Sheila A. Smith is an expert on Japanese politics and foreign policy. She’s a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

She is the author of Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China (Columbia University Press, 2015) and Japan’s New Politics and the U.S.-Japan Alliance (Council on Foreign Relations, June 2014). Her current research focuses on how geostrategic change in Asia is shaping Japan’s foreign policy choices. In the fall of 2014, Smith began a project on Northeast Asian Nationalisms and Alliance Management. 

Fun-Fact: Two of my favorite accomplishments while working in Japan was competing at the Meiji Shrine in Japanese archery (kyudo) and getting my advanced scuba diving certification in Okinawa.


FPI: We hear a lot about a ‘Rising China.’ As if it’s something to respond to, to prepare for, if not combat. You explore the implications for Japan. What are the most important takeaways?

We need to unpack what we mean by that shorthand, “a rising China.” For some it connotes Beijing’s behavior – and today, more and more in the societies of the Asia Pacific, Chinese behavior is perceived as being far more influential. The government of Xi Jinping seems to be quite unapologetic about China’s desire to influence events outside its borders, and its growing military power – on display quite starkly last September in China’s commemoration of the end of World War II – seems to rub many the wrong way. What this growing influence means, however, remains unclear. If we look back in history to other examples of rising regional or global powers, the pathway to increasing power was often bumpy and far from the linear trajectory suggested by this word “rise.” The power in rapid transformation is worrisome to its neighbors largely because they imply a shift in relative influence, and because the process is so unpredictable. How others respond to the growing concentration of influence in the rising power, in other words, is just as important to understand the dynamics of Asia’s international relations today. No country feels the impact of a rising China more than Japan, the longstanding regional leader.

My first take-away is that we need to see the dynamic of geopolitical change as a relationship, between the nation undergoing rapid change and those around who must adapt and adjust to this new source of influence. My book, Intimate Rivals, looks closely at discontinuities in Japan associated with this new, changing China, and reveals across divergent policy areas how those ripple effects shape politics in Tokyo. China’s changes have been felt at exactly the same time that many Japanese argue that their society no longer has the political and economic institutions it needs to effectively face the future. Thus, the rapid and varied challenges to Japanese presented by China’s rapid ascension as the economic center of Asian economy are deeply unsettling.

Second, rather than predict a future China that has risen and extrapolate what Japan should do, I wanted to understand how Japan was coping. To do that I needed to look inside Japan, to consider what interests were being affected and how those interests shaped the domestic advocacy surrounding government policy towards China. For decades after their postwar peace treaty was concluded in 1978, Japanese political leaders largely pursued a strategy of reconciliation based on economic interdependence. Japan would assist China’s transition to a market economy, and China would look beyond the deeply wounding scars of Imperial Japan’s invasion of their country. Business interests were the main advocates of close ties, and Japanese popular opinion largely supported their government’s reconciliation approach. Yet increasingly the past intruded into daily politics, the trade off between economic aid and forgiveness did not hold, and the pragmatic need to find new mechanisms for solving problems confronted the two governments. History was less the issue, as new difficult questions about how to manage Sino-Japanese interdependence emerged. Within Japan, new interests – fishermen, consumers, as well as manufacturers – became more demanding of government advocacy on their behalf with Beijing.

Finally, Intimate Rivals sheds light on the adjustments thus far in Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations. What I found was not a Japanese strategy of confrontation or accommodation, but rather a complex and incremental shift away from the assumption that China a9780231167888nd Japan could solve problems together. Old wounds deepened, and new issues arose. A territorial dispute that has been quietly managed by the two governments emerged to bring their two militaries close to confrontation. Economic interdependence, long seen as a positive for both societies, brought consumer anxiety about the safety of food production in each other’s countries. A new maritime regime, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, designed to more carefully delineate maritime boundaries and resource claims, now prompted greater contest over who was allowed to exploit the resources of the East China Sea. And, of course, Japan’s alliance with a distant United States faced new pressures in the face of Beijing’s growing maritime presence in and around Japanese waters. Many in Tokyo began to wonder aloud if the United States would really come to Japan’s aid if China initiated the use of force against the Senkakus.


