US-Japan relationship: past, present, and future

Richard Samuels

Richard Samuels has written widely on Tokyo’s grand strategy, on the events of 3/11 in Fukushima, and is now writing a book on the Japanese intelligence community.

Richard Samuels
March 9, 2017

On March 9, 2017, Richard Samuels spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on the past, present, and future of the US-Japan relationship. Samuels is Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of the MIT Center for International Studies. Other speakers on the panel included: Shihoko Goto, senior associate for Northeast Asia, Woodrow Wilson Center; and Yumiko Murakami, Head, OECD Tokyo Center. The discussion was moderated by Matthew P. Goodman, Simon Chair in Political Economy and senior adviser for Asian Economics, CSIS, and can be viewed in its entirety here.

I am grateful for the opportunity to join you—and, in particular, to return to a topic in which I have long held a deep interest—the intersection of technology, national security, and US-Japan relations.

Matt asked me to reflect on this because more than two decades ago, I wrote a book about Japanese techno-nationalism—the relationship of technology to national security. The premise of the book, Rich Nation, Strong Army, was that in the late 20th century, Japanese ideas about national security and technology contrasted sharply with US ideas.

Rich Nation, Strong Army

Samuels’ book on Japanese techno-nationalism.
(Cornell University Press, 1996)

Looking back, from a 2017 perch when Tokyo is a leading champion of free trade and Washington is tearing up multilateral trade agreements—it is clear that Japan, the United States, and the bilateral relationship all have changed dramatically—and in unexpected ways.

But let me use the “Wayback Machine” to get a feel for the extent of these changes.

The Japanese lesson seemed simple enough: a state can subordinate defense production and still emerge as one of the most technologically sophisticated nations in the world. At a time when a nation's defense skills more than ever depended on the strength of its commercial economy, Japan seemed well situated to have butter and guns—once its leadership made the requisite political decision.

After all, the Japanese defense industry was very small relative to the larger economy—on a par with sushi sales. But despite limited production of final systems and large scale weapons platforms, Japanese firms emerged in the 1990s as world leaders in the design and manufacture of materials, components, and sub-systems essential for defense systems at home and abroad—if they could be shared or traded.

Indeed, the most rapid growth in postwar Japan was in sectors closely linked to the materials and technologies that enhanced the battlefield capabilities of modern weapons: data processing, telecommunications, optoelectronics, and lightweight materials.

This was because by making integrated circuits in large volumes for consumer electronics, and graphite fiber in large volumes for tennis rackets and golf clubs, Japanese manufacturers were able to accumulate experience and "spin-on" their knowledge to military and civilian aerospace applications.

Having responded to the escalating demands of rapidly changing civilian markets for these and other products, they found themselves able to meet military specifications of performance, reliability, and quality—often at lower cost.

As I saw it at the time, the overall Japanese economy achieved this by optimizing on three practices:

The first was the holy grail of autonomy. Since the mid-nineteenth century, Japanese economic planners had had to navigate the Scylla of technological backwardness and the Charybdis of foreign dependence. There was rarely an industrial policy that failed to justify its goals with reference to the development of "autonomous technology" (jishu gijutsu) or "indigenization" (kokusanka).

And this was not limited to defense production. It was not uncommon for each subsequent generation of Japanese products—whether nuclear power plants, machine tools, eyeglasses, or chemicals—to depend less than its predecessor on foreign technology. Japanese firms purchased enormous stores of (mostly US) knowledge as a way to achieve independence from US technology.

The second was the emphasis on technology diffusion. Japanese firms and industrial policy officials worked hard and worked together to diffuse technologies as broadly as possible throughout the economy. They did this by treating technology as a quasi-public good developed and distributed through elaborate networks of producers and bureaucracies.

Research consortia were created with public blessing to enable competitors to achieve common technical goals before they competed with each other in the market. Japanese firms cooperated in consortia at every level of the development cycle, including basic research, systems development, and device manufacturing.

Collaboration persisted as a highly valued norm in Japan, while it was denigrated as "collusion" in US thinking.

The third was nurturance. Autonomy and diffusion were necessary, but insufficient on their own. Users sometimes had to be supported and sustained. And that is what state economic planners often did.

These three elements distinguished Japan from the United States and framed my fin de siècle snapshot of Japanese techno-nationalism.

Japan brought more than a century of experience in foreign technology licensing and "international cooperation" to a global market that was just learning that single firms in single countries could no longer build complex systems (or even all the necessary components) on their own.

