Two approaches to identity have been employed to explore issues in Japan's international relations. One views identity as constituted by domestic norms and culture, and as constitutive of interests, which in turn cause behaviour. Proponents view Japan's ‘pacifist’ and ‘antimilitarist’ identity as inherently stable and likely to change only as a result of material factors. In the other approach, ‘Japan’ emerges and changes through processes of differentiation vis-à-vis ‘Others’. Neither ‘domestic’ nor ‘material’ factors can exist outside of such identity constructions. We argue that the second, relational, approach is more theoretically sound, but begs three questions. First, how can different identity constructions in relation to numerous Others be synthesised and understood comprehensively? Second, how can continuity and change be handled in the same relational framework? Third, what is the point of analysing identity in relational terms? This article addresses the first two questions by introducing an analytical framework consisting of three mutually interacting layers of identity construction. Based on the articles in this special issue, we argue that identity entrepreneurs and emotions are particularly likely to contribute to change within this model. We address the third question by stressing common ground with the first approach: identity enables and constrains behaviour. In the case of Japan, changes in identity construction highlighted by the articles in this special issue forebode a political agenda centred on strengthening Japan militarily.