What do intellectuals know?
Nothing. U.S. President-elect Donald Trump proved it.
Pre-election, the only intelligent forecast seemed to be that his manifold defects would undo him: his boorishness, prejudice, intellectual vacuity, political inexperience, etc., etc. It’s all been replayed so often over the past year, there’s no point in drawing out the list.
“Trump shock” is global. What now? Who knows? Intellectuals? They didn’t know candidate Trump. How can they know President Trump?
Some claim to have seen it coming. “It was the natural outcome,” French historian Emmanuel Todd told the Asahi Shimbun the day after the election. His comments are included in the newspaper’s ongoing series titled — you guessed it — “Trump Shock.”
“What’s really surprising,” Todd said, “is that everyone is so surprised.”
Middle-class decline, white male insecurity — this was the writing on the wall. Everyone saw it but few read it, or took it seriously enough.
“How,” Todd demanded, “could leaders, the media and scholars have failed to grasp this social reality?”
Is it true, then, what the Trump-led populists have been saying about “elites” being “out of touch with reality”? Maybe. On the other hand, University of Tokyo Americanologist Yujin Yaguchi, interviewed by the Asahi before the election, noted that 40 percent of Americans — not the “elite,” presumably — “don’t believe in evolution.” Who’s “out of touch” after all?
If the U.S. were just another country, Japan and the rest of the world could dismiss Trumpism as a purely American phenomenon. Obviously that’s not possible, although Trump, with his “America first” platform, seems eager to lead a withdrawal inward, leaving the world to fend for itself.
Japan, as America’s closest ally in Asia, naturally wonders where it stands now. What Japan considers its “special relationship” with the U.S. is to Trump a “free ride” at American expense. If Japan wants U.S. military protection, it must pay for it. Otherwise, said Trump, Japan can protect itself, going nuclear if necessary.
Was that just campaign blather, or did he really mean it? Where blather ends and substance begins is one of the great uncertainties. Does Trump himself know?
Japan lives in peace and relative security in a dangerous neighborhood thanks in part to U.S. military protection. “Free ride” may be an exaggeration, but unquestionably, professor Yasuhiro Takeda of the National Defense Academy tells Toyo Keizai magazine, the Japan-U.S. security arrangement is, in purely economic terms, a good deal for Japan. Think, he says, of U.S. troops, U.S. information gathering capability and the U.S. nuclear umbrella as a “package,” for which Japan pays up to ¥500 billion a year. Building a deterrent force of its own to replace it would cost an estimated ¥4.2 trillion — if non-nuclear. If Japan felt vulnerable enough to pursue nuclear deterrence, the financial cost would be high but calculable. The diplomatic cost would be incalculable.
Toyo Keizai explores “the great anxiety” it sees plaguing the bilateral relationship. It predates President-elect Trump. Twenty-five percent of 1,029 respondents the magazine polled in October said the Japan-U.S. security system was unlikely to endure in its present form.
Not all Japan’s anxiety is directed at Trump. China’s nuclear-armed rise and North Korea’s nuclear-armed defiance of international norms are the most immediate signs that U.S. protection, though staunch, is no longer unchallengeable. Of the skeptical 25 percent, 12 percent declared themselves prepared to accept Japan acquiring nuclear weapons as an alternative. The unthinkable is becoming thinkable. If President Trump resembles candidate Trump — he may not, of course — the unthinkable could become inevitable.
Look on the bright side, said Shukan Post magazine: “Nov. 9” — Election Day, Japan time — “could mark the end of the postwar era, a chance for Japan to declare its independence.”
Trump seems to welcome the idea, and though Japan as a whole has worn its dependent status over the years with grace and good humor, it makes some thinkers squirm. Is Japan a “subject nation?” asks Kyoto Seika University political scientist Satoshi Shirai in Toyo Keizai. If it is, he says, it is Japan’s own fault. Japan, in his trenchant analysis, is conservative to the point of being incapable of acting except in response to gaiatsu (outside pressure). America provides it and Japanese leaders invoke it to keep the public quiet over, for example, unpopular security legislation remilitarizing the Self-Defense Forces or over the U.S. military presence in Okinawa. It has gotten to the point, says Shirai, where “obeying the U.S. becomes an end in itself.”
Enter Russia. Journalist Ken Ishigooka, writing in Toyo Keizai, sees three goals behind Japan’s steadily intensifying rapprochement with Moscow: recovery of islands Russia seized from Japan at the end of World War Two; drawing Russia away from China; and reducing Japanese dependence on America.
Oil is involved. Eighty percent of Japan’s oil comes from the Middle East. Chronic instability there makes almost any alternative seem attractive, but until recently there were none.
Lately, two have opened up. The U.S. is one — its “shale revolution” has suddenly made it the world’s No. 1 oil producer, and in 2015 it lifted its 40-year-old oil export ban. The other is Russia. Without fanfare, Japan has been buying more and more Russian oil, notes Japan Research Institute chairman Jitsuro Terashima in Toyo Keizai.
“The world is watching closely,” he says. How far will Japan buck the sanctions the U.S. and Europe imposed on Russia over the annexation of the Crimea in 2014? “Japan faces a choice: Russia or the U.S.?”
Will President Trump unwittingly push Japan out of the U.S. orbit and into Russia’s? It would be a historic change. Shukan Post, however, sees a quite different future unfolding. In its view, Trump — the outsider, the maverick, the unpredictable loose cannon — has one thing in common with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that will draw the two into an intimacy not seen in the bilateral relationship since “Ron-Yasu,” the friendship between President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone in the 1980s. Each leader, the weekly says, unabashedly puts his own country first, above human rights, the environment or any other of the issues that vex the intellectuals.
Don-Shinzo. The two men will clash but they’ll understand each other.
Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”
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