Nationalism and Power Politics in Japan’s Relations with China – a Neoclassical Realist Interpretation

Nationalism and Power Politics in Japan’s Relations with China

Author(s):  Lai Yew Meng

ISBN:           9780415629119

Publisher:  Oxon: Sheffield Centre for Japanese Studies/Routledge Series

Year:           2014

Price:           £85.00

Reviewed by Pedro Iacobelli, PhD Candidate, The Australian National University, Canberra.

In this timely book, Lai Yew Meng brings to the fore the influence of nationalism in Japan’s foreign policy-making processes. The author examines the apparent paradox in the contemporary relationship between Japan and China; that is, despite their flourishing economic relations and deepening interdependence during the last three decades, political ties remain lukewarm. In this comprehensive study, Lai argues that the revival of nationalism in Japan has become a potent force in redefining the national interest and external orientations concomitantly affecting their bilateral relations with China (p.1). The book aims to systematically explicate the role of nationalism and its interactions with the other external-internal variables in influencing the state behaviour/preferences in Japan’s China policy making. In particular, the author seeks to explain how, in what manner, and under what conditions nationalism affects domestic political apparatuses and the foreign policy-making process (p.4) In doing so, the author adopted, as the title of the book suggests, a ‘neoclassical realist framework’ (NCR), and he focuses on the dynamics and developments of nationalism in Japan’s politics during the Koizumi era (2001-2006).

The book is divided in six chapters. Chapter One frames the NCR model for this study. It is a long and arid theoretical review of contending International Relations (IR) approaches to Japanese foreign policy-making. It delves into the limitations of mainstream IR theories in their treatment of nationalism. For the author, neorealist and liberal analyses have undervalued, if not neglected altogether, nationalism in interstate relations (p.28). Constructivism and area studies approaches have acknowledged the relevance of nationalism in IR, but failed to incorporate an explicit analytical framework to operationalize nationalism. The author considers that constructivism/area studies often exaggerate the importance of nationalism-identity on state behaviour/preference (p.33). Heavily influenced by Gideon Rose’ works, Lai brings to the fore the NCR perspective as an analytical method to bridge the divide between IR theories. The NCR is a theory of state behaviour/preference within the broad realist research program. It assumes that the scope and ambition of a country’s foreign policy is driven primarily by systemic pressures which are indirectly complex and subjective and by its relative power position in the international system.  Indeed, Lai identifies nationalism as one of such pressures, and operationalizes it as a domestic, identitarian and material (power) variable within this essentially realist-oriented framework. From an NCR perspective, nationalism affects the foreign policy of nation-states as an intervening variable only inasmuch as it affects or has an impact on state perceptions via decision-makers or state-elites responsible for foreign relations (p.36). Along this line, socio-psychological and cultural-ideational variables are incorporated in the NCR analytical framework and thus provide a middle ground for IR theorists to analyse nationalism.

Chapters Two, Three and Four introduce, in a sometimes repetitive and redundant narrative, trends, developments and dynamics in Japanese Chinese relations and examine the presence of nationalism in Japan’s China policy making in the last 25 years. Chapter Two, through a rich account of politically significant events in the bilateral relations of both countries, points out that despite the fact that Japanese perceptions and images of China are fraught with distrust, the economic relations between both countries have flourished. The so-called ‘cold politics and hot economics’ dialectic has reigned in the relationship between both countries “making the relationship fluid and yet enigmatic” (p.51). The author emphasises that  Japan-China relations are subject to external dynamics such as the triangular politics among Japan, China and the United States, together with growing economic interdependence between China and Japan, and domestic dynamics such as the structural change in the Japanese bureaucracy, where pro-China  leaders have been replaced by “less China-sympathetic” leaders. Chapter Three examines the rise of neo-nationalism in Japan following the burst of the economic bubble and the subsequent “crisis of national identity and purpose among Japanese in the so called lost decade” (p.72).  As is convincingly explained, the neo-nationalist discourse brewing in Japan has essentially “anti-China” manifestations shaped “as much by Japanese desire for national self-assertion as their pride and prejudices over the changing power relations vis-à-vis China, and indignation towards perceived Chinese arrogance, bullying and pressure”(p.85). For the author, this nationalism affects the Japan’s China policy-making and thus, the Japan-China relations. Indeed, issues such as the unresolved problem of historical responsibility (“history problem”) have intermittently triggered bilateral tensions.

Chapter Five and Six presents a practical application of the NCR perspective to the Japanese policy-making process in two very contentious issues: the Yasukuni dispute and the East China Sea dispute. These two cases are brought to the fore to analyse the influence of nationalism in Koizumi Junichiro administration’s foreign policy. The author’s aim is to show how, when and through what means nationalism has become a relevant actor in Japan’s China policy making. The first case study explores the Yasukuni Shrine dispute. As a place where the nation’s war dead, including a fistful of Class-A War Criminals, are remembered and worshipped, Prime Minister Koizumi’s regular visits led to criticism from China, Korea and other Japanese neighbours. Lai systematically analysed Koizumi’s six visits to the shrine and concluded that these were calculated political manoeuvres “to manipulate the symbolic and political values of Yasukuni” to his advantage and to advance his policy agenda (p.134). For Lai, Koizumi’s visits demonstrate the salience of domestic nationalist pressure which determined Japan’s China policy making.  The second case study is the East China Sea (ECS) dispute. The ECS, with its potentially rich petroleum deposit under the continental shelf, has become a major frictional point between both governments. The author notes in this case and the ways in which Koizumi managed it, a propensity of nationalist groups in Japan to manipulate the Senkaku/Diaoyudao issue to advance their parochial agenda; but, Tokyo’s willingness to settle for compromise to de-escalate bilateral tension suggests the prevalence of other determinants, such as the American influence, and limits of nationalism in shaping Japanese policy.

The major topics in the Japan-China relations are correctly positioned in the book and they are adequately explained by the author. Indeed, the book successfully sustains the point that nationalism is a relevant variable in Japan’s China policy making. But, admittedly, there are a number of shortcomings in both form and content.  The book fails to deliver what it promised; that is, through the NCR framework it sought to understand the how, in what manner, and under what conditions nationalism affects domestic political apparatus and foreign policy-making process. By forcefully applying the NCR framework onto Koizumi administration’s China policy making, more than a study on the real influence of nationalism in policy making, the author drew a psychological profile of Japan’s former Prime Minister. In this sense it lacked the rigour that we found in the earlier sections of the book and in excess his argument relied on hearsay and vague speculations to describe Koizumi’s decision making process. The lack of factual evidence to convincingly connect the theoretical framework built in Chapter One with the case studies may be due to the total absence of Japanese language sources. Japanese neo-nationalism, as an active and dynamic movement, has strongly relied on social media and newspaper articles to spread its ideas and influences. These sources are rarely translated into English making it difficult to get an understanding of them without consulting the original. Having said that, this reviewer found this book of great value to those interested in IR theory as well as those interested in the ongoing conflict between East Asia’s two giants. Similarly, its comprehensiveness makes this volume a valuable contribution to the academic discussion on nationalism as an important variable in foreign policy making processes.

Suggested Citation:

Pedro Iacobelli (2014). Review of Nationalism and Power Politics in Japan’s Relations with China – a neoclassical realist interpretation, by LAI Yew Meng, East Asian Integration Studies Vol.7, no.6, Internet file: