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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:04 03/09/2007
June 28, 2004

America and Japan: the political is personal

Takashi INOGUCHI (Professor, University of Tokyo)

The idea of a "special relationship" used to be an Anglo-American monopoly. No one would deny the intimacy of the connection between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. But in his characteristically nonchalant fashion, Reagan also extended to Asia the principle he embraced in Europe. In his speech to the national Diet (parliament) of Japan in November 1983, he said: "Together, there is nothing our two countries cannot do."

His United States ambassador, Mike Mansfield, went even further during his long tenure in Tokyo (1977-89), when he characterised the US-Japan link as "the most important bilateral relationship (in the world) - bar none".

At least in the eyes of the Japanese, such remarks broke the monopoly. Since that era, the interlocking work of four principal architects has further moulded the special relationship between the United States and Japan: Ronald Reagan and Yasuhiro Nakasone in the 1980s, and George W. Bush and Junichiro Koizumi in the 2000s.

These president-prime minister partnerships have both shaped and symbolised the multi-faceted connections between the states - as military allies, political friends, economic collaborators (and rivals). The first partnership evolved during the last years of the cold war; the second is still evolving in the post-9/11 period. How were they forged, and how have they helped to define Japan's sense of its current and possible future role in the world? These are the questions I attempt to answer in this article.

The 1980s: Williamsburg and Plaza

Two bonds nurtured the special relationship in the 1980s: strategic and economic.

At the Williamsburg summit in 1983, six months before his Diet speech, Ronald Reagan vehemently opposed the proposed Soviet installation of intermediate-range surface-to-surface missiles in western Europe. What he called the "evil empire" was attempting to split the United States from its European allies by targeting its new missiles solely at the latter; by such a move, it calculated, western Europe would be frightened, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation incapacitated, and western solidarity fractured.

In response, Reagan confronted the Soviet Union with his Space Defense Initiative ("star wars") and called for a tough united position against it. He had no more vocal ally in Asia than Yasuhiro Nakasone, who used a famous (or notorious) phrase to describe his country: Japan was, he said, "an unsinkable aircraft carrier".

Yasuhiro Nakasone made his political career in the shadow of United States occupation after the Pacific war of 1941-45, when he was a young naval officer. He became a legislator in 1946, after a campaign impelled by fervent patriotism, symbolised by his tying of a Japanese flag around his forehead.

Yasuhiro Nakasone was a political gadfly, a right-wing dissenter from Japan's alliance with the United States, and a brash nationalist voice within the perennially governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He led a small party faction that seemed to give him virtually no chance of becoming prime minister. But the legacy of division within the LDP resulting from the momentous scandal in 1976 involving the powerful prime minister and legendary "fixer", Kakuei Tanaka, propelled Nakasone in 1982 into the position of convenient substitute.

As prime minister, Nakasone made the significant strategic choice of lending strong support to Reagan's campaign against the "evil empire". This was only superficially a departure from his long-standing (and by implication, anti-American) nationalism; it was only by extending the utmost commitment to the United States and western interest, he calculated, that Japan could elevate its position in the world. Thus, for Nakasone, the "special relationship" was a means of enhancing Japan's own national prestige - a cause he had cherished since his years in the imperial navy.

Ronald Reagan and Yasuhiro Nakasone met quite frequently; both were satisfied with the media's depiction of their informal, "Ron-Yasu" bond. They excelled themselves in public on such occasions, with Nakasone pictured next to Reagan, both beaming at the cameras. Nakasone was often the first to speak in their discussions - unlike all Japan's prime ministers before and since, until Junichiro Koizumi.

Nakasone's leadership, in consolidating Japan's supportive role within the United States-led world system, moved Japan away from its stereotypical image of "economic giant, political pygmy". This was a departure from the "Yoshida doctrine" - named after the chief architect of Japan's post-war politics, Shigeru Yoshida - whereby Americans took care of Japan's security while the Japanese preoccupied themselves with making money.

Thus, under Nakasone, Japan established an even tighter alliance with the United States during a period of escalating cold war rhetoric between the US and the Soviet Union. Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) were upgraded in the light of US-defined geopolitical needs.

This strategic shift also had a vital economic dimension. The Group of Seven (G7 - or, since 1997, G8) meetings of major industrial democracies further deepened the US-Japan relationship in this period. The Plaza summit in 1985 between G7 finance ministers and central bankers was especially important in binding the two countries' economies.

