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Japan's Foreign Relations and Role in the World Today


Until the Meiji period (1868-1912) Japan's relationship with the rest of the world was defined mostly in terms of an East Asian world order traditionally dominated by China. Japan was part of trade routes that included much of Southeast and East Asia, and this trade resulted in much cultural exchange as well as material exchange. In the sixteenth century Japan began trading with Western countries, but soon found it disruptive both because of the connections with Christianity and because of the demand it created for precious metals. The government therefore officially limited foreign trade to that with Dutch and Chinese traders.

In the 19th century, Asia became more and more attractive to expansionist Europeans and many countries were colonized. China itself was greatly weakened and the old East Asia world order no longer functioned. Western countries aggressively demanded that Japan begin to participate in trade with them, and eventually Japan had no choice but to agree.

In the 1850s and 60s Japan signed various treaties with Western nations. At the time, imperialism and colonization were the main institutions that defined international relations and Japan soon became a colonizing power of its own, governing both Taiwan and Korea. At the beginning of the 20th century, Japan was recognized by Western powers as a force to be reckoned with, and Japan became a member of the League of Nations.

In the years leading to World War II, Japan created a puppet state in Manchuria, and became interested in gaining colonial power in other Asian countries being vacated by European powers. The bombing of Pearl Harbor and Japan's aggression in Asia led to war with the United States.

In the years following the defeat of Japan and the subsequent occupation by American forces, Japan has been heavily influenced by the United States in the political, economic and cultural arenas. Japan's constitution, written during the occupation, with its prohibition against militarization, and the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which allows for extensive American military presence in Japan, exemplify the post war relationship between these two countries.

But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, this relationship has been questioned. Many have asked whether Japan, particularly as a country with great economic strength, should be responsible for its own military. Japan gives much in foreign aid, but complaints continue that it is not yet a responsible member of the First World bloc. These complaints come mostly from Western countries, while another type of complaint comes from many Asian countries. These complaints are mostly a result of Japan's reluctance to accept the responsibility of accurately accounting for its actions during World War II.

These complaints are symptomatic of the great changes in the world order in the past decades, and Japan's difficulty in defining its position in this new order.


Below is a summary of Japan's relations with some of the countries and regions most important to it in the postwar period.

The United States. Since World War II, Japan's most important tie has been with the United States. Japan's mutual defense treaty with the United States is central to its security. The United States is committed to defend Japan and maintains military bases in Japan partially for that purpose. Despite Japan's defeat and subsequent occupation by Americans, relations with the United States have been friendly and close except for intermittent bouts of trade friction beginning in the 1970s. The United States sponsored Japan's membership in various international organizations, including the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Trade between the United States and Japan is very important to both countries. The United States is a major market for Japanese exports as well as a primary source of imports (including a large percentage of Japan's food imports).

Southeast Asia. In World War II Japan went to war partly to gain control of this region's resources. The harsh occupation of many Southeast Asian countries left resentment and bitterness, and the Japanese government is today making efforts to improve the relationship with those countries. Taken as a whole, the countries of Southeast Asia make up Japan's second largest export market (after the United States), and they provide important food, oil, metal ore, lumber and rubber imports.

Korea. While Korea and Japan have traditionally shared many cultural aspects-- including the Chinese writing system and Chinese philosophical and religious influences, Japan's harsh colonization of Korea in the early twentieth century has left relations strained between the two countries.

European Economic Community (EEC). The countries that make up the EEC are highly developed economically and have an important voice in world affairs. Many of these countries share membership with Japan and the United States in important international economic organizations such as the OECD, GATT, and World Bank. Their alliance with the United States through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) provides an indirect military link with Japan. The EEC is Japan's third largest market and supplies much of Japan's imports of industrial goods.

Persian Gulf Nations. Japan's relations with these nations have developed relatively recently, as oil imports from the Persian Gulf region have grown rapidly. Almost all of Japan's imports from these countries consist of petroleum and petroleum products, which total one-third of all Japanese imports. These nations make up Japan's fourth largest market, but because they import relatively little from Japan, Japan has a trade deficit with these nations. How to secure its economic interests in the face of political and military unrest in the region is one of Japan's most pressing problems.

China. Japan's long history of close cultural contact with China has left a special interest and friendliness toward the Chinese. Japan's writing system and many religious, literary, and artistic traditions originally came from China. During World War II, however, Japan colonized parts of Manchuria and invaded many major cities of China. Under U.S. pressure, Japan did not establish relations with the People's Republic of China until after President Nixon surprised the world (and Japan) by establishing relations in 1972. Japan quickly followed suit and is now involved in assisting the Chinese in their efforts to develop their economy. Japan has been the largest source of official development assistance (ODA) to China.

Japan is also China's largest export market: in 1997 mainland China's exports to Japan were 18.7 percent of its total exports, in comparison, for example, with 15.1 percent of total exports from mainland China to the United States.

Russia. Japan's relations with Russia have been strained throughout the postwar period. In the last days of World War II, the Soviets occupied South Sakhalin Islands and the Kurile islands, including a few islands close to Hokkaidô that the Japanese claim as part of their native land. The issue of these islands is under negotiation between the two countries. They have set a goal to resolve the conflict and sign a peace treaty by the year 2000.

Trade has gradually developed between the two countries and Japanese business has participated modestly in certain development projects.


Student Activity

Divide the students into groups: Assign each to research and report to the class on Japan's position on one of the following issues:
  • tensions between Israel and the Arab states
  • U.N. pressure on China regarding human rights abuses
  • reunification of North and South Korea

Using the information provided above, ask students to analyze and explain the reasons for the positions taken by Japan.


Contemporary Japan: A Teaching Workbook | Columbia University, East Asian Curriculum Project
Asia for Educators | afe.easia.columbia.edu

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