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Why 'Wise Man' Henry Kissinger Is Wrong About Japan

Henry Kissinger is hailed as a foreign policy guru. But in this review, his analysis of Japan is fundamentally flawed, possibly due to his WWII experiences.



Former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger with former President Donald Trump on May 10, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC. (© The White House by Shealah Craighead)

Henry Kissinger, who turned 100 years old this year, is hailed as a modern "wise man" by foreign policy experts, even 50 years after his departure from the center of foreign policy making. His legacy for normalizing his country's diplomatic relations with China is praised as one of the most significant achievements in United States diplomatic history. Successive presidents have summoned him to the White House to take cues from this living legend. 

His appeal also extends outside of public service, with his name associated with various university departments and appearing on lucrative business executive boards. This is all due to his foreign policy acumen, which elite institutions hold in exceptionally high regard.  

Kissinger's deep insights into how US foreign policy actually functions, as seen in his book On China (2011), should be acknowledged. However, his observation of Japan does not match his general reputation as a great thinker on foreign relations. 

In an interview with The Economist in May 2023, Kissinger argued that Japan was "heading towards becoming a nuclear power in five years." Also following that remark, he denied that "Japan has any intention of being a permanent member of a global multilateral system." By this, he implied that Japan possessed ambitions to revive itself as a military power akin to that of the pre-war era when the time was ripe.

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Japan in November 2011. (© Sankei)

Japan a Wannabe Aggressor?

These assertions that Kissinger has recently made are far from the truth. First, there are no indications that Japan would ever consider going nuclear. Japan is the first and last country to experience and observe the horrific consequence of atomic destruction. This means a national anathema towards atomic weapons is prevalent throughout the country. 

Take, for instance, the time Shinzo Abe alluded to the possibility of Japan adopting a nuclear sharing regime with the US. The very idea, which some intuitively perceived to be a step towards Japan becoming a nuclear power, faced opposition from the vast majority of the public.

Moreover, Kissinger says he does not believe that "Japan has any intention of being a permanent member of a global multilateral system." This, too, is contrary to the evidence. Japan has acted unilaterally in postwar history only occasionally. But on almost all of those, Japan's actions merely caused friction with the US, while having little impact on the entire international system. For example, against the wishes of the US, Japan initiated its own diplomatic overture towards Communist China in the early 1960s. It also sided with the Arab world amid the oil crisis in the 1970s, despite Kissinger imploring PM Kakuei Tanaka to side with Israel. 

A Country Striving for Multilateralism

In contrast to Kissinger's predisposed ideas about Japan's posture, the country has been a benign actor on the world stage. Despite the limitations imposed on it by its postwar constitution, Japan has found a constructive international role in providing humanitarian relief in regions besieged by war. And following the invasion of Ukraine, Japan has worked with the Western nations to aid Ukraine. This is a clear manifestation of Japan practicing multilateralism, which Kissinger indicates is absent.

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shakes hands with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during their bilateral meeting following the conclusion of the G7 Summit Leaders' Meeting in Hiroshima, Japan, May 21, 2023. (© Yuichi Yamazaki/Pool via REUTERS)

In order to make sense of Kissinger's misunderstanding of Japan, it is worthwhile to state that his beliefs had been with him for quite some time — even during his years in the Richard Nixon administration. According to John Dower, during a meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, Kissinger reportedly went on a rant and accused Japan's national character. This included ridiculing Japan for being "traditionally tribal" and "subject to sudden explosive changes." On this occasion too, Kissinger told Zhou that without the US bases stationed in the country, Japan "would very rapidly build nuclear weapons."

It is difficult to imagine why an individual with such a thoughtful reputation as Kissinger still thinks of Japan as a nation engulfed with political turmoil and jingoistic fervor of the wartime era — when clearly it is not. However, considering his initial encounter with Japan during his formative years, his distorted perception of Japan may be understood.

Henry Kissinger and Chairman Mao, with Zhou Enlai behind them in Beijing in the early 70s.

The Impact of WWII

Fleeing from Nazi Germany's persecution of the Jewish people, Kissinger — who was then 15 years old — was forced to abandon his native country and seek asylum in the United States in 1938. Kissinger once stated that the Nazis killed many of his family members and close friends in concentration camps. Two years later, the Nazis formed an alliance with Japan. 

A year after that event, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and was effectively at war with the US. As with many Americans, Kissinger joined the army to fight against the Axis powers, including Japan. He was stationed in Europe from 1943 to 1946, a period which made him "feel like an American."


The memories of harboring intense emotions toward Japan, as a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor that enraged every American back then, and Tokyo's alignment with Nazi Germany, must have left a lasting impression on Kissinger's perception of Japan. However, a serious scholar should not let his analysis be swayed by his emotions. Also, it is irresponsible for an individual who still has significant influence to make statements such as Japan is "becoming a nuclear power in five years."

While acknowledging his great feats as a scholar, public servant, and author, it should be noted that Henry Kissinger's views on Japan are not merely misleading but utterly wrong. And it is shameful that no one in Japan seems to be speaking out to correct him.


Author: Jio Kamata

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