Rethinking Japan's Stance vis-a-vis U.S. on Eve of New Era
With Obama set to take reins, time ripe for Japan to
reconsider bilateral relationship, seek prominent role in
shaping world's post-subprime future
Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor, Foreign Press Center Japan, and Lecturer, Waseda University)
For the Japanese, how to perceive - or rather keep their
distance from - the U.S. is a question that has been lingering
since Japan came under what many regard as subjugation to
Washington in the wake of its devastating defeat in World War
Normally, people are not palpably conscious of this. They are
used to having their alliance with the superpower across the
Pacific constantly lavished by both governments with such
eulogy and praise as "irreplaceable partnership," "the most
important bilateral relationship in the world," or "the
cornerstone of Japan's diplomacy."
Questioning this and putting it into sharper focus is
considered nonpragmatic and useless, given the American
predominance in Japan's postwar foreign policy, economic
fortunes, and above all, national security.
At the root of all this is the trauma of being completely
trounced by the U.S. in that war and placed under its
influence - a relationship that has progressed to a seemingly
irreversible point. Over the decades, the traumatic memory has
turned into a compelling reality of life for Japanese.
Occasionally, flurries of argument emerge for more
"independence" from the U.S., or at least a measured distance
from the country. But these end up amounting to little more
than scattered murmurs.
Such voices, however, do reflect a sentiment buried deep in
the Japanese psyche, which asks whether Japan's ties to the
U.S. - so close and binding - are a healthy and safe thing. A
sense of irritation and apprehension can be detected.
Most unequivocal on such matters is the Japanese Communist
Party, which condemns the Liberal Democratic Party and New
Komeito coalition governmet's "politics dictated by America to
an extraordinary degree." It calls for putting to an end
"politics of epic subjugation to Washington" and its
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the recent remark of
Prime Minister Taro Aso, who in referring to Barack Obama's
victory in the U.S. presidential election, said that "no
matter who becomes U.S. president, I wish to maintain the
relations that we have cultivated for more than 50 years."
The prime minister's statement merely echoed those of his
predecessor's over the past half century. But with an
editorial in Japan's major daily newspaper The Asahi Shimbun
questioning Aso's comment as arguably "too happy-go-lucky,"
now is perceived to be a time for a seasoned reconsideration
or reassessment of Japan's position vis-a-vis the U.S.
The JCP's demand for putting an end to subjugation fails to
draw much public support, apparently because it means
uprooting the very basis of Japan's survival in the world at
the present moment while lacking a plausible alternative.
Similarly, however, Aso's statement is being taken as
signaling the suspension of thinking beyond the status quo.
Japanese are tired of being fed the mantra of the supreme
value of the Japan-U.S. alliance.
As the Obama administration takes charge in the U.S., many
changes from the Republican Party-driven foreign and military
polices are expected, plus of course something of a new deal
in economic management. Even though any fundamental change
seems unlikely in Washington's stance toward its relations
with Tokyo, this would seem to be a good time to take a fresh
look at the bilateral relationship for which the basis started
with Japan's war defeat more than 60 years ago.
A reappraisal is needed, particularly at a time when stronger
initiatives and leadership seem to be required from Japan. The
U.S. economy is in shambles, and the same goes for its foreign
policy, considering the difficulties in its military
engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Can Japan's relations with the U.S. really continue with
"business as usual" at a time when a new administration in
Washington is intent on changing all this? What is worrying is
that Aso's apparently too casual comment gives the impression
that he lacks a vision and philosophy to deal with this
unfolding phase in Japan-U.S. relations, and in the border
The election of Obama as president is apparently Americans'
answer to the painful failed war in Iraq - which has lacked a
convincing cause - and the debacles of economic expansion
driven by "greed without morals." But has Japan not fully
committed itself to support the Iraq War, sending its troops
to the war-torn country? And has Japan not exploited the U.S.
economic bubble while feeding it with a cheap yen?
Where is Japan's responsibility and how should it respond to
the new situation? When a Japanese prime minister simply says
that Japan's relationship with the U.S. remains unchanged
despite these plights, does this not mean that this country is
stonewalling in acknowledging its responsibility?
The call for greater independence and a reasonable distance
from the U.S. is meant to suggest that Japan should be more
direct with Washington on important issues - bilateral matters
and otherwise. The appearance of successive governments'
failure to do so is a major source of the persistent postwar
image of a subservient Japan hiding in the American shadow.
With the U.S. emerging as a weakened superpower, looking for
ways to mend its troubled economy and position in the world,
what Washington expects of Tokyo must be greater initiatives
to help the U.S. achieve these tasks. This means that Japan
should show greater leadership and independence from the
U.S. - in its Asia policy, for example. And this requires that
Japan share deep insight and a vision for the world it wants
to make with the rest of the global community, beyond
psychological dependence on the U.S.
Position of strength
As the world tries to weather what has been termed a
"once-in-a-century financial crisis" and possibly the worst
global recession after the Great Depression of the 1930s, a
vague notion is emerging in Japan that it is well-positioned
to take leadership in building a post-subprime world.
To realize what Japan potentially possesses, intellectual
strength and willpower backed by a lofty vision must be in
place. It need not drown in the panicky sentiment now raging
around the world - rather, it should keep its chin high so as
not to lose sight of the future that can be achieved.
This is how Japan should stand up in its relationship with the
A first such serious attempt in the six decades of the postwar
bilateral relationship would mark the start of a new era and
win the genuine respect of the American people who voted for
(Originally appeared in the November 24, 2008 issue of The
Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)