Since the end of World War II, many U.S. and European officials and experts have criticized Japan's foreign and defense policies as too little and too late-reactive, penny-pinching, selfish, and militarily naive. At various times over this period, Washington has claimed that Japan, having seen the error of its ways, was becoming a normal great power. Tokyo's policies, Washington asserted, were gravitating toward greater activism in international affairs, and a capability and will to project military power abroad commensurate with its relative size in the world economy and advanced technology and industry. The Japanese were finally "getting it" about world role imperatives, which would ultimately make Japan more fully compliant with U.S. strategies to shape the international system.
During that half-century, some important factions in Japanese domestic politics have appealed to those U.S. desires and expectations that such changes were progressing. No longer would Japan in international power and status terms be "a man with one arm and one leg" or an "economic giant and a diplomatic and military dwarf." Such factions have tried to cultivate and then take advantage of gaiatsu, i.e., foreign pressure for change. Some of the internal advocates of great power normality contended that this was necessary if Japan was to get what it wanted, needed, and deserved from the rest of the world, and especially from the U.S. Others argued that this was necessary (and feasible) so that Japan could say "no" to foreign pressures adverse to its long-run well-being. Yet forecasted changes have largely not been realized, and Japanese politicians committed to either of the pro-change schools have failed to dominate inside Japan over status quo advocates.
Why is that? One common answer focuses on defects in Japanese elite and public understanding of international affairs, and institutional capacity to make appropriate decisions and carry through appropriate policies. In this case, Japanese need to be educated and their national institutions "reformed." Another explanation emphasizes the combination of excessive foreign, especially American, indulgence and excessive Japanese tendencies to exploit the willingness of others to take on the burdens of making the world work in ways good for Japan. Japan, therefore, needs to be faced with the credible threat of losing those benefits unless it steps up to the plate of international responsibility. These views are not completely wrong since Japan resembles most great powers in having less-than-perfect foresight among its elites and public, and institutional characteristics which work against coherent, timely, and efficient foreign and defense policies. Nor is Japan at all unique in preferring that others bear costs while it receives benefits.
Yet these widespread Western interpretations obscure how the same general factions that shape foreign and defense policies in most countries provide a rational, and perhaps even wise, basis for what Japan does and does not do. They recognize only some of Japan's practices in international affairs. They belittle the successes and setbacks Japan has experienced which provide motives for basic continuity with only the most hedged, slow and incremental modifications. Japan's approach to international affairs may then be not so much immature, or especially tricky and selfish, as it is a smart program to cope with the world outside Japan and ensure domestic support for prudent policies and cautious politicians.
The hardly unique general sets of shaping factors are: widely accepted lessons from national experience; national strengths (assets) and vulnerabilities (weaknesses); assessments of important foreign players in international affairs; and what national public opinion and political institutions make easy (attractive) or hard (unappealing) for politicians. Where Japan differs from many other nations is in the specific content of those factors.