A not so small country

In this day and age you cannot read a single newspaper article without the mention of China somewhere in it. Whether it is China’s growing military strength, growing economy or research it seems that they are the new world power. Back in the 1980s though, everyone said the same thing about Japan. It is almost as though Japan has disappeared off the world map. However, this is very wrong. Here are five facts about Japan’s politics that you won’t be reading in many newspapers.

Number 1. Japan is the Second Largest Shareholder in the IMF

International Monetary Fund LogoCredit: Wikipedia/IMF

Even though Japan may of surrendered its place as the world’s 2nd largest economy to China, it is still the second largest shareholder in the International Monetary Fund after the US. This has led to some major changes in the IMF, notably in developing countries where Japan has used its experience to change how the IMF engages with troubled countries. In April 2012 they lended $60 billion to the IMF to help with the Eurozone crisis.

They have also a sizeable donator to the United Nations and the UN Development Program where they gave $100 million. In 2000 Japan was the single largest funder of the UNDP. Whether it is Development or banking bail outs, Japanese decisions have an impact way beyond the cosy corners of Tokyo. Whether this will remain the case, however is open to debate.

Number 2. The sizeable North Korean community in Japan

Like a lot of former empire countries, Japan has immigrants from its days as Asia’s predominant super-power. These include a number of Koreans or zainichi – nearly a million of whom still reside. Of these there is a small group of over 150,000 who are members of Chongryon, a Korean residents association that is opposed to integration within Japan and teaches the ideology of North Korea in their own schools of which there are 120. Even more bizarrely these schools are funded by the North Korean and Japanese governments. Here is an old video from 2008 highlighting Chongryon in Japan.   

As North Korea is under heavy economic sanctions it has little diplomatic presence overseas which means organisations like Chongryon have proven vital in providing a mouthpiece to broadcast their voice. The organisation until comparatively recently was also a major provider of funds to North Korea as they ran various business operations which helped alleviate the pressure of international sanctions. The heads of Chongryon are also members of the North Korean parliament.

In 2011, prior to his forced removal over the handling of the North-East Japan earthquake, the Prime Minister, Kan Naoto’s final parting legislation was to maintain Japanese government funding of these schools. The weekly investigative journals in Japan continue to uncover ever stranger ties between certain factions of Japanese political parties

Number 3. The Worldwide Anti-Nuclear Movement

Everyone is aware of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki whose images reverberate throughout many texts on war. What many people don’t know is that Japanese politicians have for many years maintained and lobbied internationally against nuclear weapons. The last commemoration for the Hiroshima bombings was attended by about 70 countries. The mayor of Hiroshima has always had a large international presence because of this. By virtue of being the only acknowledged victim of nuclear bombing, Japan has a voice that the rest of the world is forced to hear, even if they don’t want to.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome)Credit: Wikipedia

This together with Japan’s many years of foreign aid has made them many friends both in the UN and the wider international community. Many analysts predict that when the UN is reformed in the future, Japan, along with Brazil and Germany will probably join the Security Council.

Number 4. A large army (or Self Defence force)

Due to the post-war constitution drafted by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces (SCAP), Japan was forced to incorporate the infamous article 9 which states that:

ARTICLE 9. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. (2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

Although Japan was not the first country to adopt such an article, many Japanese have used this to vehemently oppose any development of Japan’s armed forces. So it will come as a surprise to many that in 2012 the annual defence spending in Japan was $281.98 billion or roughly on par with Germany and not too far away from the UK. Even though Japan only spends 1% of GDP on defence per year, that vastly exceeds many countries and places them in the top 10, if not top 5 for military spending globally.

How so do you ask?

It was widely acknowledged by both Americans and Japanese in the backdrop of the Cold War that relying entirely on American military protection was not possible. No sooner had the rules been written than Yoshida Shigeru, Japan’s first post-war Prime Minister set about designing a work around.

This did not matter much in the beginning because Japan’s GDP was so small and the industrial base was not as sophisticated as the US. However as GDP grew and grew the 1% became ever larger. Add to that Japan’s world leading R&D expertise and you have some considerable heavy weight technology, like this toy:


Japan even has a military base overseas in Djibouti, to assist in the international mission to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia.

As a result of Japan’s economic might both America and other countries have been trying to encourage greater overseas engagement which is still resisted by many Japanese today. This came to a head in the first Gulf War when Japan was the only non-Allied partner to not contribute any military support other than some financial aid. Things change and by the Iraq War in 2003, pro-military hawks had managed to get the Self Defence Force assisting refuelling for the US Navy and sent a small reconstruction force to Iraq. Although Japan is clearly no where close to be being the junior partner of America that Great Britain is, it is likely that the Japanese will venture overseas in the future.

So as we can see, Japan is not as small or irrelevant to global politics that we think. So the next time you read about China or Asia, remember that small set of islands in the east.