Dependence day: Japan’s lopsided relationship with Washington


Special To The Japan Times

Of all the post-World War II changes in Japan, the most momentous is that it never regained the status of a genuinely independent country.

Tokyo cannot act freely by choosing what is likely to be most beneficial for itself or the region. Productive diplomacy between Japan and its neighbors is obstructed because of limitations imposed by a United States that treats Japan as if it were a protectorate rather than a sovereign country. Having followed the dynamics of the U.S.-Japan relationship for more than half a century, I can only conclude that Japan bends to American wishes because its representatives do not insist that it be treated as a sovereign state. Washington can get away with bullying Japan because it knows that national pride is not a problem with either media or political representatives. Some scrutiny of recent history makes that again very obvious.

When the prime minister of a recently elected government that ended half a century of de-facto, one-party democracy in Japan requested a meeting with a new American president to discuss how the two countries could jointly develop new approaches to regional problems, the White House and the State Department had no time for him. Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Hatoyama made his request no less than three times and the rebuff was handled in a scandalously undiplomatic manner. Washington made clear from the outset that it did not accept a reformist government that hoped to develop a new policy of friendship with China and new forms of regional cooperation. Ichiro Ozawa, then-secretary-general of the DPJ, had filled several jumbo jets with politicians, artists and other people of culture to visit Chinese cities as part of a campaign to improve party-to-party and people-to-people relations. Hatoyama wanted to strengthen regional cooperation with an ASEAN+3 group that included China, South Korea and Japan. Even before the elections that brought the DPJ to power, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear that, no matter which party would win, there would be no change in earlier plans concerning a new base for the marines stationed in Okinawa. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates even pointedly refused to attend a banquet in his honor when he visited Tokyo in the autumn of 2009. In the meantime, State Department officials were briefing journalists who were covering Japan out of Washington with conclusions that perhaps they had mistakenly thought of China rather than Japan as the biggest source of future headaches in the region.

But regime change in Tokyo is not all that difficult: all you need is the cooperation of a segment of the bureaucracy and the daily newspapers. Since these are essentially addicted to the status quo, they can be relied on to do Washington’s bidding. Hatoyama’s Cabinet went down over the Okinawa deal after the prime minister had been misled to believe that a compromise was being prepared. At that point, and after a number of Japanese bureaucrats as well as Liberal Democratic Party stalwarts had been telling their connections in Washington not to take the new reformist government seriously, Hatoyama was pilloried by Japan’s mainstream media and portrayed as a naive leader responsible for foreign policy failure. In the meantime, an embryonic new China policy vanished to create a vacuum in which political mischief could flourish, leading to a standoff over the Senkaku Islands.

When the LDP returned to power with its ally, New Komeito, after winning a clear majority in the Lower House — with roughly the same number of votes that had brought it down in 2009 — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was handed the difficult task of strengthening a rather precarious mandate. When you reach the top of anything, you look around to identify clearly available opportunities to make a most auspicious entry. Abe could have gone to Moscow, where Vladimir Putin was waiting to make a deal — the best Japan could ever hope to get — on the Northern Territories. Concluding such a deal and carrying it with the draft of a long-delayed Russian-Japanese peace treaty in his pocket, he could then have flown to Beijing to reach agreement in respect to the Senkakus by returning to the Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping formula of dealing with the issue.

Back-channel communication held out much promise that the Chinese would have been amenable to that as well. Abe would then have been on the covers of news magazines the world over as the newly arisen statesman of Asia, and both China and Russia would have less reason to wonder with whom they are actually negotiating when talking to Japanese diplomats. Instead, Abe followed the custom of first applying for an audience at the White House. Eagerly so, because he wanted to be reassured that if it came to real blows with China there would be guaranteed American protection. Washington, likewise in character, told Abe to get in line and wait a few months because of President Barack Obama’s busy schedule.

