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In search of Japanese and American shared values

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

There is a good deal of blather about the shared values that are ostensibly the foundation of the alliance between Japan and the United States. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Barack Obama invoked this mantra when they met in Washington to finalize new Japan-U.S. defense guidelines that hardly any Japanese support. Perhaps the public has the wrong values?

Citing the U.N. World Values Survey, Peter Duus, professor emeritus at Stanford University, points out that social values differ considerably among the two populations.

“Rational Americans vs. emotional Japanese; materialist Americans vs. spiritual Japanese; American individualism vs Japanese groupism; self-interest-pursuing Americans vs. self-sacrificing Japanese; and so on,” he summarizes. The emphasis on shared values papers over significant differences, and Duus says is thus “fraught with potential for fundamental misunderstanding,” setting both sides up for disappointment.

While the rhetoric of shared values emphasizes “freedom, democracy and human rights” and sometimes peace, economic liberalization, the rule of law, free trade and globalization, Duus notes that these are not so much “values” as “institutional or legal structures that leaders in both countries believe they profit from.”

Moreover, there is a risk, that the Japanese government may not seem as committed to some of them as the American government is, and vice versa.

During Abe’s first term as prime minister, Japan shifted to a values-oriented diplomacy in trying to nurture an “arc of freedom and prosperity,” aimed at forging a unified Asian response to a rising China. Ironically, South Korea was not included in this initiative, despite its shared values with Japan. The concept withered amid a lukewarm response, but China’s growing assertiveness since then has managed to stoke an arc of anxiety that has created an opening for the Japan-U.S. alliance, although Washington is much keener to include Seoul.

The talismanic invocation of shared values provides an ideological foundation for pursuing common interests as defined by Washington. Shared values might best be understood as the mood music for getting Japan to dance to America’s tune, while making it seem that it is really only taking a principled stand based on its own ideals.

Japanese leaders understand that as a client state, it is in Japan’s interest to take its cue about common interests from the United States.

R. Taggart Murphy, author of last year’s “Japan and the Shackles of the Past,” recently wrote an essay in the New Left Review that explores the issue of shared values and exposes the U.S. role in ousting Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. Hatoyama made the mistake of acting like a sovereign leader, suggesting Japan develop a more balanced relationship with the U.S. and China and that the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma be relocated outside Okinawa. With the support of Japanese bureaucrats, Washington persistently undermined Hatoyama, goading the Japanese media to attack him for “damaging Japan’s most important foreign relationship.”

American complicity in discrediting the Democratic Party of Japan facilitated the return of the more obliging Liberal Democratic Party. Murphy laments that Abe is rolling back transparency and accountability as he did in 2013 by, “ramming a blatantly unconstitutional act” on state secrets through the Diet. The law allows officials wide discretionary powers to classify documents with minimal oversight and “to prosecute anyone who attempted, even unwittingly, to find out what might actually be going on.”

In Murphy’s opinion, the Abe Cabinet’s decision last July to reinterpret Article 9 of the Constitution to allow for collective self-defense was “tantamount to a declaration that Japan had become a lawless state, governed by executive decree.”

Perhaps that decision is also part of a shared value system, one familiar to the critics of Obama and former President George W. Bush: Leaders will find a way to do what they want to do.

Abe, however, is encountering some unexpected snags. The Diet is deliberating legislation that will provide a legal basis for collective self-defense so the prime minister can deliver on commitments he made in the new Japan-U.S. defense guidelines. However, an NHK poll conducted earlier this month indicates that only 14 percent of Japanese support collective self-defense, a powerful vote of no-confidence in the “Abe Doctrine.” Abe has been vague and testy in Diet interpellations, failing to dispel concerns that the laws grant excessive discretionary power regarding overseas dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces along with fuzzy limits on their actions.

Then there was the embarrassing “own goal” by Team Abe as the LDP’s invited constitutional scholar declared that the collective self-defense legislation is unconstitutional, siding with two other eminent constitutional scholars who slammed the bills. This is a rare misstep for a government that prides itself on managing the message and looking competent. Team Abe went into damage control, pointing out that they now can find plenty of constitutional scholars that back the bills while noting that leaving such weighty matters up to nitpicking academics would have prevented the government from stretching Article 9 as far as it already has. Belatedly, the government realizes that it needs to explain its case better to the public, as only 2 percent say it has effectively done so.

Adding to Abe’s woes, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani had to explain why he is now favoring the collective self-defense bills considering that previously he had said it would be dishonest to sneak around the Constitution in such an underhand way. Before, he argued that if the government wants to change Article 9 with any legitimacy, it should revise the Constitution. Now, he lamely says that he changed his mind, but the damage was done.

“Abe’s attacks on institutions that stand in the way of his rightist agenda need to be seen in the context of assaults on the rule of law in the U.S. and the ongoing collapse of political oversight of the organs of the American national security state,” Murphy explains.

The CIA can thumb its nose at congressional overseers while whistleblowers face long prison sentences for exposing government misdeeds. This ebbing of accountability is very much in the shared comfort zone of the LDP.

So where does this leave shared values? Both nations stand shoulder to shoulder on the death penalty, in shrugging off inconvenient constitutional restrictions, minimalism on reducing carbon emissions, supporting widening disparities, reducing worker rights and job security, bailing out banks, welfare for the wealthy and well-connected, and overlooking human rights abuses by “friendly” nations. Both also suffer from selective memories of the past, downplaying or ignoring various wartime misdeeds. Okinawans also understand that Tokyo and Washington are happy to ignore shared democratic values when locals vote against their plans.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.