Better to Remain Silent?
Japan and the G7/8
Volume 11, Issue 3 (Book review 5 in 2011). First published in ejcjs on 30 September 2011.
Dobson, Hugo (2004) Japan and the G7/8, 1975-2002, London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, ISBN 978-0-415-32188-4 hardback and 978-0-203-29959-3 ebook, xvi and 220 pages, figures, table, appendices, glossary, bibliography, and index.
Dobson opens his study on Japan and the Group of Seven/Eight (G7/8) in the period 1975-2002 with two quotations which aptly bookend each other, namely Voltaire's confession that 'The secret of being a bore ... is to tell everything' and Lisa Simpson's (The Simpsons) more recent conclusion that ''Tis better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt'. Any connection that these quotations might have to Japan's diplomatic style at the G7/8, which is considered in the conclusion, is perhaps better left unstated.
This book seeks to remedy the lack of English-language scholarship on Japan's involvement and participation in the annual G7/8 summit process until 2002, consequently providing insight into a discrete aspect of Japanese foreign and economic policies and the key participants in promoting those policies. After an introduction to the origins, operation and development of the G7/8, Dobson presents a précis of Japan's aims for and outcomes from each summit in four chronological 'cycles', namely 1975-81, 1982-88, 1989-95 and 1996-2002. He acknowledges, however, that these cycles are artifices for his analysis, as 'issues, themes and personalities' appeared, disappeared and, sometimes, reappeared throughout the period; that is, they were not usually confined to individual cycles (page 13). He then considers key participants in the summits (the prime minister, the bureaucracy and other state and non-state actors) and 'norms' of policy behaviour (bilateralism, East Asianism and internationalism) which have affected the process. In an unusually short conclusion, merely four and half pages, Dobson examines the achievements, styles of diplomacy and the meaning of the G7/8 summit to the Japanese government and people. The book's glossary of terminology will undoubtedly be helpful to non-Japanese speakers and newcomers to the area, as will the list of abbreviations and acronyms, which are so prevalent in this sub-discipline.
Dobson views the G7/8 as a mechanism of evolving global governance on macro-economic and later political, security, social and environmental issues. Since 1975 the G7/8 has expanded from and then partially contracted back to its original conceptualisation as a forum for informal and intimate discussion amongst selected world leaders, principally presidents and prime ministers. The G7/8 has, however, been closely connected to other international and regional mechanisms, such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and also to non-governmental organisations. Dobson points out that, although the G7/8 might appear to be a modern equivalent of the 19th century Concert of Europe, it does not have a formal organisation, decision-making process or the ability to enforce its policies or to punish offending members.
For many Japanese observers, Japan's inclusion in the inaugural G7 summit in 1975 marked the international recognition of its status as a global economic power and its ongoing rehabilitation into a responsible international power. Moreover, as the only summit participant from Asia, Japan readily took on the position of 'batting for Asia' — a phrase that appears continually throughout the book — by soliciting and putting forward East or South Asian-centric issues for consideration or by warding off criticism of its regional neighbours where necessary. While Japan's inclusion was salutary on such fronts, the annual summits also became a forum for the participating nations to exert considerable economic pressure on Japan (such as calls for Japan to meet its growth targets, to revalue the yen and to reduce its trade surpluses), even if such pressure did not always emerge in the wording of the official summit communiqué. As Dobson notes, the Japanese strategy of omiyage gaikō (gift-bearing diplomacy) — that is, announcing welcome policy shifts or new funding initiatives immediately before a summit — was often effective in pre-empting open criticism. The endpoint of this study, 2002, marked a changing role for Japan as Russia stepped up to full membership, a move to which Japan was opposed for some time but finally recognised as being one commensurate with the will of the other members.
