CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS – Like many others, I was stunned by the results of the recent presidential election in the United States. Whatever you think of Donald Trump, he certainly demonstrated political genius in connecting with millions of Americans, tapping into widespread sentiments and defying the conventional wisdom of polls and pundits. With Trump voters numbering over 60 million, the common denominator of their support was a desire for a political outsider who would upend the entrenched ways of Washington.
One of the Beltway’s sacred cows challenged by Trump is the status of Japan-U.S. relations. Since the end of World War II, the security partnership with Japan has been the cornerstone of U.S. geopolitical strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. The bargain — in which the U.S. provides a security umbrella in exchange for basing rights on Japanese soil and Japanese financial support — has been part of a fundamental bipartisan consensus. Until Donald Trump. During his anti-establishment campaign, he threatened to reconsider the alliance if Japan did not shoulder a greater burden and seemed to encourage the country to acquire its own nuclear arsenal. As a result of such rhetoric, an alliance so important that it had been taken for granted was debated multiple times in what was a singularly bizarre election season.
Understandably, Tokyo political elites are as shaken as their Washington counterparts by Trump’s election. On the whole, the decadeslong alliance has contributed to U.S. hegemony, East Asian stability and Japan’s rise as an advanced country. It should only be modified with extreme caution. However, a broader look at the history of Japan-U.S. relations may temper the anxiety.
As an island country sheltered on all sides by the sea, Japan has experienced periods of relative introversion, foreign engagement and instances in which business as usual was jolted by exogenous shocks. These shocks, while producing widespread fear and disarray especially among Japanese elites, in the long-term often resulted in increased internal dynamism and the restructuring of a flagging status quo. The renewal was caused not only by the direct actions of outsiders, but also by a climate in which Japanese policymakers invoked gaiatsu, or foreign pressure, as a pretext to pursue difficult reforms.
Interestingly, in modern Japan the transformative foreign catalyst was often represented by a brash American, and Trump may be the latest example. Two examples come readily to mind. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry led a fleet of gunships to Edo (now Tokyo) Bay demanding that Japan open its ports to American commerce. The result was intense debate and upheaval in Japanese political circles, the collapse of a centuries-old regime and a national wave of Western-style modernization launching Japan into the ranks of leading industrial and colonial powers by the early 20th century.
In 1945, Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed on an airfield in a country devastated by American military might in the Pacific War. As Supreme Commander Allied Powers, MacArthur oversaw an Occupation which dismantled the Japanese war machine, imposed a democratic Constitution and laid the groundwork for Japan’s emergence as a steadfast U.S. ally and capitalist bulwark in the Pacific.
Indeed, it is ironic that the alliance Trump has repeatedly criticized was very much the product of policies implemented by a man he has often praised for his military prowess.
A third example is less dramatic but may be closer to the present situation (and to my own area of research.) In 1971, the sitting U.S. president unleashed what has been known ever since as the “Nixon Shocks.” One of these measures was to withdraw the U.S. from the Bretton Woods global financial system, but more memorable was Richard Nixon’s surprise announcement of an upcoming visit to the People’s Republic of China. Up to that point, the Japanese government had bowed to American demands not to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing. Nixon’s bombshell caught Tokyo completely off guard and dealt a severe blow to long-serving Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, who was not only humiliated by Nixon but also shunned by the Chinese. It upended East Asian geopolitics, but soon Japan followed Washington’s cue and opened a new era in Sino-Japanese relations.
To be sure, I do not intend to propose a theory of heroic Americans who have defined the course of Japanese history. The examples above all involve flawed men arrogant enough to deliberately shake up the affairs of another country. Furthermore, while Perry, MacArthur and Nixon created shocks, in the long term it was largely up to the Japanese people and their leaders to turn crisis into real, lasting opportunities. For example, Sato, the most visible victim of the Nixon Shocks, patiently devoted his remaining days in office to sustaining positive ties with the U.S.
As a result, he attended Nixon’s second inauguration as an honored guest and Henry Kissinger (now advising Trump) heaped praise upon the Japanese leader in his 1979 memoir “White House Years.”
Some parallels from this episode can be drawn to the present. Despite (or maybe because of) Trump’s campaign rhetoric, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (a grand-nephew of Sato) was one of the first world leaders to congratulate the president-elect and the very first to meet him, traveling all the way to Trump Tower. Always proactive in promoting Japan’s interests, Abe seems determined to make the best of the election results. Reports indicate that Trump has responded favorably to his overtures.
If the Trump Shock intensifies, history suggests it may stimulate some new dynamism in Japanese politics. While it has served Japan well, the bilateral alliance is an entrenched apparatus that has changed only incrementally over the decades and that has its shortcomings. Under a Constitution that nearly bans military capabilities, the Self-Defense Forces maintain an ambiguous status, which stretches the limits of legal interpretation and does not do justice to their humanitarian and security contributions. The costs of a U.S. military presence in Japan are real, especially for Okinawa, where nearly half of the forces are concentrated and residents cope with environmental degradation, accidents, and occasional crimes emanating from the American bases. A less-dependent Japan may be a more active broker on the global stage, which could benefit its chief ally. Above all, were Japan to face an imminent threat, the responsibility and freedom to respond would be borne most heavily by a foreign nation. Thus, those who seek to reform Japanese security policy may find some opportunities in Trump’s anti-status quo inclinations.
Even good, sturdy structures can get brittle over time. If not swinging wildly out of control, a “golden wrecking ball” (borrowing Sarah Palin’s colorful phrase) can be useful. A change agent may have its own will, but it is also the responsibility of all around it to help guide it. Like other Japanese leaders before them, Sato and Abe sought to do this in the face of uncertainty. Apparently some American politicians are adopting a similarly prudent approach. The current standard-bearers of the Democratic Party, President Barack Obama and Sen. Bernie Sanders, have offered to work with Trump when possible for the sake of the country. They must deal with a shock produced not by a foreign power but by their own compatriots.
Taro Tsuda is a Ph.D. candidate in History and East Asian languages in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University.