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End this dysfunctional relationship

by Jeff Kingston

LEAVING JAPAN: Observations on the Dysfunctional U.S.-Japan Relationship. By Mike Millard. M.E. Sharpe: Armonk, NY, 2000, 200 pp., $37.95.

The $79-billion question is why does the United States continue to tolerate the lopsided economic relationship with Japan that led to a such a massive trade imbalance in 1999? Mike Millard, a veteran Asahi journalist, explains how the Japanese government has used the military bases it hosts in Okinawa as an effective diplomatic weapon, preventing U.S. initiatives aimed at creating a more mutually beneficial economic relationship.

In delving into how the Japanese private sector manipulates Washington politics to secure its interests in ways that are harmful to the U.S., Millard also peels back layers of self-delusion that have prevented what he believes is an overdue reality check.

A smoldering anger and disappointment animate this highly personal account of what ails Japan. Millard offers 35 brief chapters that help explain his growing alienation from Japan and his decision to leave in order to spare his young child the burdens of growing up in a country that renders individualism a self-indulgent vice. The title suggests that the book zeroes in on why the trans-Pacific relationship is dysfunctional, and it delivers on this promise, but its most poignant moments revolve around the author’s progressive estrangement from a country he first encountered as a young navy technician stationed in Okinawa three decades ago.

The organization of the book into bite-size nuggets of a few pages may work well for some readers, but I found it unappealing, mostly because it prevents the author from probing more deeply into the fascinating subjects he covers. Instead, one revisits some recurring themes and threads from various angles and perspectives, but always in tantalizing riffs rather than the sustained solos one keeps hoping for.

Millard asserts that Japan is not the country that Americans think it is, and that this is one of the key problems bedeviling U.S. policies toward Japan. Assuming that Japan is more or less like the U.S. with a vibrant democracy and capitalist economy is a recipe for disaster, says Millard, because it is neither democratic nor capitalist.

In short, Japan is depicted as a slightly transformed feudal authoritarian polity practicing neomercantilism with the normal exclusionary and predatory trading practices that implies. While the U.S. has blithely embraced free-trade rhetoric, the asymmetry in its trading ties with Japan has produced ballooning deficits and no prospects of reciprocity.

Tackling this problem, according to Millard, will require the U.S. to erect protectionist barriers aimed at producing “a significant and fair cutback of Japanese exports to the U.S.” In his view, the Japanese must earn market access in the U.S. by ensuring measurable results for U.S. exporters to Japan. By the way, that sucking sound you hear is the lost trade and jobs caused by the collapse of the World Trade Organization.

Sliding at times into caricature and hyperbole, the author makes sweeping historical references that do not always do justice to either the processes of transformation or Japan’s historical experience. “Many of the Tokugawa-era institutions have survived because for more than two centuries Japan had turned inward and ignored the progress of the world outside, allowing its political structures to ossify. Today it is often said that Japan has a first-class economy and third-rate politicians, but this could be amended for the sake of accuracy to ‘a third-rate, feudalistic political structure.’ Japan flounders in the international arena without vision or direction, with no institution able to provide guidance.”

He adds, “Japan has not been profoundly altered since it was organized in line with the feudalistic dynamics that existed when Tokugawa consolidated power from the top cadre of proud samurai down through the lowliest farmers. The system is a self-contained antique that hardened away from and without regard for the flow of world history. And that is the classical tragedy of Japan. While its flaw stands revealed so that its fate might be anticipated and avoided, all avenues were walled off four centuries ago by Tokugawa Ieyasu.”

Such simplistic and reductive interpretations undermine the credibility of the book, and are not really necessary to some of Millard’s interesting critiques of contemporary Japan. The suppression of the individual is an important theme in “Leaving Japan.” The educational system and processes of socialization leave little room for straying from accepted norms, and there is the ubiquitous practice of “ijime” (bullying) — everywhere from school yards and local neighborhoods right up through the elite hierarchy — that forces conformity. Bullying is condoned, and indeed encouraged, as a way of forcing the collective will on the recalcitrant individual who does not subscribe to prevailing norms; methods range from petty verbal harassment to brutal physical violence.

The costs to society are numerous, including the stress generated by psychological abuse and the obstacles to personal fulfillment caused by systematic and institutionalized bullying. Moreover, individuals forced to accept the collective will lose a sense of moral responsibility, instead surrendering to the dictates and easily manipulated morality of the group.

Wanting to spare his child and save his spirit, Millard decided to return to the U.S.

What are the prospects for reform, both within this deeply troubled society and in the trans-Pacific alliance? It is troubling that Ichiro Ozawa, a politician who cut his teeth in smoke-filled rooms and is notorious as a fixer in a system permeated by corruption, is trotted out as the poster boy for reform. If he is the champion for reform, then considering the prospects for reform seems like asking the yakuza to pay their bad debts. Political leaders may have good intentions, but “in Japan, a politician’s downfall is only a news leak and a breath of scandal away.”

Can one expect reform to be led by those who have most to lose from it? Millard argues that entrenched bureaucratic interests have impeded reform and will continue to do so. His skepticism about government dates back to the Vietnam debacle, when he realized that “while governments were generally made up of smart people, for various reasons they didn’t always perform so brilliantly. And while the American government espoused freedom as a guiding principle, it often opposed the freedom of peoples for political reasons, usually anticommunism. It opposed the freedom of Vietnamese people, it trampled on the Okinawans’ freedom, it supported murderous Latin American dictators and, as I would later discover, while it supported and sustained the economic growth of Japan far more generously than it should have, the U.S. blocked the path of Japan’s political development toward democracy. And while these betrayals were presented at the time as politically pragmatic, none seemed to have proven particularly sound policy in the long term.”

It is slamming riffs like this that get our attention.

So why does the U.S. still maintain bases in Okinawa even after the end of the Cold War? Don’t look in “Leaving Japan” for an answer, because Millard sides with Chalmers Johnson in arguing that there are no compelling reasons to sustain the U.S. occupation and many good reasons to relieve Okinawans of their disproportionate security burden. In Millard’s view, the bases provide no security, endanger locals and are costly, locking the U.S. into a one-sided security alliance that is used to justify and prolong a one-way economic relationship.

This lose-lose scenario, a relic from the Cold War, is accepted by the U.S. government for reasons that baffle Millard, me and many others. Japanese taxpayers can rest assured, however, that for an estimated $5 billion per annum in base-related support costs (Millard’s figure exceeds the $2.88 billion figure for 1998 cited in The Japan Times on July 31), they are renting the best nuclear umbrella to be had and purchasing a valuable bargaining chip in bilateral trade negotiations.