Since the end of the Cold War, Japan-U.S. relations have been in turmoil. A highly significant development was a 1996 Japan-U.S. summit, in which Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and President Bill Clinton redefined the terms of the bilateral security system. The 50-year-old alliance will continue into the 21st century, transcending changes brought about by the end of the Cold War.

Aside from the 1996 summit, Japan-U.S. relations have been plagued by troubles. After strengthening security ties with Japan, Clinton traveled to Beijing to improve relations with China, but failed to stop in Tokyo on either end of the China visit. During his talks with President Jiang Zemin of China, Washington’s “strategic partner,” Clinton made disparaging remarks about Japan’s economic difficulties. But the so-called “Japan passing” was only a slightly annoying episode in Japan-U.S. relations.

Regarding the episode, I wrote in a magazine article:

* Japan should not worry about Washington’s reported moves to turn its attention from Tokyo to Beijing. After the end of the Cold War, all countries are trying to establish multilateral networks of friends.

* The United States and China, like two magnets, attract and repel each other. The two countries will have difficulty in maintaining stable long-term relations.

* Both Japan and the U.S., however, are democracies based on market economies. Both seek a freedom-based international order. The U.S. will periodically reappraise Japan and realize it is an irreplaceable partner.

Serious trouble began to affect Japan-U.S. relations soon after Clinton was inaugurated and continued until the summer of 1995. To resolve economic disputes, Washington applied pressure on Japan to achieve a number of numerical targets. During that period, Japan was debilitated by the bursting of the bubble, while the U.S. enjoyed economic prosperity. There were no reasons why Japan should have made political concessions to the U.S. The office of the U.S. Trade Representative, employing the negotiating strategies of shrewd lawyers, applied pressure on Japan, arousing anti-U.S. sentiment among an increasing number of Japanese.

For the first time, anti-U.S. groups emerged among elite bureaucrats and business leaders who had previously been pro-American. There had been many anti-U.S. leftists among academics, but I was shocked when a friend of mine, a distinguished scholar and expert on international politics who once taught at a leading U.S. university, said Japan should sever relations with the U.S.

I told my friend that I did not like the U.S. policy stance but that Japan should not break off relations with the U.S. over such a trade issue. The U.S. often makes mistakes, but thanks to the freedom and diversity of its society, they eventually lead to public criticism, reconsideration and remedial action, I said. Japan should play it cool and patiently run the alliance, waiting for that to happen.

That time has come with the transition of power from Clinton to George W. Bush. A series of policy recommendations, including a report compiled by a U.S. group under Richard Armitage, a Bush adviser and former assistant secretary of defense, has called for improved relations with Japan and for an end to pressure-based strategies.

The Bush administration has appointed many officials who are familiar with Japanese security affairs to important positions. This is the first U.S. administration to include so many pro-Japanese officials.

However, crimes committed by U.S. servicemen against Japanese in Okinawa and the sinking of a Japanese fisheries training ship that collided with a U.S. nuclear submarine have thrown cold water on the Bush administration’s enthusiasm for improving relations with Japan.

After the end of the Cold War, military power is used more to prepare for unexpected contingencies than to cope with threats from enemies. In peacetime, military discipline tends to slacken and citizens increasingly seek safe living environments.

The crimes and the ship disaster caused extreme anger among victims and relatives, which the mass media reported in a sensational way.

The U.S. government reacted in a very sincere manner to the sinking of the Ehime Maru, while unbelievable facts were exposed about the nuclear sub. The U.S. administration’s response was the best ever in the history of accidents caused by military forces. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Foley all apologized for the sinking. President Bush also apologized and led a moment of silent prayer.

U.S. authorities, resisting the temptation to hide information behind a cloak of military secrecy, started a process of fact finding and convened a court of inquiry regarding those responsible. Washington also expressed readiness to raise the sunken ship in an unprecedented deep-sea operation and pay compensation to victims.

The disaster is a serious and unforgivable accident, but no other government would have taken the swift action Washington took. It was fit for the world’s leading democracy.

The U.S. response will tighten U.S. military discipline. It will also help expedite the transformation of the U.S. military presence, including marines, in Okinawa that the Bush administration is considering.

The Japanese government, while sympathizing with the victims of the crimes and the marine disaster, should make reasonable demands to the U.S. government. At the same time, Japan should value the unprecedented policy stance taken by the Bush administration. Japan should never lose sight of the importance of Japan-U.S. cooperation in building a better Asia-Pacific region in the 21st century. Japan should also attach special importance to its ties with the U.S., considering the national interest from a broad perspective.

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