• Kyodo


In the early 1990s, after Japan faced criticism for its passive checkbook diplomacy during the first Gulf War, the United States sought to take advantage of Tokyo’s “defensiveness and fear of isolation” to prod it to play a greater role on the global stage, according to a recently declassified U.S. government document.

The document — a cable dated March 14, 1991, by then U.S. Ambassador to Japan Michael Armacost — is part of more than 1,750 declassified documents totaling more than 8,000 pages that highlight how from 1977 to 1992 U.S. pressure spurred Japan to increase its international contributions and resolve trade friction.

The papers also clarify the process of how the two nations worked together to deepen their defense cooperation during these critical years, which saw the end of the Cold War and the launch of the Gulf War, even though their trade and economic ties were deteriorating.

Now, more than a decade later, Japan and the United States have agreed on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan to strengthen defense ties by integrating military operations and to transform security relations into a global alliance.

The documents were obtained by the National Security Archive in Washington, a research center and library affiliated with George Washington University.

In the cable sent to the State Department shortly after the Gulf War, Armacost said the Japanese government took an “essentially passive approach” to the war and that the Diet debate failed to “educate the public on the fundamental interests and principles at stake.”

“Much of the responsibility belongs to the rigid parliamentary practices built up over the 40 years of single party rule and to the bureaucratic mentality” with which the government, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition parties “have traditionally approached issues,” he said.

But Armacost said, “In pursuing our interests here, we have the opportunity to take advantage of Japan’s defensiveness and fear of isolation in the wake of the Gulf crisis to gain greater GOJ (government of Japan) cooperation.

“In sum, we have a real opportunity to influence the direction of Japanese foreign policy and to point Japan’s financial and political influence in directions supportive of U.S. interests if we devote the time necessary for consultations and if we give the GOJ some room for maneuver within the context of different approaches to achieving shared objectives,” he said.

Armacost warned against “the bashing” seen in the U.S. Congress and media over Tokyo’s contributions, saying that it “has fueled resentment” in Japan.

“Of more importance is the growing theme here that America’s welcome new self-confidence may turn to arrogance and that the United States, unconstrained by the need to maintain alliances to contain the Soviet Union in a ‘unipolar world’ and frightened by Japan’s economic challenge, will now ‘turn its guns’ toward Tokyo,” he said.

“We need to avoid an overly confrontational approach that risks provoking a backlash,” Armacost said.

In a memorandum dated April 20, 1981, for President Ronald Reagan ahead of Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki’s visit to Washington, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger stressed the importance of encouraging Japan to increase its defense capabilities.

“Japan is our only Asian ally with the potential significantly to increase its defense efforts,” he said. “Therefore, your forthcoming meeting with Prime Minister Suzuki provides a fine opportunity to urge Japan to help provide for its own defense while the United States continues to provide the offensive capability in the region.”

More specifically, Weinberger advised the president to propose that Japan “approximately double your maritime and air defense capabilities in the Northwest Pacific within this decade . . . to protect shipping lanes north of the Philippines and west of Guam plus the air defense of Japan.”

As for trade disputes, a memorandum of talks between Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ito and Secretary of State Alexander Haig on March 23, 1981, documents the proposal officially made by the United States for Japanese automakers to cut back voluntarily on their exports to resolve the auto dispute amid escalating retaliatory pressure in the U.S. Congress and industry.

“Our concern is to pre-empt in both Europe and the United States the protectionist trends by some manifestation in the near-term of Japanese restraint in the areas of small car and small truck exports,” Haig said.

The two nations eventually struck a deal on voluntary plans to resolve the dispute.

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