The lopsided relationship of the two nations and Japan’s fundamental subservience, which Hatoyama had wanted to do something about, had for decades worked very well. It is unlikely that Japan would have had its proverbial economic miracle without it. Washington allowed Japan to wall off its financial system from the rest of the world, and allowed full-speed expansion of Japanese market shares in the U.S. to the considerable disadvantage of American domestic industry.

After making sure in the mid-1950s that formal government would be in the hands of one anti-left party, which it had helped bring into being and which could be counted on to stick to unspoken understandings, Washington did not get involved in domestic arrangements. At the outset of the post-World War II period, Prime Ministers Shigeru Yoshida and Nobusuke Kishi had decided that Japanese subservience along with the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty was to be provisional, something to keep in place only until the country had regained its strength. However, their successors at the top of Japan’s political apparatus never found reason to remind themselves of this. Subsequent generations of Japanese politicians had lost the ability even to imagine an independent foreign policy that would have elasticity to adjust to changing world conditions.

The advantages of subservience no longer apply today. American protection these days exists only in theory, and both the global economic and political situations have radically changed from what they were until a quarter century ago. The negligence of the Japanese policy elites as actors on the global stage is, along with that of their European counterparts, a fateful element in world affairs. Top politicians of what used to be called the “free world” have for two generations not been called upon to position themselves independently in basic foreign policy and defense matters. They have had no practice.

The world that witnessed the birth of the Cold War alliance no longer exists. Most importantly, Japan’s foreign affairs and defense bureaucrats, and politicians who make it to the U.S.-Japan interface are no longer dealing with the same country they dealt with and could manipulate to a considerable extent for decades. Some politically prominent Japanese I talk to understand that the United States has undergone a metamorphosis, and that its neocon- and liberal-hawk-scripted policies aimed at “full-spectrum dominance” do not add up to a feasible strategy. To think that the United States can ensure global political security today is ludicrous. But tenacious habits of thought, solidly embedded institutions and inexperience continue to characterize the non-American part of what was once called the “free world.”

Meanwhile, the fact that the United States has by proxy been looking after those things by which a state is internationally known has helped preserve the mostly capable administrative core of the Japanese state without effective means for political decision-making — the much-commented upon “absent steering wheel.”

Edwin Reischauer once told me that what I identified as a weakness in Japan should be seen as a good thing “because such a political center would not have been up to much good anyway.” This illustrated a post-World War II tradition of condescension among American officials dealing with Japan. Joseph Nye and Richard Armitage, two people who concern themselves most noticeably with U.S.-Japan relations, illustrated this again with a recent report in which they encourage Japan to become more mature by heeding American instructions.

Washington clearly sees Japan as an asset in its full-spectrum dominance gambits in the Western Pacific, the so-called Asian pivot — hence the need for constitutional revision. Nevertheless, it still nurses a lingering belief that it must also function in a role comparable to a parole officer on guard against downsliding to 1930s thinking. Japan must not step too far to the right, with more than a minimum of Yasukuni Shrine visits and denial of committed war crimes.

Abe wants to slalom between those two markers. The policies he stands for fall into two categories that do not sit together well. He appears most interested in re-creating a Japan that has only ever existed in right-wing imagination, one of harmonious living in which young people are polite and everyone properly shows love for their country. At the same time, however, he wants to make Washington happy with secrecy laws, constitutional revision and a tighter rein on the media.

When compared to the United States and the European Union, the Japanese situation gives perhaps more reasons to nourish positive expectations. There is no plutocracy in Japan that forces neoliberal arrangements down the throats of the population. There has been no great transfer of wealth from the middle reaches to the top of society. Japan’s economic bureaucrats and business federations are not in the first place in the business of self-enrichment; their incentives are still shaped by the idea of national industrial strength and prowess.

