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America: the superpower ally that’s far, far away

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Japan is, at heart, politically as well as geographically, a country of small towns. One of these is home to the Japanese-American political relationship.

Populated by distinguished elders and ambitious young courtiers from government and academia on both sides of the Pacific, this village has its own lexicon, holds town meetings at think tanks and issues nonbinding resolutions promoting the status quo.

To become a permanent resident of the nichibei kankei mura (Japan-U.S. relations village), one must first have the right resume. Like homes, restaurants and gas stations, it’s first about “location, location, location.” That means having an address in either one of America’s two cities (New York or Washington — are there any others?), or in Japan (this merely being a synonym for Tokyo, of course).

Thus, it’s not surprising to discover that, compared with Tokyo, serious and informed interest in, and conversation about, the Japan-U.S. relationship in Kansai is somewhat lacking, to be polite.

It’s not that people in Kyoto, Osaka, Nara or Kobe like or dislike Americans more than people in Tokyo. Rather, they’re just indifferent because of their location. For most Kansai residents, politically, economically, and in terms of individual relations, America is a distant country indeed.

In 2011, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, more than 67 percent of Kansai’s exports went to Asia, with 24 percent sent to China alone. By contrast, just under 11 percent went to the United States.

Also almost 57 percent of Kansai’s imports came from Asia, as well one-third from China, as opposed to just under 7 percent from the United States.

Less than 8,000 people from North America, including Canada, were registered as living in Kansai’s three main prefectures of Kyoto, Osaka, and Hyogo in 2011. By contrast, Tokyo alone had more than 35,000 North Americans, excluding U.S. service members.

At Kansai airport, just how distant America is can easily be grasped. This month, there is one direct daily flight to the U.S. mainland, to San Francisco, from Kansai airport. Another flight to New York, three times weekly, originates in Taiwan.

Narita alone flies to 16 U.S. mainland cities daily, in many cases more than once. All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines have given up on Kansai as a North American hub, and with Haneda adding even more U.S.-bound flights, most Kansai travelers going to the United States on these airlines fly out of Itami to one of the two Tokyo airports to catch a connecting flight.

All of the above means it’s very hard to get Kansai people strongly interested in discussing the upcoming visit of President Barack Obama, Japan-U.S. politics or the role of the American military, especially since there are no U.S. bases in Kansai.

So, people in Kansai think, what is the point in raising such complicated and controversial issues about a country whose people I don’t see? Better to just talk about food, television programs or office gossip.

Kansai’s exception to this indifference to politics is arguably Kyoto. After Tokyo, it’s the most popular tourist destination for American tourists, which means opportunities to interact with Americans the rest of Kansai doesn’t have. But those are short-term encounters rather than long-term relationships with people who have personal or professional reasons for being in Japan. The ancient capital is also a draw for academic or cultural specialists who have a distinct lack of interest in anything outside their field of study.

Thus, the Japan-U.S. relationship, especially the political aspect, is of less interest than in Tokyo because while everyone understands that it’s important, the small American presence in Kansai means the politics are quite removed from the way people here live their lives. Out of sight, therefore, out of mind.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.

  • Diane E Johnson

    Very informative on all counts. Now I understand why I have to fly from LAX to SFO to get to Kansai. Most of the time I have to fly on to Narita or Haneda and catch a connecting flight.