Commentary

Japan Bruises Easily From U.S. Stumbling

By Jonathan Clarke
This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

“Japan-bashing, Japan-passing, Japan-nothing.” Western visitors to Tokyo hear this somewhat curious litany quoted repeatedly to them whenever the current state of U.S.-Japan relations enters the discussion. What does it mean? Simply that America is seen to have moved from a posture of fearing Japanese economic prowess to one of outperforming and then ignoring Japan.

For some sections of the Japanese business community, this sense of American self-confidence brings a welcome respite. It allows them to plot their next strategic moves out of the limelight. After all, as astute observers like Japan Times publisher Toshiaki Ogasawara point out, Japan may be experiencing economic difficulties, but it is far from finished. It still accounts for 70% of East Asian economic activity. Outsiders would be making a great mistake if they treated Japan as unimportant.

Nevertheless, many Japanese business leaders—including top officials in the powerful Keidanren business association—fear that China’s explosive growth is reducing Japan to lowly offshore island status. This fear was given an extra twist by the almost exclusively China-centric focus of the recent Asia trips of Vice President Al Gore and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The speaker even used the occasion of his Tokyo visit to issue some of his crisper warnings about Chinese attitudes toward Taiwan.

Such events accentuate Japanese concerns that Japan will be taken for granted as the U.S. devotes itself to its love-hate relationship with China. Worse, they are worried that Japan will be expected to tag along in a U.S.-China crisis over which they have no control. Given this administration’s worrisome inability to give full attention to more than one topic at a time, this concern may be fully justified. During his visit, Gore showed himself to be remarkably ill-attuned to Japanese political sensitivities.

Gore’s misstep came on the delicate subject of continuing U.S. bases in Japan. Thinking that he was telling his hosts what they wanted to hear, he confidently announced that there would be no change in U.S. personnel levels in Japan. A year ago—at the time of last April’s signing of the U.S.-Japan Joint Declaration on Security—this would have been a welcome sentiment. Since then, instead of settling the base issue, the joint declaration gave it new life by raising the prospect of a significant relocation of U.S. facilities, specifically the Marine Corps airfield, from Okinawa to the Japanese mainland. As the practical barriers to such relocation have become more evident, resentment in Okinawa has grown to the point that land owners are mounting a serious challenge to the legality of continued U.S. use of the bases. U.S. government-commissioned opinion polls show mounting opposition to the American presence throughout Japan.

It is a mark of the political agility of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto’s government that these legal challenges have been deflected in Parliament. But the political cost will be great, for, to pass the necessary legislation, the ruling Liberal Democrats had to break their coalition with the Socialists and make common cause with the opposition New Frontier Party.

Some observers, such as former U.N. Ambassador Yoshio Hatano, fear that the LDP may split over this issue. The resultant realignment might open the door to latter-day nationalists such as those who turned out in force at the Yasukuni Shrine (where many Japanese war dead are enshrined) on April 5. At a time of growing regional uncertainties, the ensuing Japanese political instability would be a most unwelcome development for the U.S.

Much of this tension spilling over from Okinawa could have been avoided had Gore taken a more imaginative approach. His hosts certainly welcomed his reaffirmation of the American presence in Japan’s defense structure. But they were also hoping to hear him express some commitment to vigorous efforts on relocation.

Gore’s tin ear on matters Asian is hardly surprising. The U.S. ambassador posts in Tokyo and Seoul have been vacant for several months, as has the post of assistant secretary of state for East Asia. The absence of high-level Asian expertise right from the start of the second Clinton term is both palpable and inexplicably inexcusable.

Jonathan Clarke is a research fellow in foreign policy studies with the Cato Institute. He was in Japan this month.