Sam E Lewis
Japan’s model for Britain
11pm on 31st December 2020 will go down in the history books as the point in time when Britain finally left the EU for good – no more single market, customs union or ECJ. Boris Johnson, love him or loathe him, is of an optimistic nature and hopes that we will become a scientific superpower now that we have left. The path ahead may be riddled with short term instability, loss of economic growth and the freedoms to study and travel on the continent, but in the long run the idea is, so Vote Leave led the population to believe, that Britain will be renewed once again. Its identity, something it hasn’t felt the need to define in the past will, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, be of European descent, but not European. Furthermore, as opposed to the doom and gloom of predicted isolationism that seemed to be shared by every person who proudly shouted 'I heart EU!', 2021 will begin an era of true global aspiration rather than focusing on what goes on in Europe, which it may shock many to hear, is not the centre of the world.
Japan, also an island off a continent, has often been compared to the UK, stretching back as far as the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902, initially made to contain the Russians at a time when their expansion still threatened the British Empire's hold of India. This alliance even helped safeguard the passage of Australian and New Zealand troops as they were shipped to the front lines during WWI. Indeed, had the alliance been renewed after 1921, when the British leadership decided to place its faith in the US through the Washington Naval Conference just as our Atlantic cousins were entering one of their periods of ‘exceptionalism’, perhaps the modern world would look entirely different. The point I’m trying to make is not ‘if only history were different’ but that very often, Britain and Japan have had similar conundrums and similar desires - further helped by the fact their geographic positions at opposite ends of Eurasia mean they are seldom in conflict.
So what does this have to do with Brexit? To quote Brookings institute fellow Michael Auslin in his recent book Asia’s New Geopolitics, since WWII ‘the Japanese have consciously made a choice to maintain certain barriers against the world so as to preserve social stability and harmony’ and despite its continual issues of deflation and demographic challenges, Japan ‘continues to do extraordinarily well on international measures of education, health, crime and the like’. What is Japan if not a ringing endorsement of what Britain could become? A slightly conservative yet liberal democratic society that doesn’t feel the need to be part of a political union with its continental neighbours, instead seeking free trade with all. For Britain, this has come in the form of the largest bilateral trade pact ever made with the EU, and for Japan, through leading the creation of the CPTPP, linking up the economies of all of South East Asia.
Britain left the EU because of multiple reasons which will likely be debated in secondary school history classrooms for the next century; identity (or lack thereof), immigration (despite its benefits to economic growth and culture), and dislike of the direction the EU was headed (ever closer union). To surmise all three, the most important argument that resonated with the people was control of destiny. The decision to leave the EU led many to suggest little Britain was receding from the world, that it was to isolate itself from modernity, but if we look at Japan, this need not the case - there is a middle ground.
Japan has historically been very good at adapting to the modern world, and yet has always been in control of its destiny. During the Meiji Revolution, when it was humble enough to accept the superiority of many Western mechanical designs, it adopted all that it could and became a power to rival that of any of the European empires. The same embrace of modernity existed in the aftermath of WWII which led it to become the second largest economy in the world and even led to fears in the US it would become the largest. Throughout this time, Japan has maintained its unique identity and way of life. Tourists that go there are often shocked by how few Japanese people speak English, the language of the world, and yet no one would say it is a backward country, if anything it is at the forefront of many international tables of innovation. Britain already speaks the common language, has more world renowned universities than Japan and furthermore, historical ties with parts of the world Japan has still yet to plant a firm foot in.
Perhaps these recently made self-imposed barriers with the EU despite their short term strain could, in the long run, develop the same social stability and harmony in Britain that has made Japan the nation it is today. In recent years, Britain has begun to ask questions that have been on the Japanese conscience ever since Commodore Perry pointed a gun boat at Japan's then capital Edo in 1853. How open does a modern nation have to be in order to be successful? And when it comes to success, what is the defining tenet; stability, growth or diversity? What path Britain treads is now down to its political leaders, but for a country of historical openness and acceptance like Britain, the idea that 2021 is the start of a hiding away from the problems of the world is for the birds. A middle ground will be found and, in the long term, Britain will be better for it.