A key to Japanese strategy and economic policy is the lack of natural resources available on the Japanese Islands. Writing about the 1820s, Paul Johnson said, “With virtually no natural resources (even the copper was beginning to run out by the 1820s), limited land, and a hostile climate – cold spells, droughts at times, floods, typhoons, severe spring frosts and plagues of insects -the incessant fear in Japan was famine.” At another point in his book, The Birth of the Modern, Johnson adds that by the 1820s Japanese population was also growing too large for the amount of land they had under cultivation. These fundamental facts did not change in the twentieth century or in the twenty-first.
So what is left once you’ve got too many people and not enough food? The obvious answer is trade and the other possibilities are piracy and conquest. In 1853 American naval Commodore Matthew C. Perry opened up Japan to outside trade, which kicked off an ongoing modernization process. But if the Japanese had too few resources, what did they trade? Foreign silk traders began to settle in Japanese trading ports from where they acquired raw silk and silk worms to send west to Europe. The Japanese economy began expanding as a producer of goods rather than natural resources or food. The economy has continued in that direction every since.
Food Supply And Military
The agricultural cycle happens around the balance or imbalance between land and military protection of that land. In Japan’s case it’s about land and sea and the military protection of that land and ocean access. The military protects the countries ability to establish a food supply that feeds the Japanese people. In Japan agriculture represents 1.1 percent of the Gross National Product and engages 3.9 percent of the labor force. The largest crops are rice, sugar beets, vegetables and fruit. Based on total calories consumed, Japan imports 60 percent of its food and those imports come from the United States, the European Union and China. Japan is the world’s largest automotive exporter. The trade off for a country with few natural resources continues to be manufactured products in trade for food.
Unfortunately, being the world’s biggest food importer, which Japan is, also means food in Japan has the world’s worst environmental profile simply due to all the shipping mileage required to import that food. Also, the region of the Pacific where Japan is located is very active with earthquakes and Tsunamis, which frequently disrupt the food supply. But there are other food related issues even more ominous than the carbon profile and Tsunamis.
Japan is an island country surrounded by the ocean, so fish are another big food source. Seafood consumption in Japan represents 23 percent of the average person’s diet, which is much higher than in the U.S. or Europe. The Japanese use the oceans surrounding their islands and far beyond to fish. Access to the sea is a central part of the Japanese food supply, which makes any disputes over the sea and islands near Japan powerful issues. Since the Second World War ended the Japanese have also developed a huge aquaculture that produces over 25 percent of Japanese fish and seafood. There are over 60 varieties of fish in Japanese fish farms, but like aquaculture everywhere, there are serious environmental issues accompanying the fish pens, so open water fishing remains important.
Russia and Japan have conflicting claims on the islands of Eorofu, Kunashiri, and the Habomai group. In Russia these are known as the Southern Kuril Islands and in Japan they are called the Northern Territories and they remain a sticking point for these two countries from signing a peace treaty which would formally end World War II. China and Taiwan dispute Japanese claims to an exclusive economic zone and uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Japan and South Korea have conflicting claims on the Liancourt Rocks, which South Korea has occupied since 1954.
Until recently these conflicts have become heated at times, but never really amount to more than name calling and counter name calling. However, that is now changing. The Chinese have built up substantial naval power and are increasingly assertive about their claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea. The Chinese navy has confronted several countries about these island claims. In response to these new developments Japan is changing its military profile.
In December 2013 Japan announced that it plans to boost defense spending by 5 percent over the next five years. This program will allow Japan to purchase U.S. made surveillance drones, Aegis combat systems and stealth fighter jets. In the twentieth century Japan was militarily expansive. The result was total defeat, and since 1945 Japan has stayed away from military growth. Now, however, things have changed and the pressure from Chinese naval aggression and also encouragement from the United States to become more involved in their own defense has prompted Japan to invest in military.
Are agricultural and fishing needs at the root of the new Japanese military assertiveness? They are. It’s not an immediately visible connection, because the Chinese and South Koreans aren’t attacking Japanese land, but the lack of resources has shaped Japanese policy. Japan is a trading giant in order to obtain the food she needs and that’s because her agriculture and fishing don’t allow her to feed the Japanese population. In many ways, Japan is rearming for survival. The Japanese agricultural cycle is about sustaining enough trade to compensate for her lack of natural resources and food supplies. Japan is now feeling forced to defend her claims to the oceans where she fishes and where other resources, like petroleum, may be found.