A note of skepticism has crept into the public perception of Japan-U.S. relations in both countries. The Harris Poll on the image of Japan in the United States, published on Dec. 19, found that the percentage of the American public who considered Japan a reliable partner declined from 84 percent in 2012 to 76 percent in 2013.

In Japan, according to the Nikkei Digital poll of Feb. 2, 2014, more than 80 percent of the respondents expressed a feeling of uncertainty about the Japan-U.S. alliance relationship in the face of the increasingly salient emergence of China. This may be related to the following recent changes in Japan-U.S. relations.

In the 1950s, the path of dependence on the U.S. chosen by Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida gave rise to resentment of Japan’s subservience to the U.S. It led those on the left of the political spectrum to espouse unadulterated pacifism or neutrality, and those on the right, including Nobusuke Kishi, who subsequently became prime minister, to hanker for greater autonomy and independence.

For more than 50 years, Japan consistently has made tireless diplomatic efforts, under Japan-U.S. security arrangements, toward peace and international cooperation. Today, some hear Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s call for Japan to be a more active and independent as an echo of his grandfather Kishi’s nationalistic assertiveness.

Japan’s fear of being entrapped in America’s wars manifested itself at the time of the 1960 revision of the Security Treaty, and resurfaced with respect to Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s, the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s and, in this century, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The shock of President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1971 fanned Japan’s fear of being abandoned by the U.S., and a similar sentiment caused some in Japan to coin the masochistic phrase “Japan Passing,” as rising China threatened to overshadow Japan in the late 1990s.

Today, there is a concern as to how far the “new model of great power relations” between China and the U.S. may develop, possibly to Japan’s detriment. Ironically this time it is the U.S. that seems increasingly concerned about being embroiled in a possible conflict between Japan and China.

For most of the past seven decades, Japan’s main concern in alliance management with the U.S. has been to fill the gap between U.S. expectations on Japan’s share of the defense burden and Japan’s sense of what it can do.

Today, some in Japan voice concern as to how much help Japan can expect from the U.S. in its relations with China and South Korea regarding such sensitive issues as the Senkaku Islands, Takeshima and treatment of Japan’s wartime past. These factors combined have given rise to extensive media coverage of Japan-China and Japan-South Korea frictions as well as fissures in Japan-U.S. relations.

Some argue that, in terms of public relations competition, Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine last December ended up playing into the hands of China, which has been bent on isolating Japan by alleging that it is angling for a militarist revival. It is only natural for Japan to assert the legitimacy of its position with regard to sovereignty issues, such as the Senkakus and Takeshima, in light of historical facts and international law.

At the same time, we should take into account the possibility that the repeated tit- for-tat exchanges driven by heightening nationalistic sentiments at home could adversely affect Japan’s profile in relations not only with China and South Korea but also with the U.S. and the broader international community. Cooler heads must prevail among the countries concerned to rise above emotions so that the Japan-U.S., Japan-China and Japan-South Korea relations can get back on track.

From this perspective, I believe that the message that Japan sends out to the world should clarify the following points:

(1) The people of Japan never want to turn back the clock and revive its militarist past. Japan will continue to make tireless efforts as a nation committed to peace and dedicated to international cooperation, for example, through its contribution to U.N. peacekeeping operations and its help to developing countries in Asia, Africa and other parts of the world.

(2) Japan’s expressions of remorse and apology — including the Murayama statement of 1995 and Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono’s statement of 1993 — on “comfort women” remain unchanged.

(3) Japan will continue to contribute to the stability and prosperity of the countries in the Asia-Pacific region. In this context, the study of whether to condone the exercise of Japan’s right to a collective self-defense is designed to ensure that the Japan-U.S. alliance functions more effectively as a public good for the region.

When pressures mount at home for a tough posture, this is not an easy course to follow. However, those in positions of responsibility should be mindful that their words and deeds are under constant scrutiny by the international community.

Should there be a lack of discretion on their part, it could detract from the clarity of these messages and sow further seeds of suspicion.

Sadaaki Numata is Japan’s former ambassador to Pakistan and Canada. This article originally appeared on the website of the English-Speaking Union of Japan.

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