“Japan has a snake in her bosom. That snake is namely flatterers. What led Japan to defeat is neither army nor government, but the snake in Japan’s bosom, the flatterers.”
— Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, “The Making of the New Japan” (translated by Lesley Connors)
When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe travels to Washington this week to meet U.S. President Donald Trump, it will take place in a very different atmosphere than the friendly, but hastily arranged, chat between Abe and the president-elect in November, just after he shocked Japan’s leadership — and the world — by winning the election.
Abe will strain to be on his best behavior. But ostentatious gifts, such as the golf club Abe presented to Trump in New York, are unlikely to be in the prime minister’s suitcase before he departs.
In a meeting that is likely to be formal and possibly tense, the two leaders are expected to discuss the U.S.-Japan military alliance and Japan’s contributions; finance and trade issues, including, perhaps, the idea of some sort of bilateral trade agreement; geopolitical topics such as China and North Korea; and whatever other issues the two leaders decide to raise at the last minute.
At any rate, that’s the general prediction for what will comprise the basic, official agenda. What everyone is really wondering, though, is to what extent specific issues ranging from Toyota’s contribution to the U.S. economy and Japan’s budget for hosting the U.S. military to bellicose rhetoric toward China on the part of Trump’s close advisers will chill the atmosphere, creating mutual distrust and fears in Tokyo that bilateral relations and regional security are only going to worsen.
No doubt officials in both countries, along with concerned members of the public, will quickly log onto Trump’s Twitter account following the meeting to get his unfiltered views of Abe and Japan. After all, we have reached the age where relations may increasingly depend less on traditional diplomatic language and press conferences and more on social media outbursts from a president who uses undiplomatic language and emoji to express his pleasure, or displeasure, with the leadership of other countries.
“Don’t anger Trump” has, therefore, become the guiding principle for the Feb. 10 meeting, with Japanese experts tending to agree that Japan doesn’t really have any other option at this point than to work hard to ensure a strong bilateral relationship remains a top priority for the president. To accomplish this, Japan simply has to find common areas of agreement (such as the need for a tough stance against China, although what Abe will say to the president about threats from Trump adviser Steve Bannon about going to war in the South China Sea remains to be seen).
Looking for answers
Like a number of countries worldwide, Japan was shocked by Trump’s victory, fully expecting Hillary Clinton to win, and has been struggling since then to understand the reasons behind his victory. Was it part of the growing worldwide backlash against globalization philosophy that has held sway in developed countries since the end of the Cold War in Europe? Was it due to America’s growing class divide between those highly educated urbanites in a few megacities who embrace both new technologies and international trade, and lesser educated Americans in smaller cities and rural areas who feel neglected and left behind?
Perhaps, others say, it was due to large numbers of racist white Americans angry at anyone who didn’t look like themselves. Or, maybe it was due to the hubris and arrogance of Clinton’s campaign, which ignored the voices and energy of millions — younger Americans, in particular — who wanted not the Wall Street, World Economic Forum-friendly Washington insider Clinton but the socialist progressive Washington outsider Bernie Sanders (a senator, but still an outsider compared to Clinton) as the Democratic Party nominee. And many Japanese commentators, like their U.S. counterparts, ask if the mainstream U.S. media’s failure to understand Americans who don’t live in New York, Washington or the West Coast, combined with the rise of fake news sites that spread disinformation about Clinton, tipped the scales in Trump’s favor.
Such questions form the basis of the political, media and economic debate in Japan over Trump’s rise. However, they are producing little concrete advice from traditional U.S.-Japan experts on how to deal with the new U.S. president, even as Japanese and Americans in Japan who are concerned about what Trump means for bilateral relations express unease with the new president.
Trump’s unpredictability and the chaos he has sown since winning the election forces everyone to begin their predictions with caveats such as “It’s difficult to see what lies ahead,” “The situation is evolving and so on, especially among those who, or so they thought, have a good grasp on “American politics.” Which, as it turned out, was only the politics of the voices in America with which they were most familiar.
Broadly speaking, Japan’s experts have urged caution and measured responses to Trump even though they also warn that fundamental changes to the U.S.-Japan relationship are likely. Fumiaki Kubo, a professor of U.S. government and history at the University of Tokyo, says dealing with the new president is not only a policy issue for Japan, but also an intellectual and philosophical challenge. He pleaded for caution and adherence to status quo policies.
“The government of Japan should not quickly change or improvise a new policy to deal with Trump. A minority of voices might support the nuclear armament of Japan [which Trump has suggested might be an option]. Other minority voices could welcome the withdrawal of U.S. bases in Japan and the abolishment of Japan-U.S. Security arrangements. Such arguments little benefit Japan,” Kubo told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan shortly before the Jan. 20 inauguration.
However, Toshihiro Nakayama, an expert on the U.S. at Keio University, said past assumptions on the part of Japan about the nature and purpose of the U.S.-Japan relationship may not prove valid in the Trump era.
“The characteristic of the U.S. and Trump is radical uncertainty. Predictability is going to be a very scarce resource. We in Japan took American internationalism too much for granted,” Nakayama said at the same press conference.
Since the late 1990s, Nakayama added, some U.S. and Japanese policymakers who form a comparatively small group of highly influential alliance managers have pursued the idea of the bilateral relationship less as a military agreement designed to check a common enemy and more as a broader one with shared values that benefited not only the two countries but the entire Asian region. However, Trump’s words so far have almost totally undermined the idea of a value-based alliance.
“What Japan has to do is convince the Trump team that, for you as well, Japan is the best choice if America wants to be committed to the Asia-Pacific. We have to aggressively convince the Trump administration that the U.S.-Japan alliance is important for the U.S. as well,” he said.
