Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was having lunch with new U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy in Tokyo the same day (Nov. 20) that Susan Rice, national security adviser to President Barack Obama, was announcing in a speech at Georgetown University that Obama would tour Asia next April.

Although Rice did not identify which countries Obama would visit, the Japanese mass media reported on a happy note that Japan would be included in his itinerary.

But they were put off when a U.S. government source said Obama would go to Malaysia and the Philippines, two nations he had planned to visit in October before canceling his attendance at the summit meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.

The source added that no decision had been made yet about a visit to Japan and that priority might be given to visits to Indonesia and Brunei.

Since Japan and South Korea are U.S. allies, Obama cannot visit one while not visiting the other. There reportedly is mounting opinion within his administration that for Obama to avoid becoming entangled in the current chilly relationship between Tokyo and Seoul, he should skip both in the upcoming Asian tour.

It is also said that Vice President Joseph Biden’s tour of Japan, China and South Korea in December was not a harbinger of a presidential visit but rather a tactic to avoid Obama’s visit to the three countries.

Contrary to the enthusiastic media coverage of Kennedy, the distance between Japan and the United States is widening.

The appointment of Kennedy to the post in Tokyo was in line with the past pattern of selecting U.S. envoys to Asia and did not necessarily mean that Obama was attaching special importance to the American relations with Japan.

Past ambassadors to Japan have been chosen from among powerful figures or those with close relations with the president. The post in Beijing has been given to those with diplomatic experience and political power, and the position in Seoul has been filled by somewhat lower ranking career diplomats.

Obama is trying to distance himself from Abe, who is trying to further strengthen the Japanese-U.S. alliance by creating a Japanese National Security Council and changing the traditional constitutional interpretation that bans the exercise of the right to collective self-defense.

Obama distrusts and is weary of Abe’s views on history and diplomacy toward neighboring countries.

Although high-ranking officials of both the Japanese and U.S. government say that Obama’s fear of Abe leaning to the right was dispelled at their meeting in Washington in February, his appraisal of Abe is said to have fallen sharply again because of Abe’s subsequent statement that “there is no definition of aggression.”

Abe’s call for “breaking away from the postwar regime” has caused suspicion that he is at odds with the international order built on U.S. initiatives after World War II.

Abe also has made himself a target of American criticism because of his statement that there was no coercion by the Japanese state against women from neighboring countries who served as “comfort women” to provide sex to Japanese military personnel during the war years.

After South Korean President Park Geun-hye spoke ill of Japan during her European visits, an opinion emerged in the U.S. that she had gone overboard.

Abe then began trying to undermine the 1993 statement by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono that comfort women were often recruited against their will, lived under a coercive atmosphere at so-called comfort stations and suffered irreversible physical and mental wounds.

Apart from whether the Kono statement is accurate, it seems that Abe has not learned that, under the current standard, behavior like his is regarded as “denial of the past” and is counterproductive.

Another factor behind the estrangement between Japan and the U.S. is the hollowing out of Obama’s “pivot to Asia” policy due to isolationist trends within the U.S.

No matter how much Rice asserts that there has been no change in that policy, it is not taken at face value by the international community because of Obama’s hesitation to intervene in Syria’s civil war and his abrupt decision not to attend the APEC summit meeting in October.

Shotaro Yachi, due to become head of the National Security Bureau of the newly created National Security Council, said in a Nov. 4 speech in Tokyo that Obama is a civic movement leader and not interested in diplomacy. This view, which would have angered Rice (Yachi’s American counterpart), is shared by Abe.

Even more politically introverted than Obama at present are the U.S. Congress and the American public, which have become fed up with their government’s military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although Kennedy is known to have close ties with Obama, American society’s indifference to Asian affairs as well as her lack of influence over congressional leaders loom as an obstacle for resolving problems.

At least, Howard Baker, a former U.S. senator and ambassador to Japan (2001-2005), did have such an influence.

Some people argue that the U.S. welcomes Abe’s attempt to drop the long-standing government position that although Japan inherently has the right to collective self-defense, it is constitutionally banned from exercising it. Yet, signs of wariness appeared when Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Charles Hagel came to Tokyo in October for a “2-plus-2 meeting” with their Japanese counterparts.

A visit by Kerry and Hagel to the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery in Tokyo was interpreted as a call on Abe to refrain from visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine and as an expression of the two’s concern over Abe’s political ideology.

Although the U.S. cannot openly oppose Japan’s exercise of the right to collective self-defense, Washington apparently is worried about Japan going too far if Japan’s Self-Defense Forces developed offensive strike capabilities.

The U.S. fears that Japan’s exercise of the right to collective self-defense would change the nature of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty under which the U.S. has the nonreciprocal obligation to defend Japan.

It would thus challenge the U.S. justification for deploying armed forces at military bases in Japan, which are offered for U.S. use by Japan to compensate for the nonreciprocal nature of the treaty, and for shouldering the funding to maintain these Japan-based forces.

A high-ranking SDF official has said the U.S. would appreciate Japan’s exercise of the right to collective self-defense only if the U.S. armed forces controlled the SDF.

If the SDF attacked missile bases in China, for example, as part of a counterattack against China, the U.S. would find itself involved in a war that it did not ask for.

The gut feeling of American military brass is that if only to prevent total war between the U.S. and China, they don’t want the SDF to possess offensive missiles.

Under the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, the U.S. plays the role of wielding the “pike” for offensive military operations while Japan plays the role of providing the “shield” for rear-guard support.

The SDF’s expression of a desire to possess a pike is regarded as tantamount to a no-confidence motion against the U.S., according to the SDF officer.

The U.S. military hopes that Japan will strengthen its shield function to make up for further budget cuts in Washington, and the American side is wary that Japan might downsize this shield if it possessed expensive offensive weapons. If Japan goes ahead as a pike against the will of the U.S., a schism between the Japanese and American military could develop.

Newly appointed Ambassador Kennedy is anxious to have the giant tree of the Japan-U.S. alliance bloom. But the roots of this tree are starting to decay.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the December issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.