A central purpose of "international cooperation" was to enhance the Japanese technology base which, in turn, would strengthen the Japanese position in international projects and enhance the ability to demand a higher value added work share.

But the world refused to stand still. And neither did Japan or the US-Japan relationship. Looking back, it seems to me that the big shift came with the hyper-articulation of global supply chains—and not just in defense.

The goal of autonomy was de-legitimated across the board. But the shift had a particularly strong impact on the defense industry. Japanese defense firms formally acknowledged a “new age” had dawned in defense procurement and, under pressure from the MOD for acquisition reform, it accepted US-style procurement criteria. Such ideals as “better, faster, cheaper”—entirely new to the Japanese discourse—replaced autonomy, diffusion, and nurturance as formal goals.

By 2003, the Japanese government had begun a formal reassessment of its national policy. A few years later, about a decade ago, in the next National Defense Program Guidelines, autonomy had nearly disappeared as a strategic imperative.

Japan was reacting to a dramatic structural change in the global industry. International cooperation has become the norm and Japan, having tied its own hands, had been left out.

Consequently, Japan’s arms export ban was relaxed in the mid-2000s and was completely eliminated two years ago. Now it is a brave new world for Japanese defense contractors as they struggle to acquire new technologies, enhance capabilities, reduce the risks of R&D, and sell in the global market. Back in the day, one of the most intractable problems in US-Japan economic relations was what was called the lack of “symmetrical access” to each other’s R&D base.

It seemed to many Americans that “cooperation” was a Japanese euphemism for Japanese learning and US teaching. Reciprocity had a “You give, I take” quality to it. Japanese researchers were comfortable learning from Americans, but few Americans positioned themselves to learn from the Japanese. Getting access to Japanese technology was high on the US agenda.

Part of the problem was American hubris. Part was Japanese defensiveness. But the largest part was structural: generic, nonmilitary, state of the art, nonproprietary technology development was undertaken in US universities to which Japanese students and researchers had unqualified access, but that same sort of research in Japan was undertaken in corporate labs, to which access was more limited and reciprocity was hindered.

A quarter century later, it seems quite different. Now open, substantive commitment to “mutual access” is much more common. Its many problems notwithstanding, you might consider the nuclear power industry a prime (if imperfect) example. A better example, this from the defense sector, may be the case of the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) program involving Raytheon and MHI.

The larger point is that alliance imperatives and shifts in the global marketplace conspired to make Japanese techno-nationalism less attractive to Japanese firms and the government.

In the 1980s, Japan’s economic and technological success took the world by surprise. It should not have, but it did. It led to studies that tried to explain how the Japanese political economy was organized. After a short period of breathless adulation of all things Japanese, it would be soon seem to some that the "problem" was Japan itself.

Since Matt asked me to stroll down memory lane, let me end by revisiting briefly what was once labeled “the Japan problem.” It was captured in a concept that dominated the discourse on US-Japan economic relations: “Revisionism.”

Revisionism had three components:

The first is that Japan was different. The argument was that Japanese economic planners had moved beyond Adam Smith, embraced Friedrich List, and reinvented the institutions of capitalism. At first, this was celebrated by the Japanese, but then when being “different” came to create problems in the bilateral relationship, they rejected it as racist “bashing,” which it was not.

Second, revisionism held that Japan could not change on its own. It was guided by a "rudderless momentum," a “system” that protected itself from change. On this account, Japan had no core beyond its prescient and omnipotent—but deeply divided bureaucracy. In the event, however, we learned just how effective Japan’s political leadership could be and how much change actually was possible.

Third, it was argued that Japan was a threat, and therefore must be contained. Specialists had been saying for years that the second largest economy in the free world must be understood better; the revisionists arrived to say they understood it quite well and that because Japan was different and because it could not change on its own, Japan was a threat to American power. Some may recall that a book entitled The Coming War with Japan was a best seller.

Well, Japan was—and still is—“different.” But it is clear that it can change, that it did, and that its changes have benefited the US economy. While Japan still attracts very little direct foreign investment itself, its firms’ cumulative investment in the US at the end of last year was close to $400 billion, second only to Britain’s. And these firms employ 700,000 workers at higher than average US wages.1

If my French were anything more than non-existent, I would end here by invoking the opposite of plus ça change. But since I don’t know how to do that, let me just end by reminding us in English just how little has remained the same during this last quarter century.


Peterson Institute Policy Brief, February 2015.