The United States had been plagued by twin (government and trade) deficits, high unemployment and the overvalued dollar. In 1985, Ronald Reagan called for what might be called "global protectionist" help to restore its competitiveness. European governments responded, but even then, the continent's strongest economy - Germany - was preparing to move towards a single European currency. As a result, Japanese yen flowed to New York to purchase United States government bonds in far larger amounts than did Deutschmarks.

The enormous amounts of money issued to sustain the operation helped to fuel the late-1980s inflationary boom. These were the years of Japan's "bubble economy", which collapsed at last in 1991. As its expansionary wave had been so long and so high, so its later contractionary wave was equally long and low. This decade-long economic stagnation was one of the direct consequences of the Plaza agreement of 1985. Only in 2004 has the Japanese economy started to exhibit a solid recovery.

A Japanese Bill Clinton would have said: it's the globalised economy, stupid!

The 2000s: Madrid and Sea Island

In October 2003, after the United States had declared victory in the Iraq war, the international community assembled for a conference in Madrid to discuss financial help for post-war Iraqi reconstruction. There, the transatlantic schism over the war itself was echoed in France and Germany's refusal of assistance in the effort. The two major pledgers of funds, the United Nations and the World Bank aside, were the United States and Japan.

The size of Japan's pledge towards Iraq's reconstruction was not astronomical, although it is likely that the accumulated amount required of it will increase year by year. Moreover, at the G8 summit at Sea Island in June 2004, Japan agreed to host a major conference on Iraqi reconstruction in October 2004. The basic division of labour implied by United States policy in Iraq after the 30 June transfer of power is that the US will sustain the costs of security, while other actors like Japan and the UN will continue to guarantee financial and other kinds of assistance to Iraq's new authorities.

The huge government deficits accumulated by Japan during its stagnant years, and the anticipated upward inflational spiral in the next period, make it likely that Japan's financial commitments towards Iraq might intensify existing economic trends in the country precisely in the way that the Plaza accord did two decades ago.

The Sea Island summit did not resolve the cleavage (United States-United Kingdom vs France-Germany) over the sovereignty, occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. Instead, the major powers focused on issues of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, energy prices, global poverty, and epidemics - not the classical, state-led concerns of geopolitics, but the newer questions of conflicts, chaos and human insecurity in areas of the world disrupted and disabled by the pervasive impacts of globalisation.

This shift of emphasis, particularly towards the Middle East and the Arab world - what Fred Halliday in openDemocracy has called the "greater west Asian crisis" - has three important considerations for Japan as it continues to seek a new world role in this era of globalisation.

First, Japan's desire to sustain its strong alliance with the United States and to assist Iraq's reconstruction means that it will develop its close cooperation with the United States in the context of this overarching strategic relationship. Japan has agreed that its SDF forces in Iraq work closely with the multinational forces but not under their command.

Second, the region is endowed with petroleum resources. Japan needs them.

Third, this region of the world is among the most friendly to Japan, both because it is free of the experience of Japanese colonialism and because Japan is often portrayed there as the first non-western country to have built a flourishing national economy while resisting western domination.

These considerations tend to supplement, not replace, Japan's strategic affinity with the United States. At Sea Island, George W. Bush carefully solicited Junichiro Koizumi's views on North Korea and invited him for a joint photograph. There was an echo here of the May 2003 meeting in Bush's ranch at Crawford, Texas, when the Japanese prime minister's greeting of "High Noon!" was met with a wholehearted welcome. It was very reminiscent of Reagan and Nakasone at Williamsburg.

The special relationship: sweet and sour

The Japan-United States special relationship, forged by the twin structural forces of a strategic alliance within a globalised economy, has been further consolidated by the personal chemistry between the two pairs of Reagan-Nakasone and Bush-Koizumi. This "most important bilateral relationship - bar none" has in turn integrated Japan into a key area of current geopolitical fracture: the broader Middle East and North Africa.

The relationship brings both benefit and challenge - international risks, global prestige, economic pressures, domestic political difficulties - to Japan. It has to be negotiated constantly, "within" Japan as well as "between" Japan and the rest of the world. How it evolves, and with what consequences for Japan and the international community, is a question that will be crucial in defining global security in the 21st century.

(This article originally appeared in openDemocracy on June 17, reproduced here with permission.)

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