Snow on the Pine: Japan’s quest for a leadership role in Asia

Snow on the Pine

Author(s): Kyoko Hatakeyama, Craig F. Freedman

ISBN: 9789814289993

Publisher: World Scientific

Year: 2010

Price: $124.00

Reviewed by Moses Kibe Kihiko, Ongata Rongai, Kenya

With the central argument being that although forced to transform its methods, the purpose of the book is to trace Japan’s quest for a regional leadership role in Asia, even after its devastating defeat in World War II. Part one of the book delves into the modern historical background of tumultuous Japan and regional diplomacy, Japan as a junior partner to United States and its rising power in its attempt to capture its traditional regional leadership role. Part two covers Japan’s involvement in peacekeeping operations in the 90s that enables it to become full-fledged power as well as its use of economic diplomacy and intellectual leadership to gain the same position as well as the consequences of this. Part three looks at Japan’s economic and political context and the use of the same in its aspirations. The methodology used is comparative history.

Indeed, Japan’s post-war economic success created a heated debate over Japan’s broader intensions and ambitions of seeking a more dominant regional position especially considering that this economic success was not matched by its military might.  With the prevailing belief that a rich country is a strong country, Japan had become steadily more assertive and confident despite moments of confusion and seeming indecision. The newly formed Japanese government became convinced that only by evolving into at least recognized regional power could Japan hope to continue to survive as a truly independent country.

Japan had to foreswear all future military aspirations after the misfortunes of being defeated and devastated in the Pacific War and had little choice but to pursue a course of economic rehabilitation, embarking on national building process devoting its resources more to economic revival than military strength.  Japan’s ideologically driven choice of low-profile posture was a product of wartime trauma, unconditional surrender, popular pacifism, nuclear allergy, and restraints of peace constitution, all of which were aggravated by bureaucratic immobility.  With the military realm pre-empted, at least temporally, by post-war reality, the  economic sphere acted as the second best, or only viable option during the extended Cold War period. Other considerations portrayed Japan as a peaceful nation with no political aspirations; Japan was seen as neither willing nor prepared to take on the essential responsibilities of leadership. This was not entirely true. With attainment of economic muscle, Japan quietly pursued a leading regional position whenever and wherever opportunities occurred.  This was, however, in contrast with realist slant which traditionally held that leadership requires political power based on military strength.

Lacking the ability to employ standard force or “hard power” that comes with military might, the changing the nature of leadership that Japan was exercising, that of visible or hegemonic power that reflected the honor and glory of the emperor, Japan had to make use of “soft power” or the “material power” of its economic strength. And, in order to gain influence in this area, Japanese have come to the conclusion that in gaining leadership position, threats can be rather counterproductive, and would rather be more quiet or consensual, and make use of promises and assurances to achieve similar goals. Hence, Japan was neither quiet nor passive on the international stage but still focused on achieving a central role; this is a role based on a reciprocal flow of benefits that is largely built on mutual trust, not fear or coercion. And, by use of this approach, Japan has made sharp break from the days when military supremacy formed the backbone of its foreign policy.

In trying to come back to her leadership front, Japan faced both outward barriers and constraints. On the international scene, even when it had firmly grasped its share of economic dominance, Japan was shunning power politics after World War II, which came to be determined by the two Cold War superpowers. And, the asymmetrical relationship which Japan has maintained with the US lacks the reciprocal ability and so Japanese needed to avoid policy or diplomatic initiatives that directly clashed with American agenda and so making Americans more dominant. On the domestic front, Japanese for decades maintained a culture of anti-militarism and public sentiments run high on this limiting any attempts to broaden the scope of security-related initiatives.

From the popularized slogan, “strong army, strong nation” before the war, it can be argued that Japan adopted another slogan, “strong economy, strong nation” after the war. Force and overt flexing of military might were denied to the Japanese in the aftermath of a disastrous war. Indeed, after the war, Japan nonetheless discovered that it did not have to entirely surrender its dreams of leadership and pre-eminence and still was wise enough for her to have understood that a flattened country must change its ways, but at the same time realizing that there were alternative path to achieving desired results.  This coveted position would be won this time, not by brutal domination, but by employing a more subtle, consensual approach.

Out of a simple concept that Japan had it, lost it in the war, and is striving to get it back, the book was primarily devoted to Japan in the context of East Asian leadership, the book does not give much attention to China as a threat to not only the same leadership position in the region, but as an upcoming power in the world. With Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa forming BRICS countries, ready to not only rival the European Union, but also G7, G8, or any other grouping, Japan is not even included in the club. This is indeed un-occidental and the question is, is it also coincidental, incidental, accidental or dismissal? That said, however, the book is well written, factual and well researched, able to satisfy the intended audience, people interested and/or interacting with international relations issues, diplomacy, foreign relations, foreign affairs, East Asia particularly Japan and its neighbors as well as students, researchers and scholars of the same.


Moses Kibe Kihiko is a trainer as well as an author and the CEO of Practicum Leadership, a training, and consulting firm. His monumental book, “Public Leadership: The Ten Defining Moments How Leaders Acquire & Handle Fame, Power & Glory” published by Miraclaire Publishing, www.miraclairebooks,com, can also be found in Amazon, Google and Lulu Markets as well as Createspace. Moses is also a book reviewer.