But Japan is likely to suffer from its failing to act in response to the great changes the world has undergone. Unlike what Japan’s foreign affairs and defense bureaucracy still appear to believe, the continued existence of North Korea is not an extension of Cold War conditions. North Korean aggression, were the rulers of Pyongyang so suicidal to indulge in it, would not be supported by either China or Russia. North Korean hostility has on its own become a separate political reality, demanding an entirely new diplomatic approach. The marines on Okinawa are not there to defend Japan. They function as an attack force to be used in the Middle East or Central Asia. Strictly speaking, they are there in violation of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which stipulates that the leased bases must be used for defending Japan. Any disturbance triggered by developments in Pyongyang will have to be dealt with in the first place by South Korea and China. Hence a Japan serious about any potential threat from North Korea should work on deepening relevant diplomacy with them.

In the immediate future, Japan may miss the boat in connection with the vast Eurasian infrastructural developments, including high-speed rail connections across Siberia linking Chinese coastal cities directly with ports in Europe (which promises to become the heaviest traveled trade route in history). In the longer term, a Japan that allows itself to get entangled in America’s full-spectrum dominance scheme can only invite disaster upon itself.

Karel van Wolferen is a Dutch author who has published more than 20 books on public policy issues, including the best-selling “The Enigma of Japanese Power.”
Related story: Growing influence of Japan Conference reflects resentment at Tokyo’s postwar settlement with Washington

  • Potthai Lang

    Japan deserved to be bombed by USA’s 2 Atom Bombs. Very good….

  • sang lang

    Japans VAST war crimes can and will never be forgiven, their mass rape, sex slaves, human experiments, mass torture, starvation the countless millions killed, the devil Japs in Nanking, on and on.
    Japans sneaky denial society cant say ‘Apologise’, they build shrines for the dead-scum war criminals they worship, they will not pay compensation to the Comfort women, the children they raped, the vast evil they done, their race is infested with the demons of the dead.
    Karma comes to us all, the Islands of Japan are very weak and vulnerable massive waves wait to strike, huge earthquakes wait to crush Japan.
    A huge price has yet to be paid Japan, never think you are forgiven, or think you are so rich, tech savvy and invincible, you are NOT. Mere ants on tiny islands at the mercy of the Planets forces.

    • boki

      sang lang I can sense the Chinese style anger in you…Chinese are more evil than Japanese…I have lived in both countries for more than a decade..i can tell you…there is actually no forgiveness in the Chinese culture, the reason I said its an evil society..

      • PoliticalBastard

        excuss me, but may I ask you some few valid questions? do you have any proof to accuse him, being chinese? do you have any valid reasoning to accuse that he had a “Chinese style anger.” And may i ask for your explanation of what defines “Chinese style anger.” how do you know that it is a “chinese thing” just by reading his comment?

        “Chinese are more evil than Japanese…” and “there is actually no forgiveness in the Chinese culture, the reason I said its an evil society.”–may i also see proof of this?

        oh hey, you don’t have ANY. i went into his profile, meanwhile i see nothing that indicates he’s a chinese or not. take a look, infact in one of his comment, he’s calling china, a sweatshop of america’s. he rarely discuss about china, nor did he defends china.

        so tell me how could you say this is a ” Chinese style anger?”

        how could you say that chinese are evil, meanwhile you cant prove that the comment was made by a chinese, or not. dude, get your head out of your ass, and quit assuming that anyone who criticizes japan, is chinese. good grief, you just like one of those japanese right-wings! did shinzo taught you to hate on china, that chinese are evil, and china is an evil society?perhaps you should take a look at your ignorance before you speak again.

    • Viva75

      Pure toxic venom of hatred and vengeance.

  • nosnurbd

    Mr. van Wolfern, thank you for a wonderful assessment of the situation. Now I must go back and read your book again! It will be interesting to see when and if Japan ever really does say NO! to the US. Japan, as Germany has done, must sincerely accept its history. Every countries war dead are patriots of their country, even those considered war criminals by a victorious enemy. If Japan will take the road to independence and peace, they can hold their heads high. And a strawberry to Lang and lang (two rather nasty commentors, and not too bright either.)

