Why Is Japan So Worried About Obama?
Ayako Doi (Freelance Journalist, Contributing Fellow at Asia Society)
Like millions of Americans, I watched the scene at Grant Park in
Chicago on election night as Barack Obama delivered the victory speech
as the president-elect, with a real sense of hope that something
fundamental was changing. A few hours later, I began receiving excited
e-mail from friends in Europe who were overjoyed with the choice
American voters had made.
The election of the first African-American president of the United
States has been greeted by people outside the country as a stunning
breakthrough and a positive development for global relations.
Excitement was palpable in news photos and TV images from around the
world – with one striking exception.
When I went to Japanese news Web sites to read their commentaries on
the Obama victory, I was taken aback by the skeptical, even negative,
tone. "Obama Likely to Stress Importance of China," read one headline
in the Yomiuri, a mass circulation centrist paper, implying that Japan
will be relegated to the foreign policy back seat by the new
administration. The economic daily Nihon Keizai fretted about the
likelihood that the Democratic president and Congress would concoct a
massive rescue package for troubled U.S. automakers and about the
potential fallout for the Japanese car industry.
On defense, everyone seemed to agree that Obama, who had talked about
withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq to concentrate resources on
Afghanistan, would be likely to put pressure on Japan to send ground
troops to the latter country – something Tokyo doesn't feel prepared
The most astounding article appeared in Sentaku, a monthly magazine
with a reputation for objectivity and solid analysis. Writing in
anticipation of an Obama victory, the magazine raised all the charges
John McCain had raised against his Democratic opponent, including
Obama's association with former Weather Underground leader William
Ayres, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, "communist and socialist professors"
as well as "Islamic and radical politics," and called him "the most
dubious character in history to occupy the White House." Criticizing
Obama's past foreign policy statements as "abstract" and "strings of
empty words such as 'consultation and 'cooperation,' " the article
concluded that under Obama, the United States would lose its global
leadership position and drag the world into "enormous chaos."
As the realization sank in that Obama will be the most powerful man in
the world in two months, Japanese opinion of him seems to have warmed
considerably. Newspaper editorials began expressing more hope that he
will do well in combating the economic crisis. The first opinion poll
since the election, by the left-leaning daily Asahi released last
week, showed that 79 percent of respondents had favorable feelings
about Obama himself. But even so, only 41 percent thought it would
lead to an improvement in U.S.-Japanese relations.
Why do the Japanese feel so much less positive about an Obama
presidency than the rest of the world?
Japanese media seem concerned that officials there have few contacts
with Obama or his advisers, and that Obama doesn't seem to know much
about Japan. This is the same anxiety the Japanese go through every
time there's a new occupant in the White House, and it's not uncommon
in other countries either. Even though Japan, the world's
second-largest economy and a close ally of the United States, should
have no problem communicating its wishes and concerns to the U.S.
government, Japanese strongly believe that only good ties can affect
Another reason for Japanese anxiety about Obama is simply that he's a
Democrat. The last time there was a Democrat in the White House,
Japan, with its huge trade surpluses with the United States, became a
favorite whipping boy for U.S. politicians. The Clinton
administration, having decided that fixing America's economy would be
"Job One," demanded that Japan set numerical targets for importing
U.S. products. And it tasked its abrasive trade representative, Mickey
Kantor, with keeping up the pressure as Tokyo resisted what it
perceived to be a demand for managed trade. Tokyo's then-ambassador to
Washington, Takakazu Kuriyama, lamented the acrimonious nature of the
relationship at the time, saying he had never seen so much distrust
between officials of the two governments in his 30-plus years of
In the last few years, China has replaced Japan as the main target of
Washington's ire over trade. In fact, trade hasn't been a major issue
of contention between Tokyo and Washington for some time, and no one
expects it to rise to the surface even under a Democratic
administration. Yet the memory of the Clinton-era "trade war" seems to
have stuck in the minds of many Japanese – and may now be floating to
the top of their list of concerns because of the latest financial
crisis, which the Japanese press always refers to as
Unlike most Americans, who think that Obama is better qualified than
McCain to deal with the dire economic situation, the Japanese may see
him as a problem because they strongly associate Democrats with
protectionism. "Concerns of Resurgent Protectionism," a Japanese
Industrial Daily headline proclaimed as it reported Obama's election
victory. Japanese manufacturers with plants in the United States also
worry about a possible rise in the clout of labor unions because of
their ties with Democratic politicians. Many Japanese managers of U.S.
subsidiaries "have had a hard time because of their unions'
anti-management attitudes," a Japanese business analyst in Washington
told me. "It's natural that they think Republicans are easier to deal
Beyond trade and the economy, there is also a discernible
anti-Americanism in Japanese popular discourse. On a recent trip to
Japan, I was stunned by the critical views on U.S. policies that I
heard in conversations with friends and on television talk shows.