Steve Clemons, editor at large of The Atlantic magazine and also an expert on Japan, said that the Feb. 10 meeting between Trump and Abe might actually offer the Japanese prime minister an opportunity to enlist Trump’s support for an issue that has long been dear to his heart — revising Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution.
“What could be a major gift for Abe would be for Trump to begin to publicly question Article 9 and say, ‘You know what? Japan is a weak country that is limiting itself, not playing its role,’ and telling Japan it should do more. From a domestic political perspective in Japan, it may be a highly volatile statement. But for Abe, it might be a breath of fresh air on a topic that he really cares about more than others,” Clemons told reporters at the FCCJ last week.
Clemons added that Trump and Abe may actually be quite similar in the sense that Abe’s previous actions show him to be a nationalist hawk, something Trump can relate to. However, despite some conservative media polls showing more than 90 percent of Japanese gave good marks to Abe’s rush to meet with Trump following the November election, making him the first foreign leader to directly congratulate the president-elect, Clemons said it did not guarantee the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“Those around Trump who opposed the meeting thought Abe seemed more caught up in appearances, which made him look weak in the eyes of Trump’s family and advisers,” Clemons said. “They played along for that moment. But I’m waiting to see if the real Trump, the more pugnacious Trump, begins to show himself with Abe in the Feb. 10 meeting, or whether we’ll see a more grown-up Trump that understands the U.S.-Japan relationship is a vital strategic foundation for U.S. security in the region.”
View from the streets
Experts are debating how to best deal with Trump, and whether Japan should maintain the pre-Trump status quo or make fundamental revisions. Meanwhile, the Japanese public and those Americans who deal with Japan are expressing concern over what he might mean for not only bilateral security and economic issues that Japanese policymakers and media pundits tend to emphasize, but also personal relations between the peoples of both countries, global issues that need American and Japanese leadership, and personal decisions about whether to travel to the U.S. for business, pleasure or study.
Kyoto-based teacher Michiru Onizuka, who has lived equally in the U.S. and Japan, said Japanese she talked to prior the presidential election offered comments about the election’s focus on the now failed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and security.
“My main impression from talking to people is that they’re wondering how Trump’s election will effect security relations,” Onizuka said. “Abe is trying to get rid of Article 9. People also comment about Trump’s cavalier comments concerning (Japan acquiring) nuclear weapons. They think Trump is crazy to suggest Japan start building nuclear weapons. They’re very offended.”
Onizuka feels that Japanese people who have traveled extensively in the U.S. do have an understanding of how diverse the country is and that a lot of Americans are very opposed to Trump and his values. Which, of course, leads to questions among them about how and why Trump won.
“Some of these Japanese thought that perhaps there are more ‘hidden’ Americans who share similar opinions to Trump,” Onizuka said. “Such Americans may feel as if they can’t express such opinions that freely in public, but when they went to the voting booth, they actually supported him.”
Jenise Treuting, a Tokyo-based American and long-term Japan resident, said she understands Japanese who take an “it can’t be helped attitude” toward Trump and are seeking to find ways to work with him and get what they can from him while it lasts.
“But those attitudes are extremely short-sighted and not very smart, Treuting said. “Trump will go down in flames. It’s just a question of when,”
Treuting also said Trump’s tough stance toward China is worrying Chinese and Taiwanese in Tokyo who wonder what it means on a business and personal level as well as a geopolitical level.
In addition, there is the question of what happens to Japanese attitudes toward Americans in Japan and American attitudes toward Japanese in the U.S. if Trump’s rhetoric escalates. While the kind of anti-Japanese, “yellow peril” rhetoric in the United States that was heard three decades ago during often intense battles over trade issues is, so far, absent, Trump’s presidency could embolden all manner of racist remarks from those who feel they can now get away with doing so publicly, creating unease and fear among Japanese in the United States.
And as for Americans in Japan, Treuting said that if Trump’s Japan rhetoric is childish and insulting, it could embolden the right wing further as public sympathy for the U.S. erodes.
“I don’t imagine being bullied or anything at the moment. But long-term Americans in Japan could face problems in the workplace, and newcomers might not be as welcome as they were in the past,” Treuting added.
Yukiho Tominaga, a Kanto-based dentist whose wife is American, worries about Trump’s primary focus.
“What I’m most concerned about is that Trump has no interest in what’s happening in Japan or East Asia,” Tominaga said. “He’s a real estate mogul from New York who is interested in his family and his supporters. He has not, to date, shown any interest in this part of the world. This a very scary thought, especially for Japanese.”
For Tatsuya Yoshioka, co-founder of Peaceboat, what Japan really needs to do is demonstrate international leadership by emphasizing two issues that are far more important to the survival of the planet than those effecting only the bilateral relationship.
“Japan needs to show its support in two areas of international cooperation: addressing climate change and seeking the abolishment of nuclear weapons. Both are fundamental to the survival of the human species and are necessary for human security,” Yoshioka said.
In addition, he said, Japanese people need to think more deeply about international political and social trends that led to not only Trump but also a rise in populist, isolationist and nationalist politicians around the world. For Yoshioka, the main reason has to do with the kind of globalization that has been pursued over the past few decades, which is creating sharp divisions between the extremely wealthy and those who feel left out.
“In Europe, we’re seeing populists, mini Donald Trumps ,” Yoshioka said. “It’s the same in Japan, with (former Osaka Mayor and co-founder of the Osaka Ishin no Kai party) Toru Hashimoto. This is the basic problem of one kind of globalization, the kind that only relies on power and money. It creates Donald Trump and others like him.”
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