WEAI Launches New Japan Research Program

January 23, 2023

The Weatherhead East Asian Institute is excited to announce the establishment of the Japan Research Program, a new research initiative in Japanese politics and foreign policy. A statement from the program's director, Burgess Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Columbia University Gerald L. Curtis, follows.

In the fall of 2022, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute (WEAI) at Columbia University inaugurated a new program directed by Professor Gerald Curtis that focuses on Japan’s evolving foreign policy strategy. Named the Japan Research Program, it incorporates and builds on activities that were previously sponsored by the Institute’s Toyota Research Program. The Japan Research Program continues to enjoy the generous support of Toyota and is currently seeking support from other corporations, foundations, and individuals for its public policy-related events and activities concerned with Japan’s relations with the United States, with other countries in the Indo-Pacific region and globally.

Major changes that have occurred in the global political economy and in international politics in recent years have had a profound impact on nations all around the world. This is nowhere more evident than in the countries in the Indo-Pacific region and especially Japan.  

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, China’s refusal to disavow the use of military force to take control of Taiwan and the more general challenge it poses to the balance of forces in East Asia, and uncertainty about the future direction of American domestic politics and foreign policy have combined to precipitate a sea change in Japanese public attitudes about national defense.

The recently released Japan National Security Strategy and ancillary documents provide a blueprint for the most fundamental transformation of Japan’s national security strategy since the early years following the conclusion of the Second World War. The doubling of the defense budget within the next few years, the decision to develop counter strike capabilities to deter adversaries from attacking Japan, the heightened emphasis on cybersecurity, space, and on policies to strengthen national economic security, the intensification of efforts to both strengthen alliance with the United States while at the same time forging security ties with other countries in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond are dramatic changes that will make Japan a more important player on the world stage in the coming years.

Two changes in Japanese foreign policy strategy capture the magnitude of the transformation of Japanese thinking about its military and economic security: 

The concept that was central to the “defensive defense” doctrine in postwar Japan’s national security strategy was that Japan would develop the minimum military capabilities necessary to provide a “shield” to protect Japan against an attack by a foreign adversary; the US would provide the “spear” of American military power to take the fight to the enemy if need be. That concept no longer captures the reality of Japanese security strategy or the division of roles and responsibilities in the US-Japan alliance. Japan’s plan to purchase, and the US readiness to sell, long range Tomahawk missiles are a product of Japan’s determination to have a spear of its own while at the same time furthering the integration of US and Japanese military strategy and operations.

The second change is Japan’s shift from being an essentially reactive and reluctant power to one that is playing a growing international leadership role, especially with regard to shaping the multipolar system that is emerging in the Indo-Pacific region.  It was Japan, after all, that took the lead in promoting the concept of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), that initiated the quadrilateral security dialogue among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States (the “Quad”), and that rallied the countries that were parties to the Trans-Pacific Partnership to recast the treaty as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after the US withdrew from the TPP. Japan has become the champion of free trade agreements even as the US has tilted in a protectionist direction. 

Few of the issues that dominate US-Japan diplomatic engagement these days are strictly bilateral; almost all concern matters of regional and global political and economic security importance: How to cooperate to strengthen both countries’ economic performance and technological competitiveness? How to reform and sustain regional and global trade regimes? How to strengthen American and Japanese cooperation in responding to potential regional contingencies? And the central foreign policy challenge confronting the US and Japan over the next decades: how to ensure that there is sufficient consultation, coordination, and cooperation in responding to the challenges posed by China?

Japan no doubt will confront new domestic and international challenges as it moves from the conceptualization stage to implementing its new national security strategy, both in its economic and political dimensions. For the United States as well as for Japan there is a need for innovative thinking about how to best promote bilateral as well as multilateral cooperation to sustain peace and stability in the dynamic international environment in the Indo-Pacific region.  

It is important for academic organizations that engage in policy studies and that prepare students for careers in international affairs to sponsor programs that contribute to generating and disseminating accurate and in-depth knowledge and understanding of the evolving direction of Japan’s foreign policy and its relations with the United States. Doing so is the mission of our newly established Japan Research Program.

The following offers a brief description of the Japan Research Program organization and proposed activities.

Administratively the Program is based at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. Its activities are directed by Professor Curtis with the logistic support of the administrative staff of the WEAI and in close consultation with the Center on Japanese Economy and Business of the Columbia University Business School. The Program also has a collaborative relationship with the Japan Society and will jointly sponsor some activities of especial interest to the Japan Society’s members and New York business community. 

A core activity of the Program will be support for guest lectures, seminars, symposia, and panel discussions, both in person and by Zoom, by distinguished experts from government and the private sector in the United States, Japan, and from other countries as appropriate. These events will be open to students and faculty in the Columbia community and to invited business leaders and other individuals in the greater New York area.  

But high level dialogue is just one pillar of the JRP’s activities. Another priority mission of the Program is to help train the next generation of specialists on Japanese politics and foreign policy. In order to do so, it plans to offer fellowships for postdoctoral students and research appointments for American and Japanese scholars, provided sufficient financial resources are available.

The Japan Research Program provides an opportunity for corporations and other organizations to send mid-career employees to spend a semester or a year at the WEAI under our Professional Fellows Program. Since its inception more than twenty years ago, the Professional Fellows Program has brought to Columbia Japanese working in business, the media, government, and public service organizations for a kind of “sabbatical” where they can develop their expertise on areas of concern, audit courses of interest, and participate in policy forums, brown bag lectures, and other events. They will also be invited to participate in a regular Professional Fellows luncheon seminar with Professor Curtis and other faculty members. 

The Program also will provide advice and guidance to the Japan Study Student Association, an organization founded some years ago by Japanese students at the School of International and Public Affairs. JASSA sponsors activities that bring together Japanese students with from the US and other countries. It also sponsors a popular annual Japan Trip. The Japan Trip and most other JASSA activities were suspended during the pandemic. The JRP will provide support for the resumption of its activities and the  expansion of its membership to include students in the Business and Law School and other schools and departments at Columbia University. 

Through these and other activities, the Japan Research Program will pursue its mission of deepening public understanding of the international challenges facing Japan and the United States, generate innovative thinking about how to meet those challenges, and further strengthen Columbia University’s role as America’s preeminent academic center for policy studies relevant to contemporary Japan and US-Japan relations.

––Gerald L. Curtis