Understanding Japanese Politics for the Non-Japanese Speaker: A Resource Guide

This week we have a detailed guest article by Alec Williams, who provides an excellent guide to a variety of online resources for English speakers interested in politics and international relations with an eye on Japan. Have any more to add? Please leave us a comment with your thoughts!


Practicing comparative politics requires an act of double interpretation; one not only faces the analyst’s task, but must also engage in a reflexive accounting of one’s own knowledge of the surrounding socio-cultural medium. One must become a semiologist before a statistician, an anthropologist before a political scientist.  As a student of international relations with little prior experience with the languages and cultures whose political systems are the object of study, such an approach becomes difficult. How is an accurate evaluation of other scholars’ work possible if one lacks the knowledge with which contextual analyses may be made? For languages like Japanese, for which basic understanding can take years of study, the problem is further compounded, and the student of Japanese politics must rely heavily on English language resources.

Luckily, there are several well-researched and well-written online resources for Japan-watchers with little Japanese language ability. And as we are currently witnessing the Abe administration’s attempts to reinterpret Article 9 in such a way as to allow Japan to exercise collective self-defense, such resources have become invaluable to students and observers. What follows is a list of (mostly) free online resources, as well as a brief description of their content.

Photo by Colin Thompson

In addition to better-known international relations news sources like the Council on Foreign Relations (which has an excellent blog on Asian relations), the Diplomat, or Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government, the sites listed below can provide an accessible point of entry for the student of Japan.

Japan Real Time – Japan Real Time is the Wall Street Journal’s Japanese news and analysis blog.

Pros: Regardless of personal political alignment, Japan Real Time provides up-to-the minute Japan-related news along with political and economic analysis and some coverage of Japanese cultural life; essentially the Japan section of the WSJ if there were one. As there are few reliable daily English language sources for Japanese news, Japan Real Time is without price.

Cons: While great for current events or following by-the-minute election results, Japan Real Time provides more news than analysis, and its authors can rarely write from the same “insider’s” perspective that others on this list can.

cogitASIA – The blog of the CSIS (Center for Strategic & International Studies) Asia Program

Pros: CSIS is often associated with left of center political analysis, but as with Japan Real Time, it is an essential source for Japanese policy reporting whatever one’s political inclinations. cogitASIA’s contributors are academics and policy experts, often with first-hand diplomatic experience.

Cons: Not necessarily a “con,” but the blog provides a regional rather than Japan-specific focus, so pure Nipponophiles may have to read around the site’s other content.

The Oriental Economist – Edited by Japan scholar Richard Katz, The Oriental Economist (TOE) is a monthly newsletter about Japan and US-Japan relations.

Pros: Probably as close to a US-Japan diplomatic trade journal as anything unclassified can get. Richard Katz is recognized as a top Japan scholar worldwide, and contributions to the publication come from the most respected names in the field. Articles are of-the-moment yet provide remarkable depth and insight. Along with Observing Japan (see below), this is a must read.

Cons: The only subscription resource on the list; a one year subscription to the monthly edition costs $100, while getting an additional 2-3 weekly updates, the TOE Alert, is $5000…so try to get it through whatever institution you’re associated with.

Dispatch Japan – A site devoted to Japanese and US-Japanese news and political commentary by Peter Ennis.

Pros: Ennis is now an old hand among US-Japan observers and not only writes with expertise, but also attracts top scholars and US officials for interviews.

Cons: Pieces are generally written from a US political perspective, so it can at times seem like only half of the US-Japan relations picture.

Sigma1 – Blog by East Asian Relations scholar Corey Wallace focusing on security policy.

Pros: Wallace is a former New Zealand Ministry of Science and Innovation official and has taught at both the University of Auckland and the Royal New Zealand Navy. Posts focus on Japanese security issues, and Wallace’s work receives international recognition.

Cons: Like many policy blogs authored by a single academic, Sigma1 can go for long periods without updates.

Shisaku – Self-described by author Michael Cucek as “marginalia on Japanese politics and society,” Shisaku approaches politics with creativity, humor, and a left-leaning point of view.

Pros: Shisaku is an excellent source for domestic political commentary, and Cucek is an expert interpreter of the symbolic and cultural game politicians play. He’s also got a great sense of humor.

Cons: Cucek often takes iconoclastic positions, so it helps to already have some familiarity with the topic du jour.

Observing Japan – A blog by MIT scholar and former DPJ consultant Tobias Harris.

Pros: This is one of the best, if not the best, English language source for Japanese political analysis. Harris provides in-depth, long-form articles written with expert knowledge of both political personalities and macro issues. He is not afraid of data-heavy takes, but when making them, ensures they are accessible and comprehendible to a broad audience. One example: a series of articles examining domestic polling on the Japanese public’s trust of investor capitalism and reactions to Abe’s 06/2013 Abenomics posture.

Cons: Unfortunately this is a big one: Observing Japan is infrequently updated, and Harris can at times leave his audience in the dark for months.

Global Talk 21 – An East Asian relations blog by Jun Okumura, a former METI official and current Eurasia Group advisor and researcher at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.

Pros: Okumura benefits from an ultimate insider’s perspective and updates frequently, and posts range topically from international relations to Japanese and East Asian history. Global Talk 21 can fill in the historical gaps for those seeking a socio-historical analysis, though it’s important to bear Okumura’s past as a government official in mind.

Cons: Not a con per se, but as the sole author of the blog – and one unaffiliated with an academic institution – Okumura’s commentary must be reckoned with his previous positions.

Asia Security Watch – A blog affiliated with the New Pacific Institute offering security-related commentary for the East Asian region.

Pros: Asia Security Watch was founded by Kyle Mizokami in 2010, and contributors feature names with which we are now familiar – including Corey Wallace. Mizokami has written for Foreign Policy, the U.S. Naval Institute News, and the Diplomat, and articles can contain military hardware, procurement, or tactical details that are absent from other foreign policy blogs.

Cons: Asia Security Watch isn’t regularly updated, although the New Pacific Institute, with which it is affiliated, publishes more frequently. Additionally, articles about trends in sales of fighter jets may lack the generality of those seeking a broad understanding of policy.

Neojaponisme – A blog edited by David Marx with wide-ranging coverage of the Japanese public sphere.

Pros: Contains everything from reviews of poetry and film to interviews with financial analysts and economics experts. The staff’s background is primarily in consumer culture, design, and art, so many pieces take conceptions of Japan or Japanese consumption as objects of analysis. Marx writes from a left of center perspective.

Cons: Like several other pages on this list, Neojaponisme provides excellent, but infrequently updated, content. While the publication’s articles are informative, the focus isn’t solely political.

The Lowy Interpreter – The blog of the Sydney based nonpartisan think tank, the Lowy Institute for International Policy. The Interpreter covers international affairs from an Australian and East Asian regional perspective

Pros: Contributions come from leading scholars and can help add a regional wrinkle to understanding Japanese politics. The blog provides both news and analysis and is updated multiple times per day.

Cons: The focus is regional rather than Japan-specific, and while this can help put Japanese foreign policy into context, it also means that readers with a Japan-only interest are forced to sift through noise.


Alec Williams spent last summer at Asia Policy Point, a policy resource center focusing on US-Japan relations, and is currently a senior at Tufts University and intern at Argopoint LLC. The opinions expressed in this article, however, are his own. You can reach him at awill11246 [at] gmail [dot] com.

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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