While Japan is seldom a subject of discussion on U.S. news programs,
there are, on any given day, dozens of commentators on Japanese TV
talking about all sorts of American ills. One media industry insider
told me that people who are perceived as pro-American don't get
invited to appear on the talk shows these days.
But the main cause of the current round of America-bashing in Japan is
no doubt the Bush administration's opening to North Korea. When
Washington dropped its policy of no negotiations with Pyongyang and
began actively seeking a deal on nuclear weapons development last
fall, the Japanese collectively went ballistic. Many feared that if
the United States struck a deal without addressing the issue of the 17
Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents in the '70s and
'80s, most of them never to be seen or heard, Pyongyang would never
give a credible account of what happened to them, or how many more
they had abducted. Japanese bloggers called for the dismissal of
Christopher Hill, the U.S. negotiator with North Korea; some of them
even refer to him derisively as "Chris Jong-hill."
Tokyo successfully sold the Japanese public on its decision to send
Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) ships to the Indian Ocean in
support of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and ground troops to Iraq by
implying that those actions were vital to retaining U.S. protection
from North Korea's increasingly capable missiles. So a Japanese sense
of having been betrayed by Washington may be understandable. But it is
disturbing that no senior politician, journalist, or scholar in Japan
has had the courage to tell the public that it is in the country's
interest to go along with the Six-Party Talks to put a halt to
Pyongyang's nuclear program and integrate North Korea into the
community of nations – and that a "solution" to the abduction problem
can be found only in that context. During my recent sojourn in Japan,
I found out why; it's such an emotional issue for the Japanese that
it's impossible to have a rational discussion. At meetings with old
friends and dinners with my relatives, I was accused of being an
apologist for U.S. policy and naïve about the ruthless nature of Kim
Two days before the U.S. elections, Japan's public television network,
NHK, aired a documentary about how diplomats at the Japanese embassy
in Washington were cultivating connections with Asia policy experts
advising Obama and McCain and trying to influence their views about
Japan. Their aim was to find out what the next U.S. president would
expect from Japan, as well as to pre-empt a new administration's
anticipated 'demands' for fresh military and financial contributions.
They set out to suggest what Japan can offer as an active and
essential partner in global affairs, such as economic assistance and
help in reducing poverty and greenhouse gas emissions. Only by making
these efforts, they believed, could Japan avoid becoming irrelevant to
U.S. foreign policy in an Asia increasingly dominated by China.
The program was an unusually candid exposé of diplomatic activities in
a foreign land, but perhaps more surprising was the reaction from
viewers. NHK received numerous comments, the overwhelming majority
critical of both the diplomats' actions and their objectives. Typical
questions, the program's producer said, included "Why do we have to
cuddle up to Washington so much?" and "Why can't we just be happy with
ourselves and stop caring about what the U.S. thinks of us?"
For much of the last eight years while President Bush and former
Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro portrayed themselves as best
friends, U.S. and Japanese government officials liked to say that the
bilateral ties had never been better. But in reality, perception gaps
were widening beneath the smiles and handshakes, with few serious
discussions to reconcile their differences.
So while the rest of the world may be cheering for the Obama
presidency, Japan is definitely ambivalent about yet another "change"
in Washington. To be sure, Japanese leaders will do all they can to
get along with the new Democratic president and Congress, but they
will face an increasingly introverted public at home, whose opinions
on America are about as high as President Bush's approval ratings.
Despite the growing Japanese skepticism about America, one thing
that's going well for what former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Mike
Mansfield famously called "the most important bilateral relationship,
bar none," is that unlike the trade war days, no one in responsible
positions in Tokyo or Washington thinks there is any alternative to
the nearly 60-year-old alliance to protect their interests in East
Asia – especially with the erratic behavior of North Korea and a
growing shadow of China.
(Posted here with the permission of Pacific Forum CSIS.)