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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 14:06 12/01/2008
December 1, 2008

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 II.

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.

Polar opposites

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 "military-oriented policy."

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 world.

Owning up

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 U.S.

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 Obama.

(Originally appeared in the November 24, 2008 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

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