Counting on Japan
G7 Issue

Counting on Japan

The Hiroshima Summit is likely to be one of the most security-focused summits in G7 history, with Japan making clear that it can be counted upon to lead

The G7 matters to Japan. By inviting Prime Minister Takeo Miki to the first G7 summit in Rambouillet in November 1975, Japan’s North American and European partners recognised the country as a contemporary democratic great power. This inclusive approach stood in stark contrast to other mechanisms of global governance that excluded Japan in various ways. The G7 provided the Japanese government with an opportunity to pursue national interests closely related to the G7’s traditional agenda of macroeconomic policies as well as seemingly unrelated issues, such as territorial disputes. It also provided Japan’s prime minister of the day with an opportunity to leverage the summit in an attempt to boost his domestic approval ratings. In addition to promoting these interests, Japan’s approach to the G7 summit has been informed by three norms.

First, the norm of bilateralism has been a central feature of Japan’s foreign policy since the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902. The Japanese government has used the opportunity provided by the G7 to engage with the United States and manage what has repeatedly been referred to as ‘the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none’. Second, as the only Asian country to be represented within the G7, Japan’s government has responded to the norm of Asianism and appointed itself as the region’s representative (Ajia no daihyō). In this role, it has sought to insert Asian concerns into a summit of predominantly North American and European leaders. Finally, the norm of internationalism has shaped Japan’s commitment to be a responsible member of the international community and made it the most consistent host of successful summits, according to the G7 Research Group. It is likely that a melange of national interests and normative impulses will continue to shape the approach to, and outcomes of, the Hiroshima Summit this year.

Challenging informality

At the same time, the G7’s emphasis on informality has proved to be challenging for the Japanese prime minister historically. Masayoshi Ohira, host of the 1979 Tokyo Summit, the first to be held in Japan, was reported to have said after the event that “I felt naked – like a little child”. The Japanese media frequently use the three Ss of smiling, sleeping and silent to describe their prime ministers’ behaviour at the summits. However, proactive and vocal prime ministers such as Yasuhiro Nakasone in the 1980s and Junichiro Koizumi in the 2000s, and especially Shinzo Abe as Japan’s longest serving prime minister from 2012 to 2020, have dispelled this reputation for passivity.

Abe sought to challenge post-war norms of Japan’s foreign and security policies by promoting an eponymous foreign policy ‘doctrine’ that advocated securing Japan’s great power status by building an economically strong Japan, promoting a more proactive and robust Japanese security role, and engaging in historical revisionism to challenge post-war taboos and constraints. ‘Japan is back’ became the oft-repeated mantra of Abe’s prime ministership and G7 summitry provided another arena to advance this doctrine. When appointed prime minister in 2021, Fumio Kishida was widely regarded as providing continuity in Japanese leadership, and having become Japan’s longest serving foreign minister under Abe, it is likely that he will pursue similar goals.

Focus on security

Forty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, security issues dominated the 1983 Williamsburg Summit. Prime Minister Nakasone flew in the face of domestic anti-militarist sentiment and signed up to a political statement that brought Japan firmly into the West’s security alliance by declaring that “the security of our countries is indivisible and must be approached on a global basis”. The Hiroshima Summit is likely to be one of the most security-focused summits since Williamsburg. How the G7 can support Ukraine against Russia’s invasion will continue to dominate discussions, having already influenced Kishida’s choice of venue because of the message it can send against the use of nuclear weapons. At the same time, Prime Minister Kishida has revised key defence documents and is pursuing a radical and controversial expansion of Japan’s defence budget and capabilities. Since the beginning of 2023, Prime Minister Kishida and his G7 partners have signed historic defence agreements, pledged to strengthen ties or declared the inseparability of their security in light of actual conflict in Ukraine and potential conflict in East Asia. Prime Minister Kishida has linked the two by emphasising that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow”.

Kishida’s position as prime minister may not be wholly secure. However, it is clear that Japan is back, and can be counted upon to lead.