The structure of the 'cycle' chapters is somewhat repetitive, as the précis for each summit begins with the preparations for the summit, moves through the significant events and topics of discussion for each day of the summit and concludes with post-summit political, business and media reactions in Japan, including polls on the approval ratings for the government. The sections that deal with the four summits hosted by Japan up to 2002 — in Tokyo in 1979, 1986 and 1993 and in Okinawa in 2000 — are rightly considered at more length. The description and analysis might have benefited at times, however, from a broader viewpoint. As Dobson relies very heavily on Japanese media reports for his précis on each summit, admittedly both English and Japanese-language publications, there is little sense of other participants' expectations or assessments of Japan and the G7/8. It is also regrettable (though perhaps understandable due to the fees for images now routinely extorted by media agencies) that none of the many fascinating newspaper cartoons on the summits, almost ritually described at the end of each précis, has been included. Dobson's inclusion of charts for each 'cycle' showing the frequency of references to Japan in summit communiqués and official documents over time are interesting but, since the charts are not analysed in the text, it is hard to pin down the impetuses for the frequent fluctuations. Why were there nine references to Japan in the documents from the Denver summit in 1997 and none arising out of the next summit at Birmingham in 1998? What is revealed by the single reference apiece to each member in the summit documents in 1976 and again in 1980, apart from the extraordinary dedication of the drafters to even-handedness?
Dobson notes early on that the success or otherwise of the summits has hinged upon the abilities of the leaders involved and the atmosphere of cooperation and level of trust that they create. That Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro (1982-87) could attend repeated summits, along with the US President Ronald Reagan and the UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, for example, helped to build some of that atmosphere. Conversely, the revolving seat of the Japanese prime ministership at some stages, along with the health concerns of several occupants of it (including the deaths of Prime Minister Ōhira Masayoshi before the Venice summit in 1980 and of Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō before the Okinawa summit in 2000) probably contributed to some less successful summits, at least from the Japanese point of view. The performances of some Japanese delegations — helpfully listed summit-by-summit in an appendix — are characterised as weak, with some prime ministers apparently being reticent about contributing to free-flowing high-level discussions or being effectively unable to do so, whether due to language difficulties or otherwise. Dobson's report that the position occupied by the Japanese prime minister at summits has been known as the 'silent corner' is telling of this characterisation (page 141). Nakasone was thus one of the few Japanese delegates who stamped his mark on the summits, being seen as 'one of the gang' and more comfortable than his predecessors (page 146). As Dobson points out, however, other Japanese state and non-state actors, such as opposition political parties, business organisations and the public, such as opposition political parties, business organisations and the public, have also played a part in Japan's agenda for the G7/8, even if they are not in attendance as delegates.
Overall, Dobson sees three key 'norms' which have shaped Japan's aims and behaviour at the G7/8: bilateralism, East Asianism and internationalism. Indeed, the summits have provided many direct and indirect opportunities for bilateral engagement, particularly with the United States, and Dobson delves at some length into the implications on the United States-Japan relationship of the unilateral Japanese selection of Okinawa as the location for the 2000 summit. While Japan was also usually 'batting for Asia' at the summits, Dobson points out that East Asianism has been a very strong 'norm' on each of the four occasions when Japan has been the host. Apparently even the newly-constructed 3 billion yen venue for the Okinawa summit, the Bankoku Shinryōkan in Naga, was designed to give a 'deliberate East Asian "look and feel"', as was the design of the ensuing discussions (page 174). In the end, Dobson considers that it is arguable that the G7/8 matters more to Japan than any other participating nation, perhaps because in addition to providing a forum to handle bilateral relations and to represent Asia, the summits have allowed Japan to play an international role commensurate with its economic power, giving it 'new confidence' (page 176-77).
This is an interesting longitudinal study of Japan and the G7/8 that now begs for a follow-up, particularly given the announcement at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh in 2009 that the G20 will effectively eclipse the G8 as the premier forum for international economic cooperation. It has also been very well edited, with only the occasional misspelling of Guadeloupe being obvious. Readers in Japanese Studies or international relations will find this work to be of interest, although some questions, such as what the other members have expected of Japan or how they have assessed Japan's participation, remain unanswered.
Article copyright Narrelle Morris.