The following is my email response to an inquiry from a friend in the academia, verbatim but with personal details edited out.
Foreign relations in the abstract are of little concern to most voters. Instead, they respond to specific issues such as the North Korean abductions or a mad cow disease breakout in a beef exporting country. Politicians as well as the MSM are inclined to think differently, since statecraft is a far more amusing endeavor than making sure that the private sector keeps the trains running on time, i.e. leaving them alone as much as possible. Still, in a democracy, it is a luxury to be indulged in at one’s peril unless one has dotted and crossed all the more significant I’s and T’s at home. Specifically in Japan’s case, it does not have geopolitical interests that diverge significantly from those of the United States (and to a lesser extent the EU). This means that Japan can largely free-ride on global public goods (and to a lesser extent regional public goods) that the United provides for the rest of the world (including China, though the Chinese authorities would be loathe to admit it).
Much attention was given in the mid-90 and early 2000s to the LDP regime’s interest in permanent UNSC membership and a larger international profile for the Japanese military, propelled in the latter case by the perception of humiliation on the occasion of the Gulf War. However, the first floundered because of the lack of support from non-permanent members that were not part of the push for inclusion in the Council and ill-concealed antipathy from China; the second was always destined to be limited because of fiscal constraints. Meanwhile, on the economic front, the Doha Round is now in its death throes while post-Kyoto Protocol climate change talks are going nowhere fast, leaving little room—or need—for Japanese authorities to spend whatever political capital it has on the issues. The triple disaster has certainly forced the Kan administration to take its eyes off the rest of the world, but, as you say, it only accelerated, albeit dramatically, a trend that had already been in the making.
What will happen when the Japanese economy recovers from the disasters? First of all, the fiscal circumstances will continue to demand the attention of the Japanese government and its constituencies. That means that there will be little political room for expensive overseas adventures excepting FTAs and other economically advantageous undertakings. (Prime Minister Kan gave lip service to foreign ambassadors in Tokyo by promising that the 100 billion yen cut that Japanese ODA took to finance the relief and recovery efforts would be restored many times over. But that’s a canard, really, since the cuts will last only a couple of years—fingers crossed—while Japanese ODA will last many decades beyond that, if significant numbers of developing countries remain just that: developing.) And that leads to my second point: Japan needs socioeconomic reform. This will demand most of the Japanese government’s attention, as well as the expenditure of considerable political capital for more sweeping FTAs with Japan’s major trading partners. Any efforts outside of support for socioeconomic reform will be largely reactive, responding to events and circumstances as they unfold. (A violent endgame on the Korean Peninsula would be a good example.) Third and finally, Japan will emerge out of the disasters’ aftermath older and, in relative terms, economically diminished if BRICS and other developing countries maintain their most recent historical growth trends. This will diminish further the Japanese government’s ability to act proactively on the regional and global theater and the willingness of the Japanese public to support any such adventures.
There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the younger post-online generation has a different outlook on the rest of the world, domestic and overseas, than their elders. The drift away from hardcopy print media to the less judgmental visual media and the vastly more fragmented online sources of information and public (for want of a better word) discourse could be a contributory cause. The consequences of a post-industrial society—the difficulties that the less skilled have in finding secure, well-paid jobs; complacency settling in with general affluence; aging demographics creating a societal background that discourages risk-taking across the board—could also be behind what I suspect is a more global phenomenon. 35 would be as good a point as any to find an Internet-driven divergence if there is one. But all this is speculation on my part and is not based on personal observation. The Japanese under 35 generally do not speak to me.
I hope that helps. And congratulations on your [book] contract. I understand that any academic career will be well-served by that hardcopy publication.
PS: The following are fragments of an earlier attempt at responding. They don’t quite fit into the main narrative, but I include them here since they might add more substance to my arguments there.
“The last point is true of all democratic nations (and, over the long run, in all others as well) but particularly so in Japan. I see two reasons for this. First, Japan is not one of the main protagonists in any regional issue that has existential consequences. This means that regional issues will only be in the forefront of voters’ minds in the case of an acute incident—which will be of electoral consequence only if it changes voters’ perception of the administration’s competence. Second, Japan’s interests regarding global issues are mostly consonant with the countries in that of the United States, ROK, and to a somewhat lesser extent with the EU. This creates massive incentives for any conventional administration to ride the US hegemony’s wake to the maximum possible, i.e. do the moistest with the leastest. You have heard of the Yoshida Doctrine?
“So unless there are specific issues that demand political attention—to give two examples, 1) DPRK developing nuclear weapons and firing ballistic missiles in our direction and 2) the US pushing us to do more to provide regional and/or global public goods—an administration is well advised to…”