[The Acton Forum] Is Japan a great power? Will Japanese power rise or decline in future?

Siwon Kwak
Bachelor of International Security Studies, Australian National University
20 August 2015

After declaring unconditional surrender in 1945, Japan’s economy was severely damaged and the new constitution prohibited them from maintaining military. In spite of harsh circumstances, Japan was able to rise to the occasion and ascended as a great power. However, the recent situation suggests Japan would likely to decline in future. The following essay first argues why Japan is a great power, and then discusses why the prospects of Japan are considered to be negative.

The term ‘great power’ is a vague expression because there is no set of characteristics that define what great power actually is. According to territorial size or number of active military personnel, Japan is not a great power. In terms of economic strength or population, however, Japan does fall into the category of great power. Hence, Bull (1977) poses an argument by focusing on the role of great powers, not what they have. He argues that throughout history, states that have been recognized as great powers usually take part in affairs that affect the security and stability of the region. In other words, great powers in the international system engage in international affairs to preserve the general balance of power, seeking to avoid conflicts with one another, and seeking to limit wars among one another. According to Bull, Japan is a great power and this is supported by Goh’s three arguments which emphasize Japan’s active role in Asia.

First, Japan has been successful in sustaining US preponderance. States in the Asia-Pacific have been consistently concerned the withdrawal of the US might accelerate China’s dominance in the region. To prevent this outcome, Japan has covered 70% of the costs of stationing US troops in Japan, which is roughly 10% of Japan’s annual defense budget (U.S Department of Defense, qtd. in Goh 2011). Although Japan is clearly suffering from disproportionate burden, they are willing to pay these expenses because security umbrella offered by the US outweighs the costs. As of 2011, there are 47,000 US troops stationed in Japan, which account for around 73% of US troops in East Asia, and there have been no other states who have contributed as much as Japan in the last few decades (Goh, 2011).

Second, while Japan has effectively maintained US presence in the region, they have not isolated China. Japan felt China might regard the strong US-Japan alliance as an attempt to diminish their economic and political growth. In order to dispel misunderstanding, Japan’s policy towards China was more open than any other states (Goh, 2011). The most noticeable example was Japan’s reaction to the Tiananmen incident in 1980s. While other states condemned the Chinese government, Japan remained silent and made efforts to bring China back to the international system. They used their economic influence, particularly in the Asian Development Bank to ease sanctions against China. Japan also supported China’s membership of the WTO and other regional institutions, and formalized multilateral dialogue which includes China (Goh, 2011). Overall, Japan has endeavored to integrate both the US and China into the region, establishing the balance of power.

Third, Japan believed the strong presence of both the US and China would eventually lead to smaller states facing a security dilemma. To overcome this situation, the Japanese have sought to cultivate regionalism through multilateral institutions which would form a security community similar to the EU (Deutsch, 1957). So far, there are three prominent multilateral institutions; ASEAN+3, EAS and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting, and their objective is to pool great powers’ sovereignty and restraining them from use of forces, ultimately ensuring peace in the region (Goh, 2011). In terms of economy, Japan has provided short-term financing to Asian states during the Asian financial crisis. This created idea of financial regionalism which gradually developed regional self-help mechanisms. Japan’s attempt to promote regionalism is rather successful because up to now, there have been no major wars in Asia and most states have made progress through regional cooperation.

For the last few decades, Japan managed the stability of Asia by implementing three important policies, and gained recognition as a great power. However, it is doubtful whether Japan can sustain its position in the future. The reason why Japan was able to maintain US military presence, reintegrate China and help neighbors during the Asian financial crisis was largely due to Japan’s strong economic capabilities. However, Japan’s demographic trend is likely to aggravate this. Japan’s population has been gradually decreasing since 2005 and is expected to shrink around 30 percent by 2050 (Taylor, 2011). The main cause of this phenomenon comes from Japan’s low birth rate and growing elderly population. This trend will result in Japan’s sharp decline in working-age population, reducing government’s tax base and the rise of labor costs (Taylor, 2011). In fact, the number of people aged 65 or over accounts for more than 20 per cent of the total population, making Japan the world’s most greyest nation (The Guardian, 2007). As Mearsheimer (2001) argues, population is an important criterion that determines a state’s potential power because it contributes to levels of states’ wealth, which can later be transferred into military power. Therefore, the continual of current demographic trend would place Japan in a difficult position to provide expenditure to sustain US military and other regional institutions.

As Japan continues to face difficulty in economic issues, this might result in Japan’s inability to assume sole responsibility of maintaining US troops. Thus, the US may consider an ‘alliance diversification’ strategy (Taylor, 2011). Obama once referred to South Korea as the linchpin for the Asia-Pacific security. The word “linchpin” was used as a singular, and this caused anxiety among Japanese leaders that Japan was now ousted from security affairs in Asia. (Cha, 2010) Although Taylor argues US alliance with other Asian states is less likely to diminish US-Japan alliance, the recent attack on the US Ambassador to South Korea might rebut his argument. The US and South Korea are now debating over the placement of THAAD in the Korean peninsula, which exercises vigilance against the DPRK and China. As stated in The Diplomat (2015), South Korea has been reluctant of THAAD due to high expenses, but injury of the US Ambassador will make them reconsider this agenda. If South Korea agrees to the placement of THAAD as a conciliatory gesture, this might steadily dilute Japan’s role in the region.

To conclude, Japan can be categorized as great powers and this is shown not by their material capabilities, but their role which has contributed to stability in Asia. Japan was able to achieve this because of their economic strength, however, the recent demographic trend suggests Japan’s economy will be weakened by 2050. Moreover, the US strategy of ‘alliance diversification’ will also dilute Japan’s position if the US’s alliance with other states get tightened in future.


Bull, Hedley. The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977. 200-7.

Cha, Victor. “The Accidental Linchpin.” The Chosun Ilbo, January 1, 2010. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2010/07/13/2010071301101.html.

Deutsch, Karl W. Political Community and the North Atlantic Area. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Goh, Evelyn. “How Japan Matters in the Evolving East Asian Security Order.” International Affairs: 887-902.

Lee, Harry W.S. “America’s Frustration With South Korea.” The Diplomat. January 1, 2015. Accessed March 12, 2015.

McCurry Justin. “Japan’s age-old problem.” The Guardian, April 17, 2007. Accessed August 10, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/apr/17/japan.justinmccurry.

Mearsheimer, John J. “Anarchy and the Struggle for Power.” In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, 43. New York: Norton, 2001.

Taylor, Brendan. “Asia’s Century and the Problem of Japan’s Centrality.” International Affairs: 871-85.