The emergence of George W. Bush as winner in the 2000 U.S. presidential election is creating an “expectation gap” between Japan and the United States.

Many Japanese have greeted the Bush victory with a sigh of relief. They had feared that a Gore administration, influenced by labor unions and environmentalists, could turn protectionist on trade, damaging Japanese economic interests. And they had feared that Al Gore as president would continue the Clinton administration’s pursuit of a “strategic partnership” with China at the expense of Japan.

In some ways, the Japanese leadership is reflecting nostalgically on the 1980s, when the Reagan and Bush administrations coddled Japan as a Cold War ally. Although the 1980s were marked by intense bilateral trade tensions, many Japanese blamed this on congressional Democrats, business interests and labor unions, who appeared to be forcing reluctant Republican administration officials to pressure Japan to open its markets.

By contrast, the first Clinton administration was seen here as genuinely attempting to change and reform Japan, and therefore more fundamentally subversive to Japanese who wanted to preserve the status quo. This is one reason Japan resisted the U.S.-Japan framework negotiations between 1993 and 1995 more adamantly than the Market-Oriented Sector-Selective and other bilateral trade negotiations in the 1980s during the Reagan and Bush administrations.

But after two years of largely futile efforts to open Japan’s market, the Clinton administration by mid-1995 put Japan on the back burner. This was reflected in a joke that gained wide currency in Japan in 1997, at the beginning of Clinton’s second term: “From the 1980s to the early 1990s, the U.S. engaged in ‘Japan bashing.’ In the mid-1990s, it became ‘Japan passing.’ Now it’s ‘Japan nothing!’ “

From the Japanese viewpoint, what began in the first Clinton term as too intense a U.S. focus on Japan had dissipated in the second term to a near-abandonment of Japan, symbolized by the president’s 10-day trip to China in 1998 that completely bypassed Japan. The Japanese felt slighted, despite the fact that Clinton ended up visiting Japan a total of five times as president, twice more than any of his predecessors.

This wounding of Japanese pride has been soothed by advisers close to President-elect Bush, who have repeatedly stressed both the importance of Japan as a reliable U.S. ally and the potential dangers to the world order posed by China. The Japanese fully expect that the new Bush administration will restore U.S.-Japan ties in reality, not only in rhetoric, to the “most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none,” U.S. Ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield’s mantra throughout the 1980s.

But are these Japanese expectations justified?

First, on the economic side, the record indicates that when the U.S. economy weakens and unemployment rises, trade pressures on Japan mount. In fact, the most “results-oriented” market-opening trade agreements with Japan over the past two decades were concluded during Republican administrations — on semiconductors (1986), tobacco (1986), beef and citrus (1988), and automobile parts (1992).

And the only time in recent history that the U.S. administration actually imposed sanctions for Japanese violation of a trade agreement was in April 1987, when the Reagan Cabinet concluded that Japan was flouting the terms of the 1986 U.S.-Japan Semiconductor Agreement. This resulted in the imposition of $300 million worth of tariffs on Japanese exports to the U.S. Thus, contrary to Japanese expectations, trade with Japan has been a bipartisan issue.

Second, on the security side, it is likely that the new administration will emphasize Japan’s role as a close U.S. partner and ally. But precisely for this reason, the administration will expect Japan to take more active steps than in the past to strengthen the bilateral security alliance to help ensure peace and stability, especially in East Asia and particularly against China.

Although some Japanese government officials and many Japanese security experts support closer security ties with the U.S., the same cannot be said for the majority of political leaders, intellectuals, and the general public. Of the Japanese who advocate a stronger military role for Japan, some do so because they do not trust the U.S. to come to the defense of their country.

While most Japanese support the current arrangement of the U.S. providing for the bulk of Japan’s defense, few advocate enhancing bilateral military cooperation in the face of what they view as reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula, China joining the World Trade Organization and becoming more democratic, and domestic opposition to the nearly 50,000 U.S. military forces stationed in Japan.

To many Japanese, the end of the Cold War means that U.S. forces are no longer needed in Japan. But many in the new administration will want Japan to support the current force structure, strengthen bilateral military cooperation, and play a greater security role commensurate with its economic power.

An “expectation gap” is clearly emerging between Japan and the U.S. on both economic and security issues. As we enter the 21st century, it is imperative that the world’s two largest economies maximize potential areas of cooperation and minimize unnecessary conflict. Managing mutual expectations and ensuring that each side understands accurately the other’s intentions and priorities should immediately be put at the top of the agenda for the leaders of both nations.

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