Bureaucrats in Tokyo are finally feeling the love from Washington as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton prepares to grace Japan with her first overseas visit Monday as America’s top diplomat.
But some experts say that, like any relationship, Japan has to get rid of its insecurities before they hamper bilateral ties.
“I would like all of us to get away from the need to continually ask which is the most important relationship,” said Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia program at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, during a recent panel discussion in Tokyo.
Hathaway suggested that Tokyo needs to understand the United States will try to strengthen ties with China, but that Japan will remain the key to Washington’s agenda in Asia.
The news that Clinton picked Tokyo as the first stop on her first official trip abroad was treated with much fanfare in Japan, where anxiety was building over future relations with new U.S. President Barack Obama.
Many Japanese experts thought Obama would prioritize ties with China. In addition to Japan’s diminishing global presence, Tokyo still has bad memories of its strained trade ties with the Democrats under former President Bill Clinton. The term “Japan passing” became popular after Clinton made a nine-day visit to China but neglected to swing by Tokyo in 1998.
Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone said earlier this month that Secretary of State Clinton’s quick visit to Tokyo demonstrates “that the U.S. administration prioritizes the Japan-U.S. alliance” and that it is “a significant move.”
Nakasone is scheduled to exchange opinions with his U.S. counterpart on realigning U.S. forces in Japan and the North Korea denuclearization and abduction issues. The two sides are also expected to discuss ways to tackle the global financial turmoil as the world’s two largest economies.
Clinton’s visit is making news not only for its content, but also its scheduling.
According to a foreign ministry official, the Japanese media flooded its press division with questions about why Clinton chose Tokyo for her first destination.
“We were asked to check if past U.S. Secretaries of State had chosen Japan as the first destination of his or her opening trip,” an official said.
Since the press division failed to find any such records from the past three decades, it was then asked to look into various record books.
“The (ministry’s) North American Division has its plate full. We couldn’t ask them to continue digging for records,” the official said.
Fumiaki Kubo, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School, said that Japan worries too much over how the U.S. views it.
Many Japanese academics have analyzed Clinton’s and U.S. Sen. John McCain’s articles on diplomacy, he said, counting total references to Japan and China in an attempt to determine which one they favor.
“Does America feel it awkward that Japan is infatuated with wanting to be told that it is more important than China?” Kubo asked Hathaway during the panel session.
Hathaway said Japan and China have fundamentally different characteristics from the U.S. perspective. Because China causes problems in a way Japan doesn’t, it is inevitable that Washington will spend more time with China, he added.
The U.S. expert also said that Tokyo was chosen as Clinton’s first stop because of the importance Washington places on those ties.
“I applaud this as a clear signal that the U.S.-Japan relationship will rank high in the list of priorities under Obama,” he said.
Other experts say that Japan also agonizes too much over who the U.S. ambassador will be, and that it should not speculate too much.
So far, the Japanese media have speculated and reported intensively about who the next U.S. ambassador to Japan could be. The top favorite is Joseph Nye, a Japan expert and an advocate of “soft power.”
“This is an issue that has caused me endless amusement,” Robert Orr, a former adviser and supporter for Obama, said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan last month. Orr said that German, French and British media show zero interest in who will be their next U.S. ambassadors.
“This is not an issue for most countries. Japan shouldn’t worry too much,” he said.