Japan-U.S. relations cry out for new management, dialogue

by Kazuo Ogoura

Ripples, frictions, uneasiness, concern and even dismay — these are the words by which most of the Japanese mass-media commentaries characterize present Japan-U.S. relations.

Behind this phenomenon lies the impact from several issues. The problem of bases in Okinawa, particularly the so-called Futenma air base issue, is one. In this case there are two aspects of friction. The first was the change in the position of a new Japanese government divorced from an “agreement” that had been reached between the former LDP government of Japan and the Bush administration. The second aspect appears to be related to the series of “changes” in the position of the Japanese authorities, which has wavered between consideration for international strategy and and the strong resistance of the people in Okinawa.

Somewhat related to the base issue is a question as to how to deal with the mitsuyaku (secret deals or agreements) between Japanese and American authorities over the Okinawa reversion. Though, in substance, the contents of the secret agreement, even if proved to be true, does not directly jeopardize Japan-U.S. strategic relations, the underlying political implication is rather serious. The existence of a secret agreement between the conservative government of Japan and the American administration is regarded by many Japanese as a typical example of insincerity toward and neglect of the people’s wishes at the expense of military or strategic dealings between the two governments. In other words, popular support and more transparent decision-making are now required in dealing with politico-military issues between Japan and the U.S.

Then comes former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s emphasis on the formation of an East Asia Community coupled with the concept of yuai or fraternity. Although neither the idea of an East Asian Community nor yuai should necessarily give rise to concern in the American mind, these concepts have been viewed by some observers on both sides of the Pacific as signs of the new Japanese administration’s “inclination” toward less attachment to strategic considerations in international relations.

Finally, there is on the side of Japan a vague feeling of being “bullied” by America (such as on the issue of the recall of Toyota cars in the U.S.) or of being increasingly marginalized or neglected in the wake of the rising Chinese power and the increasingly visible U.S.-China strategic partnership.

Against such a background, one might say that what is taking place is simply a transitional phenomenon: In both Japan and the U.S., we have had new administrations that must deal with various issues in a new style, and in both countries, the people and the government should take time to adjust themselves to the new styles.

There are indeed some American intellectuals with wide knowledge of Japan who advocate that Americans should not display impatience and arrogance, and that the Japanese should become more pragmatic and coherent.

This is certainly desirable, but it does not solve the real issue. What is really taking place between Japan and the U.S., and what is most serious, is the absence of “real dialogue” between opinion leaders with a long-term perspective. It is indeed deplorable that two democratic nations that are supposed to share fundamental values of human rights should not have a deeper, wider and more farsighted dialogue between various layers of society.

At a crucial moment when Japan and the U.S. need a deepening and widening of mutual strategic and visionary dialogue, channels for such dialogue have weakened or become ineffective.

One must recall that, under conservative governments, the coalition of pragmatic politicians and “cool” but trustworthy experts on both sides have always been able to form a behind-the- scenes coalition to manage the difficult issue of Japan-U.S. relations with long-term strategic considerations in mind. Today, such a coalition is, for various reasons, practically absent. The major reason for such an absence does not necessarily lie in the advent of a new administration in Japan or in its style. The root lies much deeper.

Japan-U.S. relations have become more mature, and the international politico-military picture has changed its color and composition. The “bluff” or quasi-coercion by dint of strategic interests and maintenance of the Japan-U.S. politico-military alliance does not, by itself, silence the “democratic” and somewhat introverted Japanese voters preoccupied with welfare, environment and education.

The shadow (or the rise) of China is another reason. Vaguely but perceptively, many Japanese have begun to sense the long-term strategic differences vis-a-vis China, which may have already arisen or potentially will arise between Japan and the U.S. It is, therefore, all the more desirable that we should try to build a new type of forum for Japan-U.S. dialogue, taking into account the imperceptible but gradually apparent diastrophism in Japan-U.S. relations.

One such forum can be a high-powered strategic initiative forum composed of nonpartisan prestigious politicians, businessmen and seasoned experts, where we could discuss boldly and frankly, several options for the future strategic global partnership between Japan and the U.S. Such a forum should somehow be blessed by the governments and be based on a bipartisan principle. It should be led by people who would personally commit themselves to such dialogue for a time.

Another forum should also be created or strengthened. This would be a comprehensive coordinating forum that would play a catalytic role in creating or encouraging action-oriented intellectual citizen-to-citizen dialogue on issues of a global agenda, such as human rights, environment, demographic problems, disaster prevention or protection of cultural and biological diversity.

A special fund can be created to encourage such a series of dialogues under the umbrella CULCON (U.S.-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange).

We should not remain idle before the contemporary challenges we face in Japan-U.S. relations. We should look far beyond the Futenma issue and share visions that will eventually help settle the base issue on Okinawa as well.

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation.