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The U.S.-Japan relationship remains extremely close due to shared interests and common strategic concerns. But issues ranging from trade negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership to a perception on the U.S. side that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is too focused on the past, have created immediate political problems.

On a deeper level, the Japanese and Americans most involved with people-to-people exchanges are anxious Japan is becoming more insular, with younger people electing to stay home rather than go abroad for study, and its poor English-language education system is causing it to fall behind the rest of Asia in terms of international presence and competitiveness.

These were the main issues addressed last Saturday at the 9th International Symposium of America-Japan Societies in Sapporo, a gathering of about 300 representatives from Japan-America societies in both nations, Sapporo-based high school and college students, and Hokkaido-based Japanese and American residents.

Official statistics indicate that, in general, the relationship is good. A 2012 opinion poll on the U.S. image of Japan, conducted by the Foreign Ministry, showed that half of the Americans surveyed said Japan was the most important U.S. partner in Asia, as opposed to 39 percent who said China. And 84 percent of Americans called Japan a dependable friend of the U.S.

One of the purposes of the Sapporo gathering, though, was to explore the image younger Japanese have of the U.S., the challenges they face learning about it, and what all participants think about history issues.

Most Japanese, especially high school and college students, said they have positive images of the United States. But some said going there to study was a different matter.

Parents are concerned about the guns, drugs and urban crime, while high school teachers advise against overseas study in favor of attending cram schools for the all-important university entrance examinations. Such factors were named as reasons for the decline in Japanese studying in the U.S.

In 1997, there were about 47,000 Japanese students in the U.S., but by 2012, that had declined to around 19,000.

Studying both Japanese and U.S. history poses a number of problems due to the amount of time required and the fact that, for many students, such study is impersonal.

Dale Watanabe, executive director of the Japan-America Society of Washington state, had a suggestion as to how Japanese schools might get students more interested.

“Perhaps one way to make learning about the U.S. and its history more accessible would be for Japanese schools and students to study the history of the Japanese-Americans,” he said.

At a separate session focusing on the history of U.S.-Japan relations and current political issues of importance to both countries, Matthew C. Perry, a descendent of Commodore Matthew Perry, whose Black Ships opened up Japan to the outside world in 1853-1854, described the initial encounter between his ancestor and the Japanese as something of a comedy of errors.

“Perry’s purpose was to deliver President Millard Fillmore’s letter to the Japanese, and it was addressed ‘to my great and good friend,’ the Emperor. President Fillmore and Perry thought they were dealing with the Japanese Emperor. They did not realize they were dealing with the Tokugawa shogunate,” Perry said.

The U.S. forced Japan to sign the Treaty of Kanagawa, which opened up Shimoda and Hakodate ports to U.S. ships. But because of the language problem, the Japanese did not think the U.S. would establish a consul in Shimoda.

“This was because of controversy over the translation and the words ‘either’ and ‘both.’ The U.S. version read either country could decide to have a consul, but Japan said it had to be both countries that agreed. Townsend Harris, who arrived in Shimoda in 1856 to open the consul, had so many problems for this reason,” Perry said.

And now, 160 years later, there are still trade issues between the U.S. and Japan, but many see completing the controversial TPP pact as a major step in resolving them.

However, congressional opposition to giving President Barack Obama the authority to conclude the wide-ranging free trade deal is strong. With midterm elections just two months away, pro-TPP advocates in Washington are increasingly worried it will fail.

Ira Shapiro, who was general counsel and ambassador in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in the 1990s during the Clinton administration, told the Sapporo gathering the TPP is at a critical stage.

“In the next few months, perhaps four to six months, the negotiation of the TPP is likely to succeed or fail,” he said.

Shapiro, who runs a Washington-based consulting firm and is also president of the Board of the National Association of Japan-America Societies, expressed frustration with anti-TPP groups, including unions, agricultural interests, and nongovernment organizations lobbying congressional members who have so far prevented TPP negotiations from concluding.

But he admitted there are concerns about the TPP that are not related to headline issues like beef and pork tariffs.

“Some 60 senators have expressed the view that the TPP should address currency manipulation in a meaningful way. Both Japan and the U.S. Treasury Department say this is in the province of the International Monetary Fund. But the IMF has failed to deal very well with currency manipulation, and it’s time for some new thinking,” he said.

Meanwhile on history issues, Glen Fukushima, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former deputy assistant of the U.S. Trade Representative for Japan and China at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, said there are “two Shinzo Abes” in the minds of Washington’s Japan watchers.

“The view is of a ‘good Abe’ and a ‘bad Abe.’ The ‘good’ Abe focuses on trying to revive the Japanese economy. But there is also a view that the focus on historical issues is not helpful or constructive for Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbors or the U.S.-Japan relationship,” he said.

Fukushima also worries that Japan thinking on the U.S. is too shallow.

“Last fall, the chairman of a major Japanese media organization visited the U.S. He said his company has 19 people in the U.S., but that 18 are either in New York, because of the view that that’s where all of the economic activity in the U.S. takes place, or in Washington, D.C., because the perception is that American politics is only in Washington, D.C. The one (other) person is Los Angeles-based and covers Hollywood.

“But given the diversity of the U.S., and all of the political and economic and cultural activity that takes place elsewhere, to be so excessively focused on these two cities is really an outmoded way of thinking,” Fukushima said.

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