The Weatherhead East Asian Institute is pleased to share a Q&A with Takako Hikotani, who is serving a term appointment as the Gerald L. Curtis Associate Professor of Modern Japanese Politics and Foreign Policy at Columbia University. Professor Hikotani focuses on civil-military relations and Japanese domestic politics, Japanese foreign policy, and comparative civil-military relations. Before coming to Columbia, she taught at the National Defense Academy of Japan, where she was Associate Professor, and lectured at the Ground Self Defense Force and Air Self Defense Force Staff Colleges, and the National Institute for Defense Studies. In the following Q&A, Professor Hikotani discusses her scholarship and teaching interests.
What led you to become a scholar of Japanese politics?
I came to graduate school at Columbia University planning to study international relations. My concentration during my courses reflected the interest, as I was an international relations major and comparative politics minor. When I came up with a dissertation topic, however, I realized that it was better to utilize my fluency in Japanese and my prior research, which had been on Japan and Japanese politics.
Has your background in several defense related institutions given shape to your research and work?
Yes, definitely. My initial dissertation topic was “International capital mobility and tax reform,” focusing on how difficult it was becoming for governments to impose high taxes on corporations and their activities. This was quite a novel topic back in the late 1990s, and I had written half of my chapters when I got a job teaching at the National Defense Academy. Becoming a faculty member there and unexpectedly becoming a civilian member of the Self Defense Force gave me an opportunity to go inside the defense establishment in ways I had never expected. Soon after my appointment there, I spent a semester teaching Japanese politics at Columbia. At Columbia, I spoke enthusiastically to professors about how interesting my workplace was and I tried to explain why there is a “military academy” in pacifist Japan, a country that has a constitution which proclaims that “land, sea, air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” As you can imagine, it was hard to give professors here a satisfactory explanation. One of them told me, “if you are so enthusiastic about your workplace, why don’t you write your dissertation about it?” A fellow graduate student introduced me to the literature on civil-military relations, which I had been aware of during my coursework. And I officially changed my dissertation topic, and my long journey towards writing the dissertation began.
What do you find interesting about modern civil-military relations in Japan, and what are the key takeaways from the current geopolitical climate?
What I find most interesting is what I call “the paradox of anti-militarism” (the tentative title of my book manuscript!). The paradox is that the prevailing sense of anti-militarism in Japan and Japanese politicians’ avoidance of military matters actually increased the autonomy and institutionalized control of the Self Defense Force (SDF) through the peace clause in the Japanese constitution, and through bureaucratic monitoring that was very self-binding for politicians. In the short term, this came at the cost of taking proactive steps on military policy; in the long term it led to a loss of expertise and a loss of leverage of the politicians vis-à-vis the SDF. The fact that politicians thought they had built a system of controls, combined with lack of interest, gave the SDF a great deal of autonomy within the constraints.
The current geopolitical climate and the possible relaxing of constitutional constraints will place politicians more firmly in the driver’s seat when it comes to using and controlling the SDF. This trend has actually been in place for the past 20 years, but only recently has it become more obvious that democratic control of the military is more difficult than one expected. However, it is no longer possible to put the SDF “back in the box.”
What questions about Japanese politics and about politics in general seem to drive your research and writing?
The Prime Minister in Japan is institutionally much stronger than before due to the electoral and administrative reforms that took place in the past 20 years. This is what the public supposedly wanted: a more decisive, politician-led system rather than a weak Prime Minister with frequent turnovers with much power delegated to bureaucrats. However, there are still ongoing adjustments with regards to how that changes the power dynamics between the prime minister (party leaders) and party members, and between politicians and bureaucrats, as well as larger questions of whether a stronger Prime Minister was a good idea to begin with. I think that the fundamental problem is that the other goal of the reform in the 1990s, which was to produce a credible opposition alternative to the LDP; has proven to be more difficult to achieve. So the Prime Minister has more power, while there are less prospects at this point for change of government through elections.
Most of my academic life has taken place during this period of reform in Japan, and the ongoing process fascinates and frustrates me. The unresolved question after all these years is: why has the LDP been so resilient? Electoral politics is not my research area, but it is something that I have had a consistent interest in, possibly an influence of my adviser, Gerald L. Curtis. And the “big” question I have is what is called the “guardianship dilemma” in the civil-military relations literature, or: how do you balance having a military that is strong enough to protect you, but would not threaten you? (or, how to be protected by, and protected from the military at the same time?). This has been a dilemma for all countries in the world, throughout history. What interests me most is how to achieve such a balance within a democracy.
Could you tell us about your current research projects?
My priority is to complete my book project on post-war Japanese civil-military relations. I currently have two spin-offs. The first is an article on the role of the Diet in defense policy making that is about to be published in International Affairs, a publication from Chatham House. The second is a co-authored piece on Japan with Carleton University professor Steve Saideman. Professor Saideman is conducting a project on the role of legislatures in defense policy making around the world, and I am working with him on its Japan parts.
A second project is a co-authored book on how the “stronger” prime ministership has affected policy and policymaking in Japan, with focus on two “securities:” social security and national security.
A third project is a joint venture with my former workplace, the National Defense Academy, and Columbia, on the topic of “The U.S.-Japan Alliance and the Power of International Law.” I am working with Matthew Waxman of Columbia Law School on this, and will be holding a workshop on this topic at Columbia in March 2019.
My newest project is with WEAI professor Andrew J. Nathan on value diplomacy in Asia. This project is funded by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Korea. This is a relatively new topic for me, but I am excited about the prospects of co-editing with Professor Nathan, as well as writing a chapter on value diplomacy in Japan.
What courses do you plan to teach at Columbia in the coming semesters?
I will teach “Japanese Politics” in the fall, and “U.S. Policy with East Asia” in the spring. I hope more undergraduates will take interest in my fall class. As for the spring class, I am considering tweaking it a bit to emphasize how Asian countries look at the U.S., with possible focus on civil-military relations in each country.