception, are not an important determinant of Japan’s image in Europe. This mutual trust is the basis for the ongoing slow expansion in Japan’s military ties with the United Kingdom and France, with an arms industry dimension has appearing in Japan-Europe relations which is likely to intensify.

The audit shows acomplete disconnect between increasing strategic trust in Europe-Japanese relations and Japan’s soft power. In fact, it shows the scarceness of Japanese soft power in Europe. This is no secret that Japanese culture enjoys significant appeal and many Europeans are interested in aspects of Japanese cultural production. But from a foreign policy perspective, this enthusiasm remains what it is, cultural enthusiasm. And indeed Japan’s cultural power does not shape the foreign policy preferences of European states, it does not provide a particularly relevant context for the conduct of Europe-Japan relations, and it has no measurable impact in terms of the capacity of Japanese diplomacy to gain support from Europe on specific issues.

This new Japan paradox would not have emerged without an external factor looming large over the Europe-Japan relationship – the rise of China. The emphasis on shared values and reliability is, to a large degree, a side effect of the image of China as an authoritarian state with which international cooperation has not really taken off.

There is a degree of ambivalence in the way China affects Japan’s profile in Europe, but the bottom line is that a China-centric vision of Asia across European capitals tends to push Japan out of the foreign policy debate. For one thing, China gets all the media attention, which in a way is a blessing in disguise as Chinese diplomats notoriously complain about the negative coverage their country gets in Europe. But for Japan, this means less visibility – only a handful of European media outlets maintain a full-time correspondent in Tokyo, while all major media have a full-time presence in Beijing, from which they sometimes cover Northeast Asia or even the whole of East Asia.

This new Japan paradox is a variant of the enduring question on the extent to which values should drive Europe’s foreign policy – including in Asia. Japan is a potential partner on all the key European priorities, from climate change to the Islamic State. A closer look at the final joint statement of the last EU-Japan summit shows that beyond shared values, Japan and Europe share similar diagnoses on  most international security issues. This suggests that Japanese foreign policy should be given more credit for the limited contributions it makes to the international order, even if none are game changers.

However in this context of China getting all the attention in European foreign policy circles working on Asia, Japan still risks being further pushed off the agenda – and this despite the considerable efforts of the Abe administration to raise its diplomatic profile and the manifest intensification of Japan’s ties with many European countries. The current context of multiple crises in the periphery of Europe does not help Japan– and Japan under the Abe administration clearly does not prioritise Europe. Thus, there is a lack of flagship Japanese foreign policy initiatives that would gain the support of Europe. The close Europe-Japan cooperation at the UN on the situation of human rights in North Korea has set a precedent. Even though its international impact remains fairly limited, it should be an encouragement to pursue similar endeavours. 

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