Professor Tosh Minohara is a fourth-generation Japanese American; his great-grandparents emigrated from Fukuoka to Alameda, California in the beginning of the twentieth century. During the Second World War his relatives were forcibly relocated to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. A scholar of US-Japan relations and international politics, his choice of topics comes from a strong conviction that “Japan and America must never repeat the past of the Pacific War.” With the rise of China, he believes that international politics has entered into an increasingly unstable and turbulent period. Professor Minohara says that “As a global leader, Japan must act as a responsible power, and pursue diplomatic statecraft that is proactive while also being grounded in realism.”

From California to Kobe: a tale of two cultures

Professor Minohara studied international relations at the University of California, Davis. He came to Kobe University after working at the Union Bank headquarters in San Francisco.

Prof. Minohara: Working at a bank at the entry level entails lots of routine work and so it became mundane very quickly. As I wanted to do something more challenging, I decided that I wanted to attend law school. In order to get accepted to a prestigious school, I needed additional skill sets so that I could stand out from the rest. Therefore I chose to learn Japanese. I also wanted to broaden my understanding of Japanese culture, history, politics, and diplomacy. My supervisor at UC Davis, the late Professor Joyce K. Kallgren, provided solid advice and eventually I was able to approach Professor Kōsaka Masataka of Kyoto University as well as Professor Makoto Iokibe of Kobe University as these two eminent scholars were the leading experts at that time on US-Japan relations and Japanese foreign policy. However, to my disappointment, Professor Kōsaka told me that he was not accepting new students so in the end I decided to study with Professor Iokibe. This is how I came to Kobe University and I have never regretted this decision.

At the time I could understand conversational Japanese at a very basic level, but I was severely limited in my reading and writing skills. I had difficulty understanding the kanji in the class handouts, so I would ask my Japanese classmates for the correct pronunciation of each character so that I could look up the definition after class. Although I now consider myself bilingual and bicultural, I still take notes in English. My mind-set and mannerism is most definitely American according to my close friends – although I do a good job of physically blending in!

At Kobe University’s Graduate School of Law he researched the diplomatic imbroglio surrounding Japanese immigrants, such as the anti-Japanese movement. His master’s thesis “US-Japan Relations from the Perspective of the Immigration Issue” received high acclaim. For his doctoral research, he dug in deeper to determine how the 1924 Immigration Act and the ensuing Japanese exclusion affected US-Japan relations. His dissertation was published as “The 1924 Immigration Act and US-Japan Relations” from Iwanami Shoten in 2002 and was awarded the Shimizu Hiroshi Prize in American Studies.

Prof. Minohara: The conventional understanding was that Hanihara Masanao, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States at the time, drafted a letter to the Secretary of State claiming that the 1924 Immigration Act would bring about “grave consequences” if it were to pass Congress. This was interpreted as a “veiled threat” by a few senators who claimed that the US could not back down to threat. The ensuing uproar led to a landslide vote in which the bill was enacted. However, through archival research I discovered new evidence that this was not the real reason. It was a presidential election year, and this was the issue that could unite an utterly divided Republican Party. Hence, the ambassador’s letter was used as an ostensible reason for justifying their actions. My master’s thesis was well received, and soon afterwards Professor Iokibe told me “If making money is important for you, then you should return to the US to attend law school. However, if you want to pursue a noble dream, then stay here.” Moved by these words, I chose to embark on the path of becoming a scholar. What’s really funny is that when I mentioned this career altering event many years later during Professor Iokibe’s retirement ceremony, he didn’t recall at all!

A complex relationship

His research has covered many topics: the anti-Japanese movement in the US and the immigration, the decisions that led to the Pacific war, the history of Japanese signals intelligence, the Russo-Japanese War, prewar US-Japan relations, US foreign policy towards East Asia, and American presidential history. They seem vast and varied, but many of the topics link back to US-Japan relations.

Prof. Minohara: When I was a student at UC Davis, economic friction between the US and Japan was intensifying, and one economics professor declared that “Japan has become the greatest economic threat and it will one day overtake the US”. I was still an undergraduate, but I thought “There’s no way that could happen, considering the difference in the fundamental national strength between the two countries was too enormous.” It just seemed to be overhyped alarmism that was not grounded in real facts. Mind you, this was a time when implementation of Super 301 (a provision of US trade law designed to pry open foreign markets for US exports; recently reactivated by President Donald Trump) was being debated, and Japan was being vilified in Hollywood movies. Being anti-Japan was the rage but when Japan’s economic bubble burst my prediction was vindicated; Japan had never been a real threat after all.

A book by a renowned American scholar on US-Japan relations concludes that the relationship between our two countries is a series of “clashes”, but to this date I feel that many Americans as well as Japanese still fail to grasp the true nature of US-Japan relations. Through my research, I hope to promote a greater understanding between the two countries so that the two countries will never drift apart or culminate in a tragic clash.

