Skip to content

“Is Japan Really Back”: A symposium in honor of Professor Gerald Curtis

Gerald Curtis, Burgess Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, has retired after teaching there since 1968. To celebrate his long and distinguished career as one of the top experts on not only the dynamics of Japanese domestic politics but also Japan’s society and political economy, and in recent years, increasingly, its place in the international community, Columbia held a symposium on December 17th featuring a number of prominent speakers on various topics relating to the question “Is Japan Really Back?”. In a nod to the “Koizumi Children” of several years ago, many participants referred to themselves as “Curtis Children”.

The symposium was organized as a series of panel discussions, with each speaker first sharing some personal anecdotes about their experiences with Professor Curtis (“Gerry”, to everyone), then giving their perspective on the area covered by their group. These were followed by questions from the audience and further discussion.

The first panel included Professor Frances Rosenbluth of Yale, as moderator, along with Dr. Peng Er Lam, Senior Research Fellow at the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, Professor Megumi Naoi of the University of California at San Diego, and Professor Takaaki Suzuki of Ohio University. Their topic was “Can Japan Compete?”, and the general consensus seemed to be that although there are reasons to be pessimistic about Prime Minister Abe’s reforms in the short term, with the second and third “arrows” of his effort largely failing to hit their mark so far, still, Japan is headed in the right direction with its participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks among other things and should manage to improve and maintain its competitiveness over the long run. One notable comment by Professor Hugh Patrick, head of the Center on Japanese Economy and Business at Columbia, advocated looking at Japan’s economic performance in terms of per capita GDP and growth, taking into account the fact of its declining population. On this point, nobody appeared optimistic that the country would open itself up to immigration, although it was noted that PM Abe and the LDP do profess a pro-immigration stance and this may be one of the areas where more time is needed to effect change. The emphasis seems to be on improving the ability of women to participate in the economy, which was cited as fundamentally an economic rather than a human rights issue for Japan, given the need for more taxpayers to help keep government programs funded.

The second panel was on “A Return to Military Power?”, and included Professor Sheila Smith of Georgetown University and the Council on Foreign Relations as moderator, Professor Takako Hikotani of the National Defense University of Japan, Professor Andrew Oros of Washington College, and Professor Akitoshi Miyashita of Tokyo International University. The main themes were the change in emphasis for the Japanese people from the idea of being protected from their military to being protected by their military, and that the recent changes enacted by the Abe government are really in line with the evolutionary changes seen from the post-war period onward, with the role of the Self Defense Forces being gradually enlarged over time. The consensus opinion was that PM Abe’s policies have really been a continuation of efforts begun by the Democratic Party of Japan while they were in power, and that many constraints on military action and the use of force actually still remain, although it is now much more common to see uniformed personnel in public and in the media and the long-standing taboo against their interacting with the political class has disappeared. Also, in larger strategic terms, the US-Japan security relationship had always been one where Japan was concerned about being drawn into American military actions, though this was the price paid for being kept under the US defense umbrella. Now, that has been turned on its head, and it is the US that is concerned about being drawn into a conflict by Japan. Both are moving to hedge their bets by exploring new security relationships in the region, feeling somewhat unsure of each other’s steadfastness, even while renewing their commitment to each other. In response to a question about whether the pace of change would continue, the response was that the major items that PM Abe wanted, short of amending the Constitution, have generally been achieved and the emphasis should shift to assimilating and adapting to the new arrangements.

The third panel dealt with “Japan’s Security Relationships”, with Bill Heinrich from the US State Department acting as moderator, Professor Victor Cha from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Georgetown, Professor Robert Uriu from UC Irvine, and Professor Yongho Kim from Yonsei University. Here, the discussion concerned the idea of the “Good Mr. Abe” and the “Bad Mr. Abe”, a man who does genuinely want peace and good relations with his neighbors but is at the same time committed to controversial positions on Japanese nationalism and history that antagonize those neighbors (and the US). It was said that both Japan and South Korea discount the strategic value of their relationship, with Japan leaning toward the US and South Korea toward China, and the feeling was that it is unlikely this situation will improve under the current leadership. At the same time, another theme was the need to understand China’s position of moving to create new architecture for economic and security relationships to counter American policies and for both the US and Japan to engage more willingly in organizations such as the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that do serve to fill needs in the region. When asked about Taiwan, which was not once mentioned by the speakers, the response was that it is very likely that the Democratic Progressive Party will win the upcoming election and the party’s leader, Tsai Ing-Wen, is on friendly terms with PM Abe, potentially increasing his leverage in relation to Mainland China, but nothing was really said beyond that.

Finally, Professor Curtis himself gave a few closing remarks, focusing on areas of research he feels need more attention from scholars. These include the fundamental changes that have taken place in Japanese domestic politics since the 1990s, with an extraordinary concentration of power under the Prime Minister, in the Kantei or Cabinet Office, the question of “growth for what?”, with growing economic inequality and insecurity for so many Japanese and a new political economy, the changes in how leaders are cultivated and trained now that the old system of working one’s way up through successive Cabinet posts no longer works like it used to, Japan’s security policy and what the recent changes mean for the US and the US-Japan strategic partnership, and the whole question of how to deal with China, which is the key balance of power issue in East Asia.

Matthew Gillam
December 2015