Beyond the Gaiatsu Model: Japan’s Asia-Pacific Policy and Neoclassical Realism

AuthorLluc López i Vidal
Published date01 April 2022
Date01 April 2022
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Research Article
Beyond the Gaiatsu
Model: Japan’s Asia-Pacific
Policy and Neoclassical
Lluc López i Vidal1
Literature has tended to characterise Japanese foreign policy as primarily reactive
to US interests, with many analyses focusing on aspects such as the gaiatsu or US
pressure on Tokyo. Some analysts go further and depict Japan as a ‘reactive state’
with a foreign policy characterised as passive, risk-avoiding, ineffective and lacking
of assertiveness. Accordingly, changes in Japanese diplomacy occur as a response
to international stimuli rather than to domestic needs. However, while outside
pressure is crucial in accounting for Japan’s foreign policy, approaches based
solely on the gaiatsu/‘reactive state thesis’ fail to provide a full explanation of
Japan’s behaviour, particularly in the promotion of regional initiatives. This article
studies Japan’s post-Cold War Asian regional policy and shows that its Asia-Pacific
strategy cannot be explained as merely a reactive policy with a tendency to
concede to US pressure. We aim to fill this gap by adopting a neoclassical realist
approach that incorporates gaiatsu and their interplay with intervening variables
at the individual and domestic levels. We demonstrate that domestic political
actors have played a primary role in defining Tokyo’s Asia-Pacific policy choices
and argue that Japan has pursued a relatively independent regional strategy vis-à-
vis the USA in the post-Cold War period.
Gaiatsu, Japanese foreign policy, American pressure, neoclassical realism
In its foreign relations, every nation is constrained by the pressure or demands that
other actors—states, international organisations, alliances and markets—exert on
its politics, economics, trade or security. In some cases, this external pressure
produces evident changes in a nation’s foreign policy; in others, it is the origin of
major resistance for change within the domestic arena, and national alliances are
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
9(1) 26–49, 2022
© The Author(s) 2022
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970221076641
1 Department of Law and Political Science, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Barcelona, Catalonia,
Corresponding author:
Lluc López i Vidal, Department of Law and Political Science, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Bar-
celona, Catalonia, 08018 Spain.
Vidal 27
formed to resist (or accommodate) those external demands. This has been the case
of some middle powers like Norway, Finland, Taiwan, South Korea or Austria
that have pursued a reactive strategy towards other great powers such as the USA,
China or Russia. Paradoxically, it is also the case of Japan. Considering the size of
its economy, its demographics and its nature as a trading union, Japan possesses
all the traits of a great power, yet it behaves like a middle power with elements of
a reactive foreign policy. Japan’s foreign (and domestic) policy has been highly
influenced by outside pressure to the extent that some observers state that changes
in Japanese politics occur as a response to the international community rather
than to domestic stimuli (Hirata, 2001, p. 92). As pointed out by Mulgan (1997),
this behaviour is the result of the historical legacy of war, Japan’s subsequent
sensitivity to foreign criticism and fear of isolation for an economy dependent
on external markets. Beyond a historical approach, how can we understand the
relevance of foreign pressure in the Japanese context?
Scholarly debates (Blaker, 1993; Calder, 1988; Mikanagi, 1996; Orr, 1990;
Schoppa, 1993, 1997; Yasutomo, 1995) have focused on the concept of gaiatsu
(or ‘foreign pressure’),1 a recurring term used to describe a tendency within
Japanese policymaking process to blindly react to external pressure, particularly
to that of the USA. The asymmetric economic and security dependency of Japan
to the USA (Miyashita, 1999) justifies some decisions under the ‘Americans made
us do it’ argument, bypassing Tokyo’s agency and responsibility (Cooney, 2006,
p. 134) in a vast array of issues from trade, economic diplomacy, foreign-aid and
its Asia-Pacific regional policy. According to this model, foreign pressure is
treated as a structural determinant, conditioning Japan’s choices on major domestic
and foreign policy matters.
In one of the first attempts to elaborate an accurate approach to the gaiatsu
model, Calder (1988, p. 519) incorporated international and domestic variables2 and
proposed the so-called ‘reactive state thesis’. This approach suggests that Japan
does not undertake independent initiatives in foreign policy, rather it merely reacts
to pressure exerted by foreign powers, and particularly to the US requests for
change. As stressed by Calder (1988, p. 518), ‘the impetus to policy change is
typically supplied by outside pressure, and reaction prevails over strategy’. Despite
disagreements regarding whether the ‘reactive state thesis’ should be applied to
explain Japanese economic foreign policy or to the field of politics and security
(Hirata, 2001), the model stresses the absence of initiatives and assertiveness and
points at changes in Japanese foreign policy occurring as a response to the
international community rather than to domestic needs. As stated by Hirata (1998)
for reactivists, Japan’s foreign policy is depicted as a passive, risk-avoiding,
ineffective and flexible3 diplomacy. Blaker (1993) went even further by claiming
that Japan’s foreign policy is ‘minimalist’, and following a ‘coping approach has
become jarringly inappropriate to Japan’s vastly expanded, international presence
today’. Not unlike karaoke, the USA writes the lyrics of the music, and Japan can
only opt to sing a determined background music (Inoguchi, 2016).
Regarding Japan’s Asia-Pacific policy, gaiatsu is the primary driver of change
in Japan’s choices regarding the promotion of regional initiatives in the region.
Japan, as a reactive state whose policymaking is highly influenced by the USA,

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