FPI: When it comes to foreign policy, Japan doesn’t make the news as much as other countries. What are key things to keep in mind about the US-Japan relationship?

Japan’s postwar security policy has been organized around the alliance with the United States. During the 1980s, Japan made headlines when it was seen as the rising power most likely to threaten U.S. global economic interests. But we negotiated treaties to manage those dislocations, and Japanese industry invested in manufacturing here in the United States and now are the second largest foreign source of American jobs here at home. This year, we are on the verge of a new Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), leading ten other Asian nations in creating a new high standard economic agreement that will comprise 40% of the world’s economic activity. We could not have done this without Japan.

The clash with China over the islands in the East China Sea, however, catapulted Tokyo back into the headlines. Few imagined that within such a short time Asia’s two giants could be on the edge of a military incident. Japan’s prime minister, Abe Shinzo, has also drawn attention – some sympathetic, some critical – for his efforts to revitalize the economy, to beef up Japan’s defenses, and to ensure diplomatically that the world knows that “Japan is Back!” While most look to the Constitution, and its proscription on the use of force by Japan to settle international disputes, Tokyo’s continued choice of strategic dependence on the United States has allowed it to limit its military forces so as not to alarm its neighbors. The U.S.-Japan alliance today is not simply an instrument to deter aggression; it is also a means of managing crises in the East China Sea and beyond.


FPI: Along that vein, what do we – foreign policy and news practitioners – often get wrong about Japan? 

In the U.S., we seem to bounce back and forth between writing Japan off, or being nervous about what Tokyo might do. So much of our discussion of Japan today in the media suffers from a lack of in-depth analysis of what is happening there. After the economic downturn in the 1990s, world attention shifted away from Japan, towards the newly emerging economic powers like China and India. For a long time our major newspapers had no reporters based in Tokyo, but that is beginning to change.

Another struggle for outside observers is how to gauge change in Japan. At times, we think Japan is on the verge of becoming a military powerhouse, only to find that they spend less than 1% of GDP on their military. More broadly, many grapple with how to focus on what factors matter as we seek to understand this complex society. Some find Japan incredibly conservative – rigid and resistant to change; while at the same time, many marvel at Japanese traditions and their cultural resilience. The lenses we bring to the study of Japan, however, need to be the same varied lenses we direct at other societies around the globe. Japan is an advanced industrial society, and so shares many similarities in terms of policy challenges with the European nations and with us. Japan too is an ancient civilization that has gone through phases of interaction with neighbors and phases of deep isolation. It modernized as a desperate response to an encroaching Western imperial expansion, yet many in Asia saw Japan as learning the wrong lessons from that era of European dominance in their region.


FPI: What is your favorite thing about Japan?

I think it is this complexity that intrigues me, and the juxtapositions inherent in the social fabric that this historical path has wrought on the Japanese people. We often bifurcate Japan into the prewar and the postwar, and this separates us from the experiences of both that continue to shape Japanese understanding of who they are.

As a policy analyst, I am drawn to the way in which domestic politics shape Japan’s regional and global choices. In Washington, we meet many Japanese who seek to translate their nation’s interests into effective foreign policy choices, and yet who must also translate those compromises once made once again back home. All diplomats of all nations do this, of course. But beyond that group of experts and interlocutors, there is a need for greater understanding of how those interests are defined and by whom. For that, we must go to Japan – to take the time to consider the roots of Japanese anxiety and/or ambition. Although the U.S. alliance with Japan gives primary in many ways to Japanese thinking about their foreign policy priorities, it is not the only relationship that matters to Japanese. It is in fact one of many relationships that helps Japan’s leaders achieve their ambitions. Exploring this dimension of Japanese politics and foreign policy is always a journey, and the exploration of that path in the Japanese debate over China was one of the great pleasures I had in writing Intimate Rivals.


FPI: Any book or film recommendations for those interested in learning about Japan?

