I recently returned from Japan, where I celebrated publication of my book in Japanese. “My Family in Meiji Japan” (English-language title: “A Christian in the Land of the Gods”) relates the story of my missionary great-grandfather’s life and work at a time of rapid and unprecedented change in a country just reopening to the West after 250 years of near-total seclusion.
Emperor Meiji ruled from 1868 until his death in 1912 — the Meiji Era. He and his advisers transformed Japan from an insular country ruled by shoguns, hereditary lords and samurai to Asia’s first constitutional democracy and industrial powerhouse. They also worked hard to build a strong economy and military to protect Japan against Great Power rivalries and colony-seeking in the Asia-Pacific region.
With such drastic changes taking place, Japan’s political, social and cultural life experienced tremendous upheaval and turmoil.
Today, Japan is trying to navigate a changing global landscape characterized by great uncertainty and a potentially existential threat from North Korea. Japan’s leaders are responding by taking new initiatives in trade and foreign policy, seeking to position the country carefully between competing power centers of China, America and Europe.
Following President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe succeeded in forging a new agreement among the remaining 11 Asia-Pacific countries, leaving open the possibility of future U.S. participation.
In response to U.S. import taxes (tariffs) on Japanese exports of steel and aluminum, Japan increased its tariffs on U.S. beef exports to 50 percent, giving an edge to beef exporters in Australia and Latin America. More retaliatory tariffs on other products may follow if the Trump Administration imposes tariffs on Japanese auto exports, currently under consideration.
In order to reduce Japan’s reliance on the U.S. market, Abe also concluded a wide-ranging trade and economic agreement with the European Union, offering improved export and investment opportunities for agricultural and business interests in participating countries.
Closer to home, Abe is seeking improved relations with China, badly frayed by World War II memories and more recently by tensions over competing territorial claims in the East China Sea. He traveled to Beijing in late October for talks with President Xi Jinping, the first such visit in seven years.
Abe and Xi agreed to greater cooperation on trade, investment and the challenges posed by North Korea’s nuclear program.
Abe similarly welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Japan immediately after his China visit, aiming to strengthen bilateral security and economic ties and to counterbalance China’s growing heft in the region.
Abe’s strong leadership role is a big change for a country more noted for its reluctance to exercise independent authority on a global scale. His activism reflects the importance Japan places on maintaining constructive relations with the world’s other major players, even as tensions between them rises.
As for relations with America, Abe clearly sees the United States as Japan’s most important ally. Even as he works to diversify Japan’s economic ties and strengthen relations with other countries, Abe has worked hard to maintain good relations with the Trump Administration.
Vice President Mike Pence met with Abe in Tokyo during an Asia tour last month. Pence made it clear the administration sees Japan as a key partner in the region. “The U.S.-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific,” Pence told reporters after their meeting.
Abe and Pence also stressed the importance of cooperating on economic sanctions and talks aimed at reducing the nuclear threat from North Korea.
In a concrete sign of U.S.-Japanese cooperation, the two countries held their largest ever joint military exercises in November. These war games reportedly included a combined military response to any Chinese effort to seize contested islands claimed by Japan and China but administered by Japan.
While the international challenges facing Japan today differ greatly from those facing the country during the Meiji Era, they nonetheless require Japan’s leaders to tread a careful path in positioning the country between competing interests of the world’s largest countries and blocs.
As one of the world’s longest-serving elected leaders, Prime Minister Abe seems to have the skills and experience needed to secure Japan’s future in our uncertain world.