Kaplan in Tokyo Report, Part 2: Reception

Part 2 of my obsessive compulsory coverage of Robert D. Kaplan’s trip to Tokyo.

Younghusband with Robert Kaplan
Yours truly with Robert Kaplan, Tokyo, 12 March 2010

After Robert D. Kaplan spoke at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, I approached him and he graciously invited me to attend the exclusive reception. His assistant whispered the location and time, and I went outside for a breather and to send off this misspelled missive (soon followed by this amelioration).

The reception started at 8PM, at a nearby Italian restaurant. I had to catch a bullet train back to Nagoya that night, so I could only spare an hour. Many of the invitees were already standing around inside the restaurant, drinking wine and talking with one another. I waited outside for Kaplan and his assistant who came a little late.

There were approximately 20 people there, a small portion of the lecture attendees. There were no embassy people at the reception. In fact, I was the only foreigner there (besides Kaplan of course). This was excellent because it gave me access to Kaplan as the only native speaker. I spent the first 10 minutes or so chatting with SPF staff and an Asahi Globe reporter. In the meantime Kaplan made the rounds (with a glass of white wine), mingling with some impressively establishment-looking people. Except for my open-collar and chinos, everyone was in ties and knee-length skirts. It was the height of officialdom, yet the atmosphere was friendly. Everyone could speak English as far as I could tell. Not surprising, as I expect most have had education abroad.

Kaplan worked his way back to me and we started to chat while picking at some of the food set out on trays. He asked me about life in Japan and what I was doing now (the last time we met, I had just started graduate school at RMC). I asked him how long he was in Japan for, and he answered Sunday. His plan was to check out Yasukuni Shrine on Saturday (I was there year before last), if he didn’t have to do some last minute editing over the phone for his upcoming Foreign Affairs article.

Soon we were approached by a retired admiral of the JMSDF. He exclaimed proudly that he was a graduate of the Naval War College, where Kaplan taught for two years. The retired admiral wanted to make a point to Kaplan, who had asserted in his speech that Asian countries had been expanding their military over the past few decades. The Ret Admiral pointed out that in terms of percent of GDP, Japan was the only country in Asia whose military spending has been going down. Comparative military spending is a difficult issue in the case of Japan, since its GDP is so large. Even though its spending is only 1% of GDP, in real terms it is quite a bit more than other countries in the region. This topic has been broached many times by Japan hands such as Dick Samuels and Chris Hughes.

Nevertheless, the Ret Admiral continued with another interesting point. Due to Japanese restrictions on arms trading, a policy that he felt was being interpreted too loosely, Japan could not benefit from economies of scale in arms manufacturing. In other words, because it could not produce more arms than it needed and sell the surplus to foreign countries, thereby bringing down the total cost of production, Japan was effectively paying too much for its own weapons. This put Japan at less of an advantage than normally assumed. The Ret Admiral estimated the price to be 1.5 times the expected market rate. Previously some of you may have heard me joking about the cost of Japanese arms, that prices were high because each bullet came individually wrapped. The Ret Admiral’s perspective gives a more realistic insight to the subject.

Kaplan expressed his need to eat and we parted from the Ret Admiral to the food trays at the rear of the room. Everyone was standing, but Kaplan had been doing so all night, so we pulled up some chairs and sat for a chat. It was then that I asked him a question I meant to ask during the lecture (but could not do so for the pillar I was seated behind, putting me beyond his line of sight). I asked him how his thinking on China has changed over the years (something the strategist was also wondering). Looking at Kaplan’s writing from a few years ago, especially in the Atlantic Monthly article How We Would Fight China (which Curzon covered here), and comparing it to his recent work with CNAS (one article of which I reviewed), Kaplan has moved toward advocating a policy of engagement and binding China into the international system, rather than containment. Furthermore, you will recall from the lecture, Kaplan said, “China does not seek to go to war with the US, now or ever.”

