International Affairs Forum:
Recent polls by Kyodo News and The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper have shown there is some concern among Japanese about Japan-U.S. relations. What do you think is behind this?
I think there are a number of different factors that could be involved. First, when you take a look at the long term, U.S.-Japanese relations have had their ups and downs. But on the whole, even compared with traditional U.S. allies, Japanese public opinion since the 1980s has been generally positive, even though we sometimes have different views on certain issues – on economics and trade for example.
Right now, probably what is causing the Japanese some concern is three things. First of all in the context of the War on terror, the Bush administration undertook a number of unilateral initiatives. The Japanese are especially sensitive to this because they feel very vulnerable to U.S. pressure - they are worried about being pushed around by the United States.
I think another large factor that plays into this is the U.S. relationship with China. China is becoming a larger player in the East Asia region. There is some exaggeration I think about how important China is going to be. But it is undoubtedly a big and important player, and is going to continue to become a bigger one. There already has been in the late 1980s, and in the '90s under the Clinton administration, there was increased talk not of Japan bashing, but Japan passing - fears that Japan will become increasingly irrelevant to the United States. Those fears are being magnified a by the change in the U.S. government. The Japanese, including Japanese officials, felt they had bad experiences with the Clinton administration, especially the early Clinton administration, and they worry that the Democratic Obama administration, may replicate those problems.
These concerns are amplified by the fact that Obama is something of an unknown quality as far as the Japanese are concerned.
I think the third and most immediate factor playing into this is the gap that opened up between Japan and the United States on North Korea. In particular, from the beginning of the [Shinzo] Abe administration, the Japanese really committed themselves to taking a tough bargaining position vis-à-vis North Korea and in that context they focused very much on the abduction of Japanese – Japanese citizens who were kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s and whose fate has not been fully accounted for by the North Korean government. The Japanese government took a very hard stance on this issue, demanding further clarification on the fate of the abductees, and withholding cooperation with North Korea, especially in the context of diplomatic normalization talks between Tokyo and Pyongyang. When the Bush administration switched its position on North Korea and Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill was instructed to look for a deal with Pyongyang, the Abe administration felt betrayed, and ordinary Japanese who were enraged by the reports of North Korean abuses of Japanese citizens also felt betrayed by the United States.
The United States continues to promise that it is behind the Japanese government in demanding clarification of this abuse, but the Japanese nonetheless feel they were undercut on this. And they were to some extent. On top of that, the agreement we thought we had worked out with North Korea is showing signs of unraveling on multiple levels. So the Japanese do once again have doubts about the reliability of the United States and its willingness to protect Japanese interests.
There appears to be some uncertainty in Japan over what to expect from an Obama administration. Do you expect much of a shift in U.S. policy?
I doubt it, though of course it’s always difficult to tell where the relationship is going to head in the future. And while the top leadership in the Obama administration have been filled in quick order, most of the positions beneath these – assistant secretaries and so forth who are going to be doing a lot of the heavy lifting and will be dealing with policy on a day-to-day level - most of those positions remain open. So we just don't know.
And of course events intervene – after all, when the Bush administration came into office it was not expecting to be focusing on terrorism. But I don't think fundamentally things are going to change. The people who are close to the Obama administration, who have been advising it on Asia policy, they are all pretty much known qualities. People like Matt Goodman, Amy Searight, Gerald Curtis – we know what these people think, and they are people that are going to have views not all that different from that the Bush administration with regard to Japan and East AsiaJapan is a large and powerful country, and in many respects is the lynchpin of our strategy for the region. While we have to work more closely with China than we did in the past, we remain – philosophically and strategically – closer to Japan.
Since Junichiro Koizumi stepped down as Japanese prime minister in 2005 there have been three more Japanese prime ministers. How much of an impact do you think this high turnover is having on the Japan-U.S. relationship?
I think there are two things to note here. I think one of the broader developments, which is not always fully appreciated here, is how the Japanese policymaking process has changed over the last decade or so, including the foreign policy making process. For much of the Cold War period, the agenda for Japanese foreign policy was set by the bureaucrats, and they had a stranglehold on this issue.
