Change — fundamental change — can be difficult to discern in Asia. Too often it is measured by rapidly changing skylines and cityscapes; change as reflected by new buildings, architectural marvels and ambitious public works projects. In this way, every trip to China is a visit to a new country, with cities sprouting from rural landscapes virtually overnight. These cement and steel structures reflect new trends in Asia’s inexorable urbanisation but they are only one manifestation of change.
Sometimes profound change can take place with little by way of physical structures or outward manifestations. It is measured in evolving mindsets.
Take Japan. A drama is playing out that promises to alter the fundamentals that have guided the country’s policies at home and approach to the world for generations. It manifests itself in a very different way from those changes taking place elsewhere in Asia. Look at the renowned hotel near the Ginza district that has been frequented by western visitors for decades. In one of the long passageways, a small area of carpet was worn through in the early 1990s, and was replaced with a bright green patch. It is still there, strikingly out of place and crying out for renovation, 20 years on.
The change in Japan is reflected more in public attitudes than anything else. Almost overnight, polls reflect dynamic new trends: rising suspicion and even hostility towards China; growing exasperation with South Korea; greater interest in developing more robust defense capabilities; and more ambivalence about the experience and legacy of the second world war in Japan.
The country’s history has been marked by long (sometimes exacerbating) periods of constancy, abbreviated by infrequent episodes of profound change. After recent “lost decades”, we it is likely we are entering one of the latter periods. The fundamental change in attitudes and the attendant politics is best exemplified by the landslide election and return to power last year of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democrats, after a brief spell out of office for the party. He and his senior advisers have implemented a bold set of macroeconomic and (it is hoped) structural reforms designed to jolt the nation out of its generation-long lethargy. The short-term improvements in exports and the stock market are encouraging.
Yet Mr Abe’s agenda extends well beyond economic reform. He came to power with a clear and unambiguous determination to change Japan’s international role. The country sees its neighborhood as increasingly unpredictable, even dangerous, with provocations from North Korea and rising regional ambitions in China. Japan has not fired a shot in anger in about seven decades, but Tokyo is gradually shedding the historic inhibitions that have kept it from playing a role in any defence or security effort beyond strict interpretations of self-defence.
While Mr Abe’s motivations are a direct result of 2013 conditions on the ground in Asia (and in the surrounding seas), some of the rhetoric from Tokyo, tinged with suggestions of historical revisionism, have led some in the region (read China and Korea) to interpret Japanese intentions through the lens of 1937 and the rise of Japanese militarism. While pacifism has deep roots in Japanese society, some parts of the elite feel they do not get enough respect. And they want it.
So Japan is changing, and rapidly. The US has essentially two courses of action it can take. It can stand back and let the country change on its own, with little regard for the unique historical role it has played in ensuring Japan’s security. Or it can stay close to Tokyo, providing counsel on how to chart an uncertain course towards the status of what some Japanese strategists longingly describe as a “normal” country. The latter path offers risks and uncertainty, but it is also the best way to help preserve one of the most important bilateral relationships in Asia, the one on which the region’s economic miracle has been built.
It is better for Japan to change and evolve in partnership with the US than to strike out in Asia alone.