Of course! One of the best books is John Dower’s Embracing Defeat, a Pulitzer-prize winning history of the relationship between a defeated Japan and its occupier, the United States. It situates the debate over postwar Japanese identity and its complex relationship with the United States. If domestic politics are your interest, then Gerald Curtis’ The Logic of Japanese Politics is the book for you, or even his first book, a classic now in electoral politics, Election Campaigning Japanese Style.

For those interested in a window onto the gendered politics in Japan, I recommend two books by Robin LeBlanc. The first is Bicycle Citizens: The World of the Japanese Housewife, a look at the separate domains and practices of political participation by Japanese women. Her second takes a look at the other side of the gender divide, The Art of the Gut: Manhood, Power and Ethics in Japanese Politics.

There are too many terrific Japanese films to try to pick any specific recommendations. My favorites change over time. You too can be a Kurosawa fan, an Ozu fan. Since becoming a parent, I have indulged in all of the Studio Gibli films – especially Miyazaki Hayao’s spectacular Castle in the Sky and magical Tottoro.

Portrayals of Japan in American and European film is also something I’m interested in, and I’ll be part of a discussion in April 2016 regarding the portrayal of Japan and Japanese in U.S. films.  Our understanding of Japan via Hollywood has not always been the most enlightened, but it reflects the American experience of Japan – if not always the reality of that society and culture.


FPI: Any advice to upcoming and fellow interruptors?

Many younger women are making their way bravely and successfully in the field of Asia policy. In academia, we have great female scholars of Japan, especially in the field of history but also increasingly in political science too. In my classes at Georgetown, I am heartened that there are so many women in my classes, not only American women but women from Asia who are grappling analytically with the contemporary challenges of their countries.

Americans who do research in Japan always ask me what it is like to be a woman working in Japan. It is a male dominated society – and one where even the language seems to trap women into a submissive position. As a foreigner in Japan, of course, I was given wide latitude for making mistakes – in the honorifics that my Japanese female friends were expected to use fastidiously and in the cultural behavior that seems to relegate women to a supporting role. But it also became obvious that the use of these honorifics could allow far greater latitude for side stepping or dueling with some of the more blatant sexism I confronted. Now that I am older of course I benefit from being a “sensei” or teacher, and I am delighted to see my generation of Japanese female academics, journalists, and other professionals emerge into the spotlight to lead their fields also with distinction.

Perhaps the best piece of advice I have for those wanting a career as a Japan expert or as a professional working in Japan is to do your homework. Competency is respected in Japan, and so too is commitment. Making the commitment to study the language, for example, and taking the time to build relationships with those I needed to interview or work with erased many of the barriers I initially encountered. In Japan, it takes time for outsiders – of either gender – to make inroads into communities, but once made, those are relationships of respect that will, if tended properly, ensure professional success and provide the friendships that are so precious over the years.

Interrupting may not always be your best strategy in Asia,  but it is sometimes necessary. So many of Japan’s successful women were famous interrupters. Fusae Ichikawa, an early women’s rights activist, easily comes to mind, as does Dr. Sadako Ogata, a former High Commissioner for Refugees at the United Nations and president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Developing the judgment on when and how to interrupt will be important in Japan, and watching some of Japan’s own women interrupt can shed some light on the way it is done.

Here in Washington, there is plenty of room for interrupters in our Asia policy debate. One of our candidates for president, in fact, is well known for her commitment to a deeper understanding of and engagement with a transforming Asia. Across the think tank world, you will find many of our prominent Asia experts are fellow interrupters (Katherine Moon and Mireya Solis at Brookings, Bonnie Glaser at Center for Strategic and International Studies, Yuki Tatsumi at Stimson Center, and of course, Elizabeth Economy, Alyssa Ayres, and me at the Council on Foreign Relations). Women are also leading the way in journalism in Asia. In Tokyo, the Washington Post (Anna Fifield) and the Economist (Tamzin Booth) both have women in the lead, and Aiko Doden, anchor of Asian Voices at NHK World, is a leading analyst of the region.