  • mareo2

    With all due respect to Karel van Wolferen, in my humble opinion have no clue about what it is talking about. First the most evident reason. End ther US-Japan alliance means no american nuclear umbrella. To replace it an assure that Japan is not invaded then Japan have to build nukes and japanese don’t want that. Second even if the majority of the japanese wanted to build nukes that still cannot make Japan an independent country. Because Japan import most of the food and fuel that it consume. It relly on the US Navy for protect our sea trade with the rest of of the World beyond the limite reach of the JMSDF. To replace the US Navy Japan have to build a network of alliances that allow locate bases in strategic points around the world and expand the number of ships. Unpopular idea and ver costly in money. The cold fact is that an alliance with Russia can secure Food & Fuel for Japan but that is not independence, it is only change dependence on the US for dependence on Russia. The reason why Japan keep Russia as a Plan B instead of go full ahead and build a back up source is because their rail system is a poor replacemnt for sea transportation. If Russia realation with the EU over Ukraine get worse tha njust economic sanctions Japan can say good bye to their access to the EU markets through Russian.

  • skillet

    Japan committed may war crimes. But so did the other countries in WW2. I am proud to be an American. And Japanese should be proud, also.

    I am sick of people who continue to make a big deal out of WW2. I see all the soldiers as heroes. The American GI’s, the brave kamikazis etc. Admiral Yamamoto, General Patton. Showa Emperor, Tojo, Ike, MacArthur.. These were all great men !

    They had moral fortitude.

    Yasukuni jinja is a temple of heroes. As is Arlington cemetery. I have a deep love for both places.

    I will also say I truly feel pain seeing these proud men standing to surrender. But history is such. Even in defeat, they stepped forward with dignity.

    • ashoreinhawaii

      One of the things I miss about Japan are the unintentionally funny gaijin opinions in the JT letters to the editor. Skillet is a good name for you as your brain is fried.

      • skillet

        Yes, a serious opinion would have lots of PC guilt. With lots of incrimination and/or like self-flagellation. Need that PC guilt !

    • You are an idiot – there is no equivalency between fascism that attacks unprovoked and defense

      • skillet

        I am smart. Real smart.

  • A.J. Sutter

    I agree with a lot in this piece, but it distorts at least one important detail and I believe is quite wrong about something else.

    The distortion is when the author says “When the LDP returned to power with its ally, New Komeito, after winning a clear majority in the Lower House — with roughly the same number of votes that had brought it down in 2009 — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was handed the difficult task of strengthening a rather precarious mandate.” Actually, the LDP-Komeito coalition was able to win a 2/3 majority of seats even though it jointly pulled in only 44.5% of the single-seat constituency votes and 39.7% of the proportional vote in 2012. Contrast that with the DPJ-led coalition of parties which won 50.7% of the single-seat constituencies and 49.8% of the proportional vote in 2009. “Clear majority” in 2012 pertains to *seats* only, not to votes.

    The bigger error is when he says that “There is no plutocracy in Japan that forces neoliberal arrangements down the throats of the population.” and “Japan’s … business federations are not in the first place in the business of self-enrichment.” A look at labor “reforms” since the Koizumi era and at the Abenomics policy of a weak yen makes it evident this is simply wrong. In the Koizumi years, expanding the role of temporary workers was pushed by then-finance minister Takenaka Heizo; he also played a role in pushing for the expansion of the law this year — but this time he is chairman of Pasona, a worker-dispatch company. The weak yen benefits no one who has to buy stuff from overseas, and it doesn’t necessarily increase exports: historically, Japanese exports have risen even during periods with a strong yen, and what’s more, a lot of Japanese companies manufacture overseas anyway. What a weak yen *does* do is to boost the financial accounting profits of Keidanren members who manufacture overseas: every dollar, euro or RMB earned overseas gets transformed into more yen when stated on Japanese financial reports. Then these Keidanren companies, despite record profits, share them with shareholders as dividends, rather than with workers as higher wages or improved benefits. As for bureaucrats, they’re not looking for financial gain during their tenure as bureaucrats — but they do have an eye on post-retirement amakudari. What’s more, many are educated in the US, where the neoliberal world view has thoroughly overrun even the traditionally (post-WWII) politically liberal institutions like Harvard and MIT.

