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Rethinking an Alliance

5 minute read
Michael Elliott

After Japan’s momentous election on Aug. 30, when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) hammered the long-serving Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), both American and Japanese commentators picked up on a remark by Prime Minister – in-waiting Yukio Hatoyama that there needed to be more “balance” in the U.S.-Japan relationship, read an article in which Hatoyama criticized the U.S. and wondered about the solidity of the alliance between Tokyo and Washington. Then Hatoyama called U.S. President Barack Obama and told him that of course — of course! — the alliance was the bedrock of Japanese foreign policy, and everyone relaxed.

But this happy conclusion is way too neat. There are genuine issues with the U.S.-Japan alliance, and they need to be taken seriously.

(See the new activism of Japan’s youth)

In the first place, the DPJ’s interest in finding a new balance is not just a matter of Hatoyama’s speeches. Ichiro Ozawa, the veteran politician who is now the party’s general secretary, has argued for decades that Japan should be a “normal” country, with its own foreign- and domestic-policy priorities, set in relation to its own interests. Ozawa is not anti-American; when I spoke to him earlier this year, he stressed that the U.S.-Japan alliance is “the most important relationship for Japan.” But at the same time, Ozawa insisted that in “global disputes,” Japan should take a “U.N. approach.” “When it comes to an exercise of power by the U.S. alone,” Ozawa said, “then Japan is not able to go along.” He really could not have been clearer that a DPJ government would mean a new line on foreign policy.

Second, the article by Hatoyama that caused so much fuss does not read like an Op-Ed dashed off by a summer intern. It is a thoughtful and quite radical analysis of how globalization and the financial crisis have changed the landscape in which Japan and the U.S. find themselves. Hatoyama said that Japan had been “buffeted by the winds of market fundamentalism in a U.S.-led movement that is usually called globalization,” and criticized a “way of thinking based on the idea that American-style free-market economics represents a universal and ideal economic order.” “The influence of the U.S. is declining,” Hatoyama wrote, in a “new era of multipolarity,” and he went so far as to propose something like a European Union — with a single currency, no less — in East Asia. It is enough to make one wonder how well founded the U.S.-Japan relationship really is, and how resilient to a changing global environment it is likely to be.

The U.S.-Japan alliance, remember, did not come into being because the two countries decided they loved each other. It did so because one defeated the other in war, occupied it, then wrote and imposed a new constitutional settlement upon it. Japan’s acceptance of the post-1945 settlement had much to do with a naked assessment by Japanese leaders of their interests, rather than a sudden passion for all things American. In truth, it is hard to think of any industrial society that in its essentials is less like the U.S. than Japan. Yes, Japan plays baseball. But Japan is a nation with very deep cultural roots and habits — in everything from food, art and style to religion and the expected roles of women and children — few of which have any point of contact with modern American mores. Since the bursting of Japan’s financial bubble 20 years ago, moreover, many observers have noted that Japanese society has become more “Japanese,” cherishing tradition and homegrown values.

Now look at things from the U.S. perspective. For many years, there has been a layer of academics, policymakers and politicians in the U.S. who have devoted their professional lives to the relationship with Japan. And Americans enjoy Japanese cars and consumer electronics. At the same time, anyone who remembers the depth of anti-Japanese feeling over trade issues in the 1980s knows that familiarity with Japanese goods does not translate into popular support for Japanese interests.

The U.S. is going to have to display very sophisticated diplomacy in Asia over the next 20 years, as it eases China’s rise while helping to ensure that democratic allies like Japan do not feel threatened by it. To show how important the alliance with Japan used to be considered, the U.S. for many years appointed seasoned politicians to the U.S. embassy in Japan. That pattern has been broken recently, and this year Obama appointed John Roos, a Democratic fundraiser from Los Angeles, to Tokyo. Roos may turn out to be an excellent envoy. But he will have his work cut out. The Japanese election — it becomes clearer every day — represents a sea change in politics there. If the alliance is not now to drift into irrelevance, some high-level attention to its purposes in the new world is needed.

Read “A Sea Change in Japanese Politics.”

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