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A Conversation with Dr. Joshua Walker, President and CEO of the Japan Society

On 6 June, IWAB CEO Oliver Magnusson and contributor James Lewis met with Dr. Joshua Walker, the President and CEO of the Japan Society, to discuss a range of issues regarding Japanese politics and security issues. The Japan Society is an organization with a mission to connect Japanese arts, culture, business, and society with audiences in New York and around the world. This article has been adapted from the interview. The views and opinions represented in this article are from our discussion.

Cover Image for A Conversation with Dr. Joshua Walker, President and CEO of the Japan Society
Dr. Joshua Walker, President and CEO of the Japan SocietyPhoto Credits: Princeton University
June 10, 2022

Russia’s war in Ukraine has struck a chord with the people of Japan, and has resurfaced Japanese security concerns that had taken secondary importance prior to the Russian invasion. It has refocused Japanese attention on the disputed territories between Japan and Russia and it has compounded the challenges facing Japanese pacifism. Furthermore, it has raised the question of Japan’s defensive trajectory and possible future military and intelligence cooperations with South Korea and the other Quad members (United States, India, and Australia) in the years to come, depending on domestic support for these changes. As Prime Minister Kishida Fumio prepares to attend the Shangri-La security conference in Singapore on 10 June, attendees will listen for any indications of a shift in Japan’s defense policy.

Response to Russia’s War in Ukraine

In our conversation, Dr. Joshua Walker, the President and CEO of the Japan Society, noted a significant change in the Japanese public’s activism and outrage against the war and support for Ukraine during his most recent visit to Japan in May. While the Japanese public traditionally remains focused on domestic issues, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has elicited unprecedented Japanese support for the Ukrainian military and people. Japan typically accepts only 1% of refugee applicants, but has accepted Ukrainians fleeing the conflict through special provisions. Despite Japan’s long-standing hesitation to send military equipment abroad, particularly to nations in active conflicts, Tokyo shipped body armor and helmets to Ukrainian forces in March. Walker argues that these actions demonstrate a significant shift in Japanese policy and a change in the Japanese public’s view of the country’s role in the global system.

Japan remains locked in a territorial dispute with Russia, known in Japan as the Northern Territories Dispute, over four islands in the Kuril Island chain north of Hokkaido. This dispute has been ongoing since the end of World War II, and while the Soviets and Japanese signed a joint declaration ending their state of war in 1956, they never signed a formal peace treaty. Japan's former Prime Minister, Abe Shinzo, met with Vladimir Putin twenty-seven times in hopes of solving the crisis, but ultimately to no avail. According to Walker, the Abe administration was priming the Japanese public to accept Russia's claim of sovereignty over two of the islands, while Japan would gain sovereignty over the remaining ones. The Japanese public would have perhaps accepted this resolution before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but would be unwilling to do so now.

Japan's postwar constitution, signed in 1947, prohibits the country from maintaining the capacity to wage war via the pacifist clause, Article Nine. Walker noted that since the constitution’s signing, Article Nine has defined the foreign policy of postwar Japan. While modifications to Article Nine have been discussed, especially in light of increased threats from China and North Korea, Russia’s war in Ukraine may be a tipping point in the discussion. As Walker notes, “Polls indicate an appetite for changing Article Nine, not for the sake of changing it, but because Japan believes the rules-based international order is in need of stronger defense”. In the run-up to Japan’s legislative elections in July, where Kishida’s LDP Party, of which he is the leader, is expected to win, one can expect Kishida to advocate for changes to Article Nine. While the pacifist movement has remained a core part of Japanese politics since the signing of the new constitution, the movement does not present a unified political force that could hinder Kishida’s initiatives.

Kishida’s challenge, however, will be to balance the popularity of changing Article Nine to specifically address Russia’s overt aggression without changing it to the point that it challenges Japanese self-perceptions of pacifism. The election results in July will determine Kishida’s political mandate to further campaign for these changes, determine their scope, and set the course for Japan’s security capabilities in the future. While former Prime Minister Abe aimed to involve Russia in North-East Asia using commercial diplomacy to counter Chinese influence in the region, Kishida has not followed his predecessor’s approach, and has adopted a more security-framed mindset that counters decades of Japanese security policy. Russia’s war in Ukraine provides him with the best opportunity to do so.

Trajectory of Japan’s Intelligence Capabilities

After its defeat in WWII, Japan disbanded its intelligence community, as it was seen as one of the primary culprits of Japan’s descent into a fascist state. This history has cast a long shadow on Japan’s intelligence community and capabilities, and today, Japan maintains no centralized intelligence community. Domestic intelligence gathering is instead left to police forces across the country, and Japan relies on the US and other allies to conduct other intelligence work. This prevents Japan from becoming an interoperable partner with the US and the other member nations of the Five Eyes intelligence network, and limits the ability for closer collaboration among the partner countries. This especially impacts Japan’s allies, who could otherwise leverage Japan’s world-leading technological capabilities, such as those provided by Japan’s private sector, but cannot share information that would require top security clearance. 

While Japan’s international partners would want it to accelerate its intelligence capabilities, domestic appetite for such an increase remains scant. While the public may support modest changes to Article Nine to prepare against an aggressive Russia or China, an expansion of Japanese intelligence remains too drastic a change to the country’s long-held pacifist norms.

Future Relationship with South Korea

Increased security cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul, both of which have newly elected leaders, are possible, but historic tensions between Tokyo and Seoul remain. The US has historically played a significant role in ensuring that the nations cooperate with each other, but the Trump administration’s “de-coupling” from the trilateral relationship has slowed progress. The US is needed to encourage cooperation because domestic politics in both Japan and South Korea preclude their respective leaders from pursuing warmer relations with the other. 

Regardless of their historic tensions and the lack of recent US leadership in the area, there remains great opportunity for improved relations and increased collaboration between Japan and South Korea, especially in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Hyundai, Toyota, Samsung, and Sony are major geotechnological players that could all align with the US to respond to Chinese technological advancements. With the US’s encouragement and continued support, coupled with the election of the new Japanese and South Korean leaders, there is great opportunity for stronger trilateral ties among Japan, South Korea, and the US.

Japan is at an inflection point. The war in Ukraine has perhaps provided Kishida the support he needs to at long last modify Article 9 and increase Japan’s defensive capabilities, but he may not yet be able to expand Japan’s intelligence network without challenging the core pacifist pillar of Japanese society. Kishida will lead concurrently with South Korea’s Yoon Suk-Yeol, who has stated his desire to increase South Korea's presence on the global stage and realize its full potential. In an era where Russia has demonstrated its ability to invade what it perceives as a weaker target, and where China and North Korea demonstrate increasing assertiveness in the region, Tokyo should strive to collaborate more closely with Seoul and the US and demonstrate its own strength.