    No plutocracy? No neoliberal measures? Nonsense.

    • Brian Stump

      Well stated.

  • AWESOME! Karel you are a master and have splayed Japan like a frog in a HS science lab, only to find the fetid American FP on the inside.

  • ashoreinhawaii

    I loved “Enigma..” went I read it back in 1991. His musings on Abe going to Moscow and Bejing have all the hippie, college student, naiveté that make former students cringe and try to forget.

  • Brian Alexander

    is just anti-American clap trap. The US/Japan security arrangement has
    kept the peace not only because it protects Japan from its neighbors but
    because it relieves Sino/Korean fears of a remilitarised Japan in
    exchange for peace and economic growth. The author only sees the
    US/Japan relationship through the lens of American imperialism cause he
    is a lefty Dutch douche who according to wikipedia “rejects the global
    political role of the US since the 1990s”. Fact is the current
    international capitalist-democratic system is a creation of the US and
    maintained by them, but not alone. Where is it that the US gets its
    money to support its global military? From China and Japan who buy (and
    are the largest foreign holders of) US debt. China and Japan finance the
    US forces in the Pacific to maintain peace in the region. Both sides
    benefit from the arrangement and the US MIC makes a quick buck. Trashing
    the current arrangement would create a power vacuum filled by a
    Sino/Japanese arms race with unwanted repercussions.

  • Wu-Tang

    As an Chinese American this piece just cracks me up….ummm yeah US forces in Okinawa are stationed to attack Central Asia and the Middle East? Could’ve swore he had huge assets in the Middle East already…and Central Asia? We’re gonna bomb Uzbekistan? Someone show him where Kuwait, Bahrain, and Diego Garcia is on a map please.

    His work reminds me of another famous academic and writer who pain painstakingly researches his subject but only to connect dots between things and see conspiracies where there are none. Japanese domestic politics and history aside this is clearly written by someone who came out of a time bubble from 1980s Europe.

    A lot of research went in to this but bizarre Cold War, US is evil and everyone else is a CIA puppet stuff going on here. And his reference to “full-spectrum dominance” is bizarre because that’s pentagon talk not foreign policy. Us policy towards Asia is more one of containment of China. Which the author doesn’t really recognize at all instead ranting about “full-spectrum dominance” as if it’s the State Department’s official motto. The author’s showing his age, literally. He is old. He is living in the last century. The world is more multi polar that he would admit and instead rehashes 1980s European left mantra about independent foreign policy. Someone tell him to call President Chirac circa 2003.

    If Japan follows US foreign policy to the T why is there still so much bad blood politically between South Korea and Japan? Why does the Japanese political establishment still from time to time purposely appeal to the far right and incite nationalists in South Korea and China? The answer is it doesn’t. This isn’t the Cold War and Cold War warriors like this author needs to retire. It’s sad when someone so thoughtfully researches his subject but they completely falls apart in his analysis.

    The US is and still is obsessed with terrorism and the Middle East not the Cold War not about dominating other nations foreign policies (for the most part). The author sadly doesn’t know that or maybe doesn’t live in this century.

  • What a toxic and unconvincing attempt to manipulate emotions!

    You’d think the writer could come up with bigger complaints about U.S. arrogance on behalf of Japan; this is pretty small bore stuff. Putin says the U.S. treats him like a ‘lab rat’, incites riots and puts Ukrainian Nazis in power on Russia’s border. And isn’t Japan screwing America on trade? Or as Van Wolferen would try to poison it, ‘Isn’t America deigning to allow Japan to screw us on trade?’

    I see no evidence that Japanese lack national pride; to the contrary. Japanese Exceptionalism is a big part of the cultural affinity with Americans who likewise think we are hot stuff.