chapter  5
30 Pages

The mission and trials of an emerging international state: Japanese diplomacy in the 1980s


This chapter explores Japan’s attempts through the 1980s to strengthen the U.S.–Japan relationship and to expand the diplomatic horizons of Japan to the global level, in the process moving from being just an economic power to an “international one.” However, this was accompanied by increased trade friction with the United States, a restart of the so-called “history problem” with the countries of Asia, and problems with Europe. Moreover, with the end of the Cold War, the path of Japan as an “international state” was once again questioned. The 1980s began before the reverberations of the Soviet invasion of

Afghanistan had a chance to settle, and ended when George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev concluded their historic meeting on the island of Malta. The 1980s started off as tension-filled, but completely changed by the end of the decade. They represented the decade of the “New Cold War” but also corresponded with the end of the Cold War itself. For Japan the 1980s were symbolically a time between the deaths of two

major figures. On June 12, 1980, during the middle of the campaign for both the Lower House and Upper House elections (the first time that the elections for both houses were held on the same day), Prime Minister Ohira Masayoshi died of a massive heart attack, the first time a prime minister had died in office in the postwar period.1 As a result, the election turned out to be one in which many “sympathy votes” went to the LDP. With a high voter turnout of 74.6 percent, the LDP captured a stable majority of 284 seats in the Lower House and 69 in the Upper House, which when added to the 66 who were not up for reelection, brought their total to 135. (In Japan, the term for a House of Councillors member is six years, and half the seats are up for election every three years. In the 1980 election, 126 Upper House seats were being contested.) Following his death and the subsequent Suzuki Zenko cabinet (198082), Nakasone Yasuhiro formed his cabinet, domestically spelling the end of LDP factional power politics, known as “Sankaku Daifukuchu (which gets its name from the names of the following individuals: Miki [Takeo], [Tanaka] Kakuei, Ohira [Masayoshi], Fukuda [Takeo], Nakasone [Yasuhiro]),” and internationally inaugurating a period in which the Japan-U.S. relationship became even closer and the alliance stronger. It was also a decade in which

Japanese diplomacy became more active. As Nakasone has said, it was a time when Japan was turning into an “international state.” On January 7, 1989, Emperor Hirohito died. The death of the Showa

Emperor, as he is posthumously known, symbolized not only the end of the 1980s but in many ways the conclusion of the postwar era, and indeed the finality of the Showa period, when Japan showed itself to be an economic power. Representatives from 164 countries, including 55 heads of state and delegations from 28 international organizations, attended the state funeral held on February 24. In addition, there were 2,000 accredited journalists there, 1,500 of whom were foreign journalists. The numbers of attendees, greater than those for former prime minister Yoshida Shigeru in October 1967 (the first state funeral in the postwar period) or for Ohira nine years earlier, recognized not only Japan’s achievements as an economic state after recovering from the defeat of World War II but also Japan’s position as “international state” with a broad global horizon and larger role in the political and security fields. Japan’s position in international society grew increased bigger during this decade. The political situation in Japan afterwards became quite unstable with the

resignation of Prime Minister Takeshita Noburu in the wake of the Recruit scandal, the swift rise and fall of the Uno Sosuke cabinet, and the establishment of the Kaifu Toshiki cabinet without a strong political base. The one-and-ahalf-party system, in which the LDP was the predominant party for decades in the absence of a strong opposition party and which had supported much of the country’s postwar stability and prosperity, was showing its institutional fatigue. In the area of international politics as well, the end of the Cold War was a great shock to the simple, stable, and basic foundation of postwar Japanese diplomacy, namely the firm maintenance of the Japan-U.S. bilateral relationship amid East-West confrontation. In this sense, as is discussed in Chapter 6, the confusion seen in Japanese diplomacy during the Gulf crisis and war from August 1990 to February 1991 was truly symbolic. Having recovered from the crisis-filled 1970s, Japan during the 1980s gradually moved from simply being an economic power to functioning as an international state seeking to exert leadership in global political and diplomatic affairs. At the same time, Japan began to lose the basic domestic and international framework that had served it so effectively up until to that time.