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Faculty Focus: Oros on Japan
Karen Mascarinas, East-West Center
Japanese Ministry of Defense
In late February, a week after his new book, Japan’s Security Renaissance, was published by Columbia University Press, Andrew Oros was at the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington D.C., having breakfast with the head of Japan’s navy as part of a small group of researchers organized by the defense attaché at the Japanese embassy.
It’s not the first time—nor will it be the last—that Oros, a political science and international studies professor, was sought for his expertise in the comparative study of East Asia and the advanced industrial democracies like the United States. But it was, he says, a prime example of what his book discusses—how the military has changed dramatically in the last decade as a part of Japanese society, policy, and government, and how the past still constrains Japan and informs its future thinking in terms of its security in the world.
“The idea that I and a few other researchers would have an open breakfast with five uniformed members of the Japanese military would be completely unthinkable ten years ago,” Oros says. “It’s not that we wouldn’t have met, but they wouldn’t have been wearing uniforms, and we definitely wouldn’t have been in that kind of public place. Part of what Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe has done, and this change in attitudes about the military, is that the military has become much more respected in Japan.”
The launch for Oros’ book at the East-West Center in Washington D.C. (see link below) also happened just after Abe made his first visit to President Donald Trump’s White House, an event that landed Oros in The Washington Post and in Japan’s second biggest newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, discussing how the election of Trump should be beneficial for Abe’s security agenda.
“The book doesn’t talk about Trump; it was written before the election,” Oros says. “The focus is on what are the political constraints on Japan to act in the region now, and what are the things that the political leadership in Japan, the conservative party and Prime Minister Abe, would like to do. And in both areas, it’s showing that Japan wants to do more, so it’s kind of perfect timing, because President Trump wants allies to do more, and Prime Minister Abe also wants to do more. So it’s a certainty that in the next six months we’re going to see a series of announcements of how Japan is going to do more with the U.S.”
Although it couldn’t be more timely, Japan’s Security Renaissance was not exactly the book that Oros had set out to write. He had planned to write about the complexity of the triangular relationship between the U.S., Japan, and China, but while working as a visiting professor at Peking University in 2010, “the Japan-China relationship essentially collapsed. The relationship became very unstable and it was changing month-to-month. That’s not a context in which you can write an academic book.”
It was also during this time (in 2009) that the opposition, the Democratic Party, came to power in Japan for the first time since the conservative party was formed in 1955. Three years later, they lost to Abe, who returned as prime minister.
“So with the relationship with China, the opposition coming to power, and then in 2012 when the Democrats lost power to Prime Minister Abe coming back a second time, that was the story,” Oros said. “I saw how Japan was responding to the growing conflict with China. The book addresses Prime Minister Abe. It also covers the three years that the Democrats were in power, and there really is no book that does that yet.”
Oros first went to Japan as a high school student on a grant from the local Lion’s Club in California where he grew up. At that time, he says, a quarter of the all the commercial real estate in downtown Los Angeles was owned by the Japanese, and there was great concern about “Japan rising.” He stayed for six weeks, living with two families and struggling to gain the Japanese language. When he returned, he started studying Japanese in his senior year of high school and continued it at college at USC. While in college, he studied abroad for a year in Japan, again living with a local family. Then he earned a scholarship to spend a second year abroad, this time studying at a Japanese university, living in a dorm, and fully immersing into the language.
It is that legacy of pacifism—which was constitutionally mandated after WW II—that Japan is wrestling with now, a struggle that Oros finds deeply interesting. Japanese colonialism before WWII, and its actions during WWII, are only part of the past that inform the present, he says.
“Certainly that is one part of what constrains Japan now, but another part of it is that for the last 70 years Japan has had very constrained security policies, and some Japanese have very strongly held views of a kind of pacifist Japan,” he says. “It’s three generations raised under this Japan. Not a single Japanese soldier, sailor, or aviator has died in combat in over 70 years, not one.
“They just will not participate in any combat operations at all. Their view is that their self-defense forces are for the defense of Japan, and Japan has never been attacked since the Second World War. Now, though, Japan’s neighborhood has changed dramatically. It’s typified by China’s rise, but it isn’t just about China. North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests now and is widely thought to have a rudimentary nuclear device although they can’t deliver it very easily, but that will change. And so they’re trying to create new security partnerships and streamline the laws that restrict their self-defense forces. The book is primarily about that.”
Oros is planning a worldwide tour for his book—20 talks in 10 countries so far—traveling to countries that are directly interested in strategic security partnerships with Japan. This spring he’s off to the Philippines and Vietnam, both countries leading the charge in the territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea—something Japan is also concerned about. Then he’ll head to Japan and Australia, the first country other than the U.S. that Japan has created a security partnership with. He also plans stops in Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, and possibly Denmark—all countries that are interested in a Japan’s evolving security landscape.
Click here to listen to the Feb. 16, 2017 talk on Japan’s Security Renaissance at the East-West Center in Washington, D.C., with Andrew Oros; Marta McLellan Ross, 2014-2015 Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi International Affairs Fellow in Japan; and Bruce Stokes, Director, Global Economic Attitudes Pew Research Center: