Since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and the subsequent war on terrorism, a number of American political leaders and experts have observed that Japan-U.S. relations have “never been better.”

Although participants at the Nov. 11 symposium in Tokyo agreed on that point, some of them warned that certain elements are clearly missing from recent Japan-U.S. relations, notably long-term discussions on economic partnerships and the consolidation of U.S. military bases in Okinawa.

“The interaction between (Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and U.S. President George W. Bush), and at all levels of government, the respect given Japan appropriately in all diplomatic and security form is quite significant,” said Kurt Campbell, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Japan has responded entirely appropriately, supporting the U.S. in the global war on terrorism (as) a very effective and increasingly active partner,” Campbell told the audience.

Within weeks of the Sept. 11 attacks, Koizumi compiled new legislation enabling Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to provide logistic support to the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.

At the same time, Campbell observed, there are other issues that are “almost completely absent from the Japan-U.S. diplomatic agenda.

“When was the last time you heard any U.S. or Japanese official mention ‘Futenma replacement?’,” Campbell asked, referring to the 1996 agreement in which the U.S. agreed to return to Japan the site of the U.S. Marines’ Futenma Air Station in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture.

The promised return of Futenma was a key part of the agreement to consolidate the huge U.S. military presence in Okinawa. However, the project has since made little progress as construction of an alternative airfield remains stalled.

He said this aspect of the Japan-U.S. security relationship has not been receiving as much attention as it did during the administration of President Bill Clinton, for whom he served as deputy assistant secretary of defense.

Yukio Sato, Japan’s former ambassador to the United Nations, said he believes Japan should play a central role on a wider spectrum of issues, ranging from North Korea to reconstruction of Afghanistan.

“The U.S. believes that Japan, together with South Korea, should persuade North Korea (to terminate its nuclear weapons development program),” Sato observed.

Sato brushed aside concerns in the U.S. that Japan, in dealing with North Korea, is concentrating on the abductions issue and putting the issues of nuclear weapons and missile systems on the back burner.

“There is no need for the U.S. to be concerned. Security is a major problem for Japan, and North Korea’s missile deployment is a threat to our country,” he argued.

Strategic economics issue

On economic matters, Campbell also expressed concern that protracted economic doldrums in Japan are increasingly seen in Washington as a strategic problem for U.S. interests in Asia.

“At the below-the-surface level, particularly in Washington, there is a growing worry that the lack of progress on certain economic issue in Japan is not just an economic and commercial issue but a strategic concern,” he said. Such concern comes as China rises as a larger economic power in the region and as Japan fails to achieve a much-awaited full-scale recovery, he suggested.

“Without Japan as a clear and powerful vision of a democratic player in Asia, Asia starts to look quite different,” he said. “I think there are worries inside the U.S. not just about (Japan’s economic problems over) the last decade, but (about) this decade.”

Unlike his predecessor, President Bush has avoided adding “gaiatsu” pressures on Japan on trade or macroeconomic issues.

Takatoshi Ito, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, said he believes it a positive sign that the Bush administration’s economic team has not become engaged in Asia.

Noting that he does not see any particular problem in Japan-U.S. economic relations, except possibly the dispute over U.S. antidumping duties on steel imports, Ito said a “gaiatsu” approach to the current problems in Japan would be counterproductive.

In early October, Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, expressed support for Financial Services Minister Heizo Takenaka’s proposals for a hard-landing approach to resolving Japan’s bad loan problems — just as Takenaka was being criticized domestically by the banking sector and ruling coalition lawmakers.

But that kind of remark, although intended to support proposed reforms, could have the very opposite effect in Japan by giving Takenaka’s opponents ammunition to attack him, he noted. “Japan-U.S. economic relations have entered a more mature phase and Japan must think of ways to resolve its own problems.”

Business not so certain

However, Keikichi Honda, chairman of Sun Microsystems K.K., said that from a businessman’s point of view, he cannot entirely agree that Japan-U.S. relations have never been better.

“I am afraid the problems confronting the Japanese economy today are not fully understood by people in the United States,” said Honda.

Honda said Japan is currently at a crossroads, undergoing fundamental transformation from what was once described as “the most successful socialist economy.”

“Japan is being hit simultaneously with this wave of major transformation — perhaps the first in several decades — coupled with a medium-term wave of deflation and a short-term wave of economic cycles,” Honda said.

While a decade ago the U.S. was intent on opening up Japan’s market, Washington should today commit more to supporting Japan’s structural reforms, he observed.

“I hope (the two nations) once again make efforts to build a solid framework for long-term economic relationship,” Honda said. “To say that there are no pressing economic issues between the two countries seems to reflect a lack of sense of crisis.”

Akira Kojima, editorial page editor and managing director of Nihon Keizai Shimbun, also said U.S. views of Japan have fluctuated wildly over the past two decades.

When bilateral trade friction flared in the mid-1980s, Japan’s economic threat was considered more serious than the military threat of the then Soviet Union, as indicated by a 1985 Senate resolution condemning Japan’s closed markets, he pointed out.

But after the Japan’s economic “bubble” burst in the early 1990s, the “Japan-bashing” dissipated quickly, with some American leaders later noting, in retrospect, that the U.S. had gone too far in criticizing Japan, he said.

“The United States sends a message in its foreign policy that seems clear enough at that specific point in time, but the policy itself does fluctuate wildly,” Kojima said, raising questions about the consistency of Washington’s long-term policies.

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