Lessons from the past and Japan’s global responsibilities

He emphasizes the importance of making current policy decisions that take into account the lessons of history. Presently, this is particularly relevant in the case of policies toward North Korea, where he calls for prudent action while learning from the past.

Professor Minohara speaking at the Kansai Press Club

Prof. Minohara: Professor Graham Allison at Harvard University coined the term “applied history.” Of course history never repeats itself precisely in the same manner, but there are definitely similar trends and patterns. For example, the Japanese government has declared tougher economic sanctions against North Korea, but I don’t think they are giving much thought as to what might happen if the sanctions are truly effective. In 1941, there was an embargo on oil exports to Japan which became an economic stranglehold. Ultimately, this is what forced Japan’s leaders to go to war against the United States. We should think, in which instances does a mouse bite the cat?

I believe that Japan needs to possess more realism regarding its own national security. Most Japanese fail to see their country as a major power even though Japan is still the third largest economy in the world, and its naval power is arguably mightier than the United Kingdom and France combined. Japan needs to play a greater role as a global actor in the realm of security as well. Moreover, Japan needs to more actively champion the importance of freedom and democracy.

Professor Minohara giving a lecture to media representatives (May 2017, Kansai Press Club)

The global order with the United States at the center is beginning to shift, and it seems that the world is gradually entering into a more turbulent period with the rise of China.

Prof. Minohara: When global power balance begins to shift, international politics becomes increasingly unstable, and conflicts become much more likely occur. In The Twenty Years’ Crisis, a book by British political scholar E. H. Carr, he warned of being complacent in dealing with the rise of Nazi Germany. He wrote that if democracy and liberalism are important, then we needed to respond to the threat. But in 1939, the British government chose a policy of appeasement – the Munich Agreement – which led to Nazi Germany becoming more confident and resulted in its invasion of Poland in the following year.

Seventy years after the Second World War, the United States has maintained the international order (the so-called Pax Americana) but there will definitely be a day that American supremacy will fade into history. The British father of geopolitics, H. Mackinder (1861-1947), wrote in his Heartland Theory that in order to prevent invasion by others, the Roman Empire began to look more inwards, closing off its society by building such structures as Hadrian’s Wall. According to Mackinder, this was the very moment at which the Empire began to decline. Currently, President Trump is doing something very similar through his repeated commitment in building a wall along the Mexican border, withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords, the Trans Pacific Partnership, ending Obama’s liberal immigration policies, all in the name of “America First.” It appears to me that the United States is following a similar path to ancient Rome.

China is actively challenging America’s hegemony, and China’s increasingly aggressive approach toward Japan’s territorial waters has been visible for some time. He calls for the necessity of placing more effort in protecting democratic and liberal ideals as well as preserving Japanese sovereignty.

Prof. Minohara: The “One Belt, One Road (BRI)” initiative announced by China’s leader Mr. XI Jinping seems to be a reiteration of Japan’s New Order in East Asia (later known as the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere) of the late 1930s. Similar to the decade from the Manchurian Incident in 1931 to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, there is no doubt that ten years from now the international political situation will be much more tense. The US-Japan alliance is essential in protecting liberal values as well as Japanese sovereignty. However, as Japan is more reliant on the US for its security than the US is on Japan, the alliance is very asymmetrical. Thus Japan needs to ensure that the United States never says “the US-Japan alliance is a burden so it’s no longer necessary.” To prevent this scenario, Japan needs to pursue a more proactive diplomacy that is based on principles and not just narrow national interests. Furthermore, strong political leadership is necessary that can put forth a clear and coherent vision for the future. I personally espouse the need to create a “Coalition of Democracies” that will work together to shore up the slowly eroding democratic and liberal values in the region. Just like in the recent movie, “The Darkest Hour,” there will be a moment that we will need to come together if we are to continue living in a society that values life, liberty, and the rule of law.

On the other hand, President Xi’s philosophy or thought does not have universal appeal, and with the growing national debt and a rapidly aging population, the foundations of China are far from being rock solid. I believe that ultimately democracy and liberalism will emerge victorious in the ultimate clash of values, but Asia’s difficulties will continue for some time before this result is obtained. Again using a movie analogy, it’s like “Star Wars.” Things will get really bad (and almost hopeless at times) before things start to get better, and good ultimately prevails over evil. Scholars, especially historians like me, often take the long view when observing current international affairs. I believe that our raison d’être as diplomatic historians is to act like lighthouses, shining light on future obstacles as well as the troubles that may lie ahead so that we can safely guide our ship called Earth as she navigates the treacherous sea of international relations. In the end, we seek a harmonious world of peace, prosperity, and stability.

Related links