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Critiquing the Idea of Japanese Exceptionalism: Japan and the Coordination of North Korea Policy

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The idea that Japan is playing an 'alternative role' in its foreign policy—that it is keeping a 'conspicuously low profile' and that its stance is in some sense 'unique'—has been a recurring theme of analysis of Japanese foreign policy. This article aims to critique this idea of Japanese exceptionalism, epitomised for instance in the 'aikido state' metaphor. By analysing Japan's role in the Six-Party Talks—arguably a suitable case for testing this metaphor—the article concludes that, far from keeping a low profile, Tokyo has exercised obstructive power over other actors involved in the talks. This conclusion is substantiated by comparison with Tokyo's role in other important instances of North Korea policy coordination over the period 1993–2002. By comparing Japanese behaviour with that of the USA, China, Russia and North Korea, the article concludes, furthermore, that the concepts of 'obstructionism' and 'power' facilitate understanding of their behaviour as well—with the implication that Japan's foreign policy is not so unique.

Affiliations: 1: Swedish Institute of International Affairs;, Email:


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