He answered that his thinking has changed. Right away he brought up 2005 article (which I had not mentioned), and the reaction to it which (some covered by us) he thought was sensationalist. “They only look at the headline…” he said despondently. When I told him I thought the article was more about deterring China (the key quote coming to mind being “The better road is for PACOM to deter China in Bismarckian fashion…”) he exclaimed, “Exactly! That’s how I meant it to be.” I asked him if it was supposed to be a “think piece”, which he affirmed, adding that he wrote the article after two years with the US Navy, which he feels is obsessed with China. I wanted to explore the evolution of his thinking further, but we were joined by a DPJ lower house member, who pulled up a seat of her own and broke into our conversation.

What followed was Kaplan being told “how it was in Japan”, something I tried my best to mitigate. Soon another gentlemen, this time from a thinktank, came over and joined in. Talk turned to Guam, and the Futenma base issue. Kaplan’s opinion was to get the Marines off of Okinawa.

I asked him about his teaching experience at the Naval War College, how many students he had and the like. He said he taught two sections of 20 midshipmen each. He shook his head and said, “You know, teaching, if you take it seriously, is much, much harder than journalism.” He related his tiring experience marking papers. Kaplan said he gave only essay questions, and tried his hardest to teach his students how to write, since that is a skill they would use in their day jobs even after school.

By this time, it was nearing 9PM, and I had a train to catch. I got the attention of the SPF staff and had my photo taken with Kaplan (see above). This being Japan, soon everyone had their cameras out. While I moved away he thanked me again for the work on the site. I tried to express my thanks in return, but I was in a rush.

Curzon knows this, but I assume most of our readers have never met Kaplan, so I would like to make it very clear: Robert Kaplan is the nicest guy you could ever meet in real life. He is very modest, and watching him deal with those functionaries I could see that he is a good listener (mark of a good journo). Both Curzon and I have used the term “gracious”, but I could think of a dozen more adjectives that still would not communicate how amicable he has been to us.

If you are reading this Mr Kaplan, thank you again for your time and for your writing. I very much look forward to meeting you again someday.

About Younghusband

Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942) was a British explorer, army officer, military-political officer, and foreign correspondent born in India who led expeditions into Manchuria, Kashgar, and Tibet. He three times tried and failed to scale Mt. Everest and journeyed from China to India, crossing the Gobi desert and the Mustagh Pass (alt. c.19,000 ft/5,791 m) of the Karakoram mountain range in modern day Pakistan. Convinced of Russian designs on British interests in India, Younghusband proactively engaged in the nineteenth century spying and conflict over Central Asia between the British and the Russians known as the Great Game. "Younghusband" is a Canadian who has spent a number of years bouncing back and forth between his home country and Japan. Fluent in Japanese and English with experience in numerous other languages from Spanish to Georgian, Younghusband has travelled throughout Asia. He graduated with an MA from the War Studies Department at the Royal Military College of Canada, where he focussed on the Japanese oil industry and energy security issues. He has recently returned to Canada from Japan, and is working in the technology sector.
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6 Responses to Kaplan in Tokyo Report, Part 2: Reception

  1. Carl says:

    Thanks for both posts, made for a great read today. I am also very, very pleased to see that Kaplan’s thinking on China has evolved since the rather bizarre (for Kaplan) ‘How We’d Fight China’.

  2. Alfred Russel Wallace says:

    Thank you for both posts… well worth the read!

  3. Jing says:

    Two casual observations; Kaplan has a magnificent mane for a man of his age and you need to get some more sun.

  4. Don says:

    Would it be too much trouble to refer to “Kaplan” as Mr. Kaplan, Robert, Bob, Bobby or whatever?

  5. Aceface says:

    ” I am also very, very pleased to see that Kaplan’s thinking on China has evolved since the rather bizarre (for Kaplan) ‘How We’d Fight China’.”

    Yeah,but the impression is mostly coming from that bizarre cover of the magazine with picture of mean-looking Chinese sailor…

  6. What a remarkable evening. That brief exchange with the JMSDF Admiral was almost as interesting as your chat with Mr. Kaplan.

    Like you (I’ve still got that issue kicking round somewhere) I took that piece not as advocacy but, as you say, a “thought piece.” Also, I agree with Aceface, I’d suggest a good portion of the negative commentary about it came from people that never got past the cover much less the title. Context doesn’t seem to matter much in many editorial hatchet jobs.

    The man seems to be a class act. Thanks for this intriguing insight, YH.