The US-Japan alliance: balancing soft and hard power in East Asia

The US-Japan Alliance

Author(s):  David Arase and Tsuneo Akaha

ISBN:           0-415-67973-1.

Publisher:  Routledge

Year:           2010

Price:           $49.95

Reviewed by Benjamin A. Peters, Assistant Professor, Miyazaki International College, Japan.

The edited volume under review covers two important topics that will be of interest to students of Japanese foreign policy: Japan’s development of soft and hard power within the context of the US-Japan alliance and perceptions of that alliance by China, North and South Korea, Russia, and Europe. In examining these two topics, the authors inquire into the evolving balance of hard and soft power in the Japanese case, the changing role of the two kinds of power in the alliance, and the reaction of other major powers to these changes. Through qualitative case studies, the authors succeed in capturing both the challenges and opportunities that the US-Japan alliance provides both for the allies in question and for other, interested powers.

The first three chapters focus specifically on the role of soft and hard power in the US-Japan alliance. As Philip Meeks notes in the opening chapter, a considerable measure of both US and Japanese soft power in the postwar years resulted from the relative economic success of the two countries. Indeed, their economic resources make it much easier for them to wield soft power, to persuade other states to act according to their desires without threats or incentives. Indeed, Meeks suggests that these resources are also conducive to the two states balancing their common security interests against their sometimes competing interests in other policy areas such as terrorism, trade, or energy.

In the second chapter, David Arase advances the analysis further by providing a thorough examination of Japan’s gradual shift in emphasis from soft to hard power, a shift that accelerated after 9/11. While Japan continues to use both forms of power, soft, for example, in its relationship with ASEAN and hard in its relationships with its North East Asian neighbors, it has clearly made the development of hard power a foreign policy priority. As Arase correctly points out, this could raise problems for Japan, especially in so far as its pursuit of hard power directly undermines its soft power potential in the region. This is further complicated, he notes, by Japanese conservatives’ failure to adequately address China and the Koreas’ concerns over wartime atrocities and Japanese leaders’ inability to justify their military ambitions with a clear moral purpose.

Tsuneo Akaha delves further into Japan’s balancing act between soft and hard power in the third chapter. He notes that while the post-Cold War era has led to the emergence of multi-faceted security threats, Japan continues to invest in its soft power capacity, especially in terms of official development assistance and cultural diplomacy. While the former ties Japan’s security to development abroad, the later projects Japan as an exemplar of both dynamic change and cultural preservation. Akaha points out, however, that Japan’s imperial history and alliance with the US constrain its soft power potential, especially with its neighbors. Moving forward, Japan will find it increasingly difficult to balance its soft and hard power capacities effectively because of both US demands on Japan to develop its hard power even further and Japanese leaders’ increasingly hard-line positions against North Korea, including suggestions that Japan develop its own nuclear arsenal.

The second part of the book develops case study analyses of other major powers’ views of Japan and the US-Japan alliance. Jing-dong Yuan’s chapter begins the section and is a thorough review of China’s perspective on the US-Japan alliance. Of course, China eyes the US warily on issues like the later’s military alliances in East Asia, missile defense, and its commitment to Taiwan, but the two states have also developed common interests in addressing the North Korean nuclear issue and international terrorism. As for the US-Japan alliance, however, China is particularly concerned with its roles in rehabilitating Japan as a “normal nation”, interfering with its claims vis-à-vis Taiwan, and complicating its own relationship with the US. As Yuan notes, China increasingly perceives the US-Japan alliance as a security threat, not just because the alliance has resulted in Japan’s clear pursuit of hard power but also because of the central role that theater missile defense (TMD) has come to play in the alliance. From China’s perspective, the integration of US and Japanese forces to deploy TMD implicitly suggests Japanese involvement in any dispute over Taiwan. Despite or perhaps because of these concerns, in tandem with its development of hard power, China is developing its own soft power resources, especially in terms of multilateral security dialogues and regional institutions.

