With Donald Trump set to assume office as president of the United States on Jan. 20, some Japanese and American university students are coming to terms with the reality that the new leadership could be a catalyst to spur debate on uncomfortable topics.
“With Mr. Trump becoming president, various discussions will definitely come out into the open” in Japan, such as in defense and security areas, said Yuichi Kato, a 26-year-old University of Tokyo public policy graduate student.
Kato, a former intern of the nongovernmental group Human Rights Watch, says he shares the concerns of U.S. students who were upset by the fact of Trump’s victory despite his controversial stances and antics. Kato and his Japanese peers are taking a step back to collect their thoughts and emotions, and gauge the future of Japan’s ties with the United States, its closest ally.
At the same time, there are some who feel that a change in U.S. leadership could bring change to Japan’s defense and security position, which is connected with the notion that Japan is benefitting from a “free ride” under its security alliance with the United States. During campaigning, Trump stated that Japan should pay more to maintain American forces in the country.
Yotaro Sato, a student of the School of International and Area Studies at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, said he believes a Trump presidency may not be all that bad and could pave the way for Japan to rethink its diplomatic positions, as well as economic and business policies.
“Japan could stand more on its own and get away from the climate of absolutely obeying whatever the United States says,” Sato said.
The risk for a Trump presidency often cited by Japanese and American students alike is the inability of the international community to foresee his policies in terms of defense, economics and dealing with China, the world’s second-largest economy and an Asian powerhouse.
“That America will be away from Asia and withdraw from the world and think of its own interests first could lead to a power vacuum,” said Takashi Nishikawa, a 21-year-old, third-year law student at the University of Tokyo.
Takaoki Shimoyama, also a student at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies’ School of International and Area Studies, is most worried about the fate of the Pacific free trade deal and the future of the Japan-based U.S. military.
If the U.S. presence in Asia becomes weaker and China steps in, Japan will be put “in a more difficult position than ever,” Shimoyama, 25, said, alluding to the U.S. presence as a deterrent for an increasingly assertive China and North Korea in East Asia.
Trump has suggested that Japan and other U.S. allies are not doing enough in exchange for U.S. military support, and that Japan could go nuclear for self-defense, a comment he later denied.
“Putting aside whether he means this or not, Japan will be faced with an opportunity to think about when U.S. troops withdraw,” said Wataru Sakamoto, also a Tokyo University of Foreign Studies student, referring to Japan’s longtime security protection under the United States.
Kato, who took part in a Japan-America Student Conference exchange program, said he is keen to see how human rights issues will play out under a Trump-led America, and is saddened to see how the United States, which was at the forefront of respecting the rights of minorities, is now under close scrutiny.
Respect for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as well as other minorities “used to originate from the United States, but it is now the United States putting a lid on it. This odd situation is unfortunate,” said Kato.
Nishikawa, who spent two months in Washington last year, shares misgivings over a possible change in the U.S., a country touted for its diversity. “It is unbearable for me to see that this culture (of respecting diversity) will be threatened by Mr. Trump’s emergence,” he said.
While sharing worries about Trump’s hateful rhetoric, Pat Deppen, a 20-year-old student at Temple University Japan Campus in Tokyo, said, “It’s important to keep your emotions in check because after he got elected, a lot of people were saying this would be the end of American democracy.
“Although I don’t support him, I think it’s important to maybe kind of see how things go, and kind of give trust to the system, the checks and balance system that the U.S. has in place to maybe contain him so that he doesn’t become too powerful,” he said.
Deppen’s classmate, John Anthony Tevis, also 20, said he looks forward to “seeing what type of leadership and business skills” Trump, a business mogul-turned-president-elect, would bring to the White House.
Deppen and Tevis were enrolled in a class titled “The American Presidency,” which tackles key trends in U.S. presidential history, including the recent election.
Opinions of how much Tokyo should stay in step with Washington may vary among Japanese youth, but Sato said he feels that it “may not be bad for Japan” if bilateral ties are not “very close-knit” but rather take on a “certain level of distance.”