For some time, Liberal Democratic Party politicians have made no secret of their longing for the “good old days” when Republicans lived in the White House. Besides the typical nostalgia, it is difficult to comprehend Japanese conservatives’ preference for the GOP (Grand Old Party as the U.S. Republican Party is known).
Ideologically there is little in common between both groups. American conservatives, even more than liberals, worship individualism. They seek to restrict the power of the state. American conservatism is centered on the individual, Japanese conservatism is communitarian. Government for Americans exists to serve citizens, for Japanese conservatives, subjects are there to serve the state.
The right to bear (fire)arms, vital to many Republicans (and some Democrats) is partly rooted in the belief that a free people must be able to overthrow tyranny.
To Japanese conservatives, the idea that Japan would be better off if there were more guns than residents totally contradicts their concepts of state-society relations.
Home schooling is another example. For many religious Republicans (and others), it allows families to decide what their offspring should learn without interference from the government. For the LDP, schools must be mobilized to homogenize Japanese children and instill them with state-approved ideas.
There is also a strong streak of Christian fundamentalism in the current GOP with an emphasis on outlawing abortion, questioning evolution and, more broadly, seeing the Bible as a policy guide. Japanese conservatives are attached to Shinto, but refrain from seeking divine guidance when it comes to 21st-century science.
On the economic front, there are also divergences. American conservative ideology is centered on free markets, whereas the LDP remains wedded to strong government involvement in the economy and paternalism.
So, if ideology does not unite the LDP and the GOP, are there more concrete reasons for preferring Republicans over Democrats? Without going back to the Japanese Constitution (written under the supervision of a Republican, Gen. Douglas MacArthur) or to the Nixon shocks (China, dollar devaluation, unilateral tariffs), it is hard to see how one American party has been better than the other for conservatives in Japan.
Some Japanese fear that the Democrats are “soft on China,” but during the EP-3 incident in 2001, when a People’s Liberation Army Air Force struck a U.S. Navy plane, President George W. Bush was as accommodating as possible.
The Iraq War, supported by many Democrats but initiated by the Bush-Cheney team with nearly total GOP approval, served the interests of China, which saw U.S. attention and military forces focus on Mesopotamia to the detriment of Asia. The nuclear agreement with North Korea, signed toward the end of the Bush presidency, was widely disparaged in Japan as a “stab in the back.”
As for the Obama administration, it did its best to crush the Hatoyama Cabinet. American undermining of the Democratic Party of Japan over Okinawa proved enormously valuable to the LDP. This alone should convince Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to enshrine Obama at Yasukuni.
The proximate cause for anger at Obama is the soft rebuke expressed following Abe’s Yasukuni pilgrimage Dec. 26, but it reflected a widely shared opinion in America.
Under Bush, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Yasukuni trips did not generate a formal statement, though reportedly the U.S. informally expressed its concern.
Abe’s visits were different from those of Koizumi, who made it clear that he did not agree with the Yasukuni view of history, signed letters of apology to former “comfort women” and was not a revisionist.
Nor did Koizumi appoint to NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, governors who say that America made up the Nanjing Massacre to distract attention from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
One other grievance is the alleged lack of “Japan hands” in the Democratic camp. This also is a strange accusation:
First, in neither party are there many Japan experts.
Second, in the U.S. system, country specialists very seldom reach top policymaking positions. There were exceptions during the Cold War when familiarity with Soviet affairs was a premium, but Soviet experts were also well versed in broader European and NATO affairs. Basing the relationship with the U.S. on contacts with “Japan hands” makes no sense for Tokyo.
Third, as mentioned above, what did the “friends of Japan” in the Bush administration deliver to the LDP? The Iraq War? The doomed deal with North Korea?
Looking at the record since 1945, it is hard to see a correlation between different policies toward Japan and the party in power in Washington.
The axis of U.S. policy has remained constant in that Japan has remained a major ally amid frequent periods of tension, mostly but not solely over trade.
There are numerous cases where Democratic presidents took actions that harmed Japan; however, the same applies to Republicans. America’s China policy has been fairly consistent since the end of the Cold War regardless of party affiliation.
What is critical today is for Tokyo to realize that U.S. dissatisfaction with the Abe Cabinet over “history” is not a plot by left-wing “Panda-hugging” Democrats. Like the major reforms under the Occupation, which emerged from the American consensus and not the biases of New Dealers, American disagreements with Abe over the politics of history are not confined to Democrats.
A Republican president in the form of Mitt Romney would, in most likelihood, have been equally openly hostile to the support of the “Yasukuni” narrative of history displayed by the Japanese premier.
It would be a serious miscalculation for the LDP to hope for an improved relationship with Washington if the GOP, advised by friendly Japan specialists, were in power. Whether American policy is wise or not is an important debate. At this point, though, the fact is that it would not change significantly if Obama and the Democrats were not in charge.
Robert Dujarric is director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University Japan. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org