In chapter five, Daniel Pinkston analyzes the North and South Korean views of the US-Japan alliance. While he points out that the two Koreas have traded places in terms of their own soft power resources, with the South eclipsing the North in recent decades, he emphasizes the common concern both have with the US-Japan alliance. South Korea, for example, sees the alliance as cover for Japan’s remilitarization, and both consider Japan a threat in terms of its latent nuclear weapons capability. From the South’s perspective, this later point is evidence that its own alliance with the US is inequitable since the US opposes South Korean uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing. Echoing Arase’s claims in chapter two, Pinkston also notes that Japan’s soft power capabilities are limited in relation to the Koreas because of historical memory issues centered on the ‘comfort women’, Yasukuni Shrine, and history textbooks. The fact that those issues still have salience in Japanese political culture only reaffirms Koreans’ suspicions that Japan’s expansion of hard power capabilities could just as easily be used to make threats as to help guarantee stability in the region.

Sergey Sevastyanov follows with a semiotic analysis of Russian and US political action in relation to the later’s alliance with Japan. According to Sevastyanov, the Russian view of the alliance has evolved over time. Once seen through the Cold War lens as a threat, the image of the alliance was recast by Gorbachev as a contribution to regional security. In the post-Cold War environment, the Russian view has been somewhat neutral. Sevastyanov argues that for most Russian policy-makers a military confrontation with Japan is inconceivable. This is a reflection of both the changing nature of Russian security concerns in the region from military to non-military and the relative popularity with which many Russians view Japan. In terms of its soft power resources, Russians tend to have positive impressions of Japanese culture and values. Japanese foreign policy, however, is viewed more cautiously, and, Sevastyanov argues, that goes a long way in explaining the failure of the two states to solve their long-standing territorial row. While the relationship between them is not particularly antagonistic, though, Russia has concerns about US-Japan ballistic missile defense capabilities and completely opposes a nuclear-armed or military independent Japan.

The final chapter by Christopher W. Hughes is an analysis of Europe’s view of the US-Japan alliance. Because of European states’ own interests in both cooperating with the US and offsetting its disproportionate power, Hughes notes that most Europeans policy-makers focus on evaluating the degree to which Japan’s relationship with the US is congruent with their own. In contrast to Japan’s interest in developing both its bilateral relationship with the US and its multilateral relation with other states, the European vision is toward a tripolar balance between the US, EU, and East Asia. As Hughes points out, since 9/11 Japan has strengthened its bilateral cooperation with the US, even when that enhances US hegemony. In addition to the US war against Iraq, other points of divergence between Japan and Europe are their policies toward North Korea and China. While Europe has advocated engaging North Korea diplomatically and encouraging Chinese economic development as a source of opportunity, Japan has taken a hard line against North Korea and generally views China as a threat. Still, there is evidence for convergence on issues like climate change and the reconstruction of Iraq. Hughes emphasizes Europe’s hopes that Japan will develop further as a civilian power, and he posits Japan’s choice between developing its hard power or soft power capabilities as a key variable in understanding Europe’s perspective of Japan. He also observes that the greatest potential for cooperation between Europe and Japan may be on those issues that are least geographically proximate to either power, for example, in the Middle East.

While the authors succeed in analyzing the US-Japan alliance and the views of other world powers toward the alliance, their focus on soft and hard power as a common touchstone is also a reminder of the difficulty analysts have in operationalizing the former. Indeed, the qualitative case studies developed here seem most appropriate in this regard, and the sustained analysis, especially of soft power, provides consistency and coherence across he chapters. While individual chapters of the volume could be suitably assigned to undergraduates studying Japanese foreign policy or East Asian politics, the text as a whole will be particularly valuable for graduate students in international relations and for academic experts and policy-makers.

Suggested citation:  

Benjamin A. Peters (2013). Review of “The US-Japan alliance: balancing soft and hard power in East Asia” edited by David Arase and Tsuneo Akaha, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 6, no. 13, Internet file: