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Why Japan does not do more globally

Graham Allison is dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Thierry de Montbrial, director of the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, is professor of economics at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris.

Adapted from a report submitted to the Trilateral Commission last year and released recently.

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''Sharing global responsibilities'' and ''developing a new international role'' have become familiar themes in Japan's foreign policy rhetoric. But despite this rhetoric and the considerable efforts Japan is making to increase its contributions to world order, it is unlikely that Japan will soon assume what its partners in the trilateral world - North America and Western Europe - would regard as a ''fair'' share of global responsibilities.

This is partly because much of what Japan is already doing is poorly appreciated in North America and Europe, a condition which is likely to continue. There is also a considerable gap between the dominant thinking in Japan and that in other trilateral countries about the nature of the challenges facing the trilateral world, the proper approaches to them, and the appropriate role for Japan.

Finally, within Japan there is continuing reluctance to forge a more expansive international role. Discussion of Japan's international responsibilities is still largely confined to a relatively small elite in the government, the media, and the academic world. Even within this elite, there is no consensus yet on what Japan's role should be. Outside this elite, ''smaller power'' patterns of thinking prevail. This thinking basically accepts the global security, political, and economic environments (and often the existing United States-Japan relationship) as ''givens,'' determined by external forces and imposed on Japan from the outside. Japan must adjust and make accommodations, but, according to this line of thinking, it can do little to affect basic conditions.

Japan's internationalist establishment (including editorialists) argues that, as an economic superpower, Japan must do more to share international economic burdens. Despite this awareness of economic accomplishments, there remains an underlying sense of economic vulnerability because of resource dependency, a dependency vividly brought home to the Japanese public by the American soybean embargo in 1973 and the ''oil shocks'' of the past decade. Japan imports an estimated 50 percent of its caloric intake from abroad and is dependent on imports for about 86 percent of its energy requirements. Strengthening this sense of vulnerability is Japan's small physical size (4 of the 50 American states are larger in area than Japan) and its high population density.

At first glance, Japan's vulnerabilities might suggest the greater importance of sharing global responsibilities for maintaining access to supplies and world peace. To many in Japan it does; but it also spawns a different approach - that Japan has unique needs and that the securing of these needs must take priority in Japanese policies. Secondly, Japan has relatively little historical experience with international cooperation of the kind implied by the concept of shared global responsibilities. Active foreign involvement characterized the prewar period, and in reaction to the bitter experience this led to, Japan's postwar policies emphasized domestic economic recovery and development. This stress on the economy and a low posture in international affairs was highly successful for Japan.

Changes in this orientation, in the absence of very visible and compelling reasons for making changes, will clearly take time. Moreover, the wartime experience remains quite relevant in Japanese relations with Korea, China, and Southeast Asia - those countries which experienced Japanese occupation. Japanese feelings of guilt and fears of continuing resentment vastly complicate relations with these countries.

A third important factor, somewhat paradoxically, has been Japan's very close relationship with the US. Since Japan, for many years, could rely on the US to provide security and underwrite a liberal international economic regime (centered on an open American market), sustained and serious debate in Japan about international security and economic challenges - and thus about fundamental Japanese defense and economic interests and responsibilities - could be largely avoided. Pressures for Japan to share international responsibilities have come as ''demands'' from its ally rather than as needs arising out of the broader international interests of Japan itself. Therefore, debates on such issues as increased defense expenditures (or, to a lesser extent, trade liberalization) often have been cast in terms of accommodating the US, with debates centering on how the ''demands'' were presented, to what extent accommodation is consistent with Japan's self-respect, and whether or not Japan is appearing to assume an American role in Asia.

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A great many Japanese are quite reluctant to ''share global responsibilities'' if this is a formula for tying Japan's policies even more closely to those of the US. Since there is an underlying fear that American policies toward other countries may damage Japanese interests, American foreign policy behavior is an element in Japanese perceptions of international threats. It is not forgotten, for instance, that Japan suffered from the oil embargo in 1973 because of its association with what many Japanese saw as one-sided American policies in the Middle East; and that this embargo was lifted when Japan adopted a more independent stance.

A fourth and related factor conditioning Japan's outlook and reluctance to develop a more expansive international role is a continuing problem of identification. Although Japanese regard themselves as sharing many of the values and interests of the ''North'' or ''West,'' there is a strong feeling that Japan cannot fully be accepted in a trilateral community dominated by American or European culture, values, and practices. For example, Japanese often feel that they are treated more harshly by Europeans and Americans on trade issues, treatment frequently ascribed to underlying racial prejudices. In some circles there is a desire to offset estrangement from the ''West'' with a positive sense of identification with Asia and the Pacific. These desires also seem continually frustrated, however, by a lack of acceptance by much of the rest of Asia as well as by Japan's own inability to fully identify itself with Asia.

Other perceived constraints on Japan could be added to the above list. Of recent vintage are the huge budget deficits (far higher as a percentage of the total government budget than in any other major industrialized country) that prevent much larger financial commitments without politically difficult tax increases. Longer-term factors are, for example, the slow internal internationalization process (which has not gone far enough to provide a sufficient human resource base for international commitments), public opposition to the assumption of a larger defense role, and neighboring countries' fears of Japanese economic and political domination.

Given these constraints, Japan's political and security role is being gradually expanded a step at a time. Changes that appear rather significant to Japanese - for example, the expansion of maritime surveillance to a 1,000-mile perimeter - appear rather marginal to other trilateral countries. There will undoubtedly continue for a considerable period of time to be a gap between the international role that Japanese believe desirable and feasible for their country and the international role that others expect Japan to play.