But now there is good news and the bad news about democratization in Japan. The good news is that Japan has become more democratic, there is more popular participation in foreign policy and defense policy – it is more reflective than it used to be of popular sentiment. The bad news is that the Japanese public has a greater degree of influence on foreign policy than it did before! This creates a certain volatility in Japanese foreign policy making, something that the U.S. is still getting used to.
The abductees is an excellent example of how popular sentiment was rallied behind a particular cause, and this then tied down the country’s foreign policy in a way that I think the pros in the foreign ministry felt was potentially dangerous. Everyone has sympathy for the abductees and their families. But it was tying Japan down to a certain kind of negotiation stance that proved to be unsustainable. So now you have prime ministers who are trying to be populist and trying to cater to popular sentiments , and that sometimes creates problem, both for Japan and the U.S.-Japan relationship.
The other problem is, as you mentioned, that were are in a much more unstable period in Japanese politics– there is a lot of talk of a second reorganization of the Japanese political scene. We’ve had three weak prime ministers in a row, with the Aso administration now experiencing a catastrophic drop in the opinion polls. The Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan) is looking stronger, and it is quite likely that next year we are going to have a DJP government. But even if this happens, it’s going to be facing a difficult political landscape. It is quite possible the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is going to split and it is possible that when some LDP members go over to the DPJ, it is quite possible that the DPJ will split too. What the final political scene will look like when the dust settles is anybody’s guess.
The interesting thing is that the issue where the two parties differ the most is not economics, it is over security issues and how far Japan should go in supporting the U.S. So I think we should expect instability in Japanese politics for the next three to six years, and I think there is going to be a great degree of difficulty for Japanese policymakers to hammer out a coherent and sustainable strategy in terms with how it deals with security issues and how it deals with the United States.
Japan is constrained by its peace Constitution from having an offensive military force, a constraint that limits its ability to contribute to U.S.-led missions. How do you think this inability to contribute extensively will affect the relationship?
Obviously the United States would like to get as much help from its friends and allies as it can on issues such as Afghanistan and Iraq. But you cannot realistically expect the Japanese to do too much in terms of sending troops.
During the early part of the Bush administration there was a bit of overselling of Japan. There was the first [Richard] Armitage report, where he was talking about Japan becoming the Great Britain of East Asia, and there was an expectation that Japan would become a loyal sidekick – East Asia’s Tonto to America’s Lone Ranger – in dealing with East Asian security issues and security issues worldwide. If you look over the last decade, it is clear that the Japanese have made some very important changes in policy. They have moved the alliance from one that was focused on the territorial defense of Japan, to one where Japan has become a junior supporting partner providing logistical support for operations in the Indian Ocean and taking on bigger roles in the Proliferation Security Initiative. These developments may not seem particularly eye-catching, but they are significant, and I think in the American foreign policy establishment those efforts have been appreciated. But I think in the second half of the Bush administration, we saw growing frustration on both sides – on the North Korean issue, and on base realignment for example.
This reluctance to do more is deeply rooted in Japan. It is a product of the institutional legacies of the Cold War – Article 9 and all that, but also of a mind set that remains deeply reluctant to use military power as an instrument of foreign policy, and of a foreing policy tradition of avoiding becoming too entangled in American grand strategy. These features of the Japanese system have changed and evolved over time, but they have not disappeared.
Going into the Obama administration I would say don’t ignore Japan. Japan should be included – you can get a lot just from including the Japanese and paying attention to them. I think there are useful things I think that the U.S. and Japan can do in the future as well. But don’t expect big dramatic things, because of the constraints that are built in not just to the Japanese constitution, but more importantly there is a lack of consensus within Japanese society about the kind of role Japan should play in international affairs, especially international security.
But there are areas where there can be more cooperation. On security affairs for example, I think in disaster relief such as what we saw after the tsunami, the Japanese played a useful role there and we can develop and improve that. Antipiracy is also something I think the Japanese have been interested in playing a larger role in. And I think that issues such as international energy problems, alternative energy sources – these are things the Japanese are quite strong in – that these are things with which you can deal with in a cooperative way. We also are going to have to act proactively to reassure Japan about certain issues. Above all, we need to deal with the uptick in Japanese concerns over the reliability of the US security guarantee, especially with respect to nuclear security issues.
Thomas Berger is an associate professor of international relations at Boston University and author of Cultures of Antimilitarism: National Security in Germany and Japan
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