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More than a decade ago, the current governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, and the late Sony Chairman Akio Morita wrote a best-seller urging their fellow Japanese to just say “No” to the Americans. This was in the context of a wide-ranging trade dispute in which the U.S. was pressuring Japan to curb its exports and allow more U.S. products into Japan. Ishihara and Morita argued that Japan had plenty of potential leverage because it manufactured sophisticated microchips and other products without which the U.S. military arsenal would collapse. I did not think very much of these arguments at the time because I believed (and still believe) that Japan is too dependent on its exports to the U.S. market to risk endangering them. But I agreed with Ishihara and Morita that Japan needed to assert itself more in the very unequal, unbalanced relationship it has had with the United States ever since the Occupation.

This relationship — which former U.S. Ambassador Mike Mansfield chose to call Washington’s “most important, bar none” — has sometimes been characterized by Japanese as one of “sempai/kohai,” with America playing big brother to Japan’s junior, tutelary role. When I wrote “MITI and the Japanese Miracle,” I argued that this was certainly not the case when it came to economics, where Japan developed a postwar capitalism that for a long time out-produced and outsmarted the U.S.

Nonetheless, Japan continued to pretend it was an American ward, and this infuriated Ishihara as much as it puzzled me. Until, one day, I began to see clearly the link between U.S.’ security treaty and its trade policies. After World War II, the U.S. turned Japan into its Cold War satellite, much as the Soviet Union did to the nations of Eastern Europe. U.S. forces continued to occupy Japan. The “nuclear umbrella” still protects Japan, although now that the Soviet Union no longer poses a military threat and North Korea and China are said to be imminent adversaries.

In exchange for the security treaty’s supposed benefits — for which Japan pays a heavy price in terms of cash (the so-called sympathy budget), accidents, rapes, environmental degradation and international humiliation when it comes to U.N.-sponsored missions — Japan was guaranteed unrestricted access to America’s huge consumer market. No wonder Ishihara and Morita were angry when the U.S. began to cry “poverty” and tried to restrict Japan’s access. That was not part of the original quid pro quo.

And now the U.S. is playing the bully again, demanding (not asking) that no cuts be made in the 661.9 billion yen that Japanese contribute annually toward keeping the U.S. forces based on their soil. Like Ishihara and Morita, I would like to suggest that Japan just say “No!” Tell the Americans to send their third marine division home. Tell the Americans to give back Futenma Air Station to the Okinawans without demanding that a new base (it would be the 40th on that small archipelago) be built. Reclaim control of the air traffic over Okinawa to ensure the safety of tourists, not just of U.S. Air Force fighter pilots.

Why doesn’t the Japanese government do this? Is it afraid of economic retaliation by the U.S.? Perhaps, but in my opinion this threat could serve to free the Japanese economy from its overdependency on the U.S. market and reorient it toward domestic consumption and assisting developing markets in Asia and elsewhere. The main reason, I believe, why the Japanese government still caves into U.S. demands is that, like any long-colonized nation such as those described by Franz Fanon, it has lost the political will and ability to assert itself. Several years ago, a Japanese bureaucrat said to me that Japan was like someone sitting in a slightly cooling bath. “We know the water is getting colder and that sooner or later we must get out. But we are still too comfortable to move.”

I realize that the process of moving out of their postwar bath water will require some courage and self-assertion on the part of Japanese. Their politicians will have to develop a foreign policy independent of U.S. goals and desires. They may have to reconsider Article 9 of the Constitution. They will certainly incur the anger of a good many Pentagon officials and U.S. government bureaucrats. But I believe it would be far healthier for both the U.S. and Japan to step into the post-Cold War world as equal partners. And the first step in such a readjustment of roles is for Japan to start saying “No!”

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