How will future historians size up a Japanese prime minister who became the first among global leaders to meet with an agitator president-elect of the United States and hailed him as a reliable man with leadership?

Much attention was paid by global media when Shinzo Abe called on Donald Trump at his home in New York on Nov. 17. The meeting turned out to be an occasion for Abe to express optimism that Trump may indeed make a better president than many doubters feared.

It was not a bad thing for Abe to seek an early meeting with Trump, because they are bound to face each other in the months and years ahead. The problem was that, whatever the intentions, Abe had to go for a direct meeting with Trump without preliminary groundwork. There would have been nothing to fall back on if the top-level contact ended in failure. If Trump is to keep up his radical position, Abe could be laughed at for spreading internationally a false illusion about the president-elect. But Abe had to take such a risk, because there was nobody around him who had strong connections that led to Trump.

So far, a certain group of U.S. officials and scholars well versed in matters related to Japan has had a virtual monopoly in playing the role of “gatekeepers” linking leaders of the two countries. Similarly, Japanese politicians and knowledgeable persons who claim to be experts on U.S. affairs have relied heavily on these Japan hands for their connections.

For example, those “America hands” in Japan have had little direct contact with a group within the U.S. State Department known as the Camel Corps, made up of elite experts in Middle East affairs who have great influence on overall U.S. diplomacy. Past attempts by the Japanese side to build connections with members of the Camel Corps have been blocked by the Japan hands, who claimed that everything would be all right if it were left in their hands.

Even today, the same old faces appear in the Japanese media as if to represent the U.S. as a whole. They include Richard Armitage, former deputy secretary of state, and Michael Green, formerly senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, among the Republicans, and Harvard University professor Joseph Nye and Kurt Campbell, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, in the Democratic camp.

The U.S. experts on Japanese affairs have always been treated most cordially in Japan, and they apparently do not want to part with their vested interests built on the basis of the connections established through the years. And the America hands in Japan feel that they have supported the Japan hands in the U.S. even when they were out of favor. But a decade after what was deemed a “golden age” of Japan-U.S. relations under the presidency of George W. Bush, when the Japan hands played important roles in bilateral ties, the connections that were supposed to have been built on strategic interests are now driven by emotions. Relying on the same old networks may leave Trump and his men out of their reach.

If Trump himself is well versed in Japanese affairs, he may not need any Japan hands to assist him. But there is no guarantee that he will follow the “Asia pivot” of the departing Obama administration — and even if he does, the object of his main interest would be China, rather than Japan. The fact that Trump, when Abe telephoned him to congratulate him for the election victory, told the prime minister with whom he was speaking for the first time that they had met before appears to suggest that Japan was not within the president-elect’s field of vision.

The most troublesome condition of Japan-U.S. relations is a sense of “indifference.” During the 1980s and ’90s, when serious trade friction led to “Japan bashing” in the U.S., growing ranks of Americans became knowledgeable about Japan, including those who took anti-Japanese positions. When the collapse of the bubble boom in Japan made its economy less attractive, the loss of interest in Japan by many in the U.S. resulted in those ranks to shrink, paving the way for the old Japan hands to monopolize the “gatekeeper” role — a situation that continues today.

The list of U.S. officials and politicians whom Katsuyuki Kawai, a special adviser to the prime minister, met on his trip to the U.S. to prepare for Abe’s visit clearly shows the poor communications channels with people linked to Trump. Kawai met Nov. 14 with William Studeman, an ex-director of the National Security Council, but he was no more than a friend of Trump’s friend, in that Studeman is close to James Woolsey, an ex-CIA director who served as Trump’s senior campaign adviser.

Two days later, Kawai saw Devin Nunes, a Republican congressman from California and a member of the congressional Japan Caucus created in 2014. However, the 83 members of the caucus may have some interest in Japan but may not necessarily have deep knowledge on Japan relations. Besides, Nunes did not express clear support for Trump during the campaign. It is not encouraging to note that Rep. Jimmy Duncan from Tennessee is the only member of the Japan Caucus who threw his support behind Trump in the primary race.

Out of a sense of desperation, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida cut short his stay in Peru, where he was attending an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation ministerial meeting, and flew to Washington for talks with Richard Haass, a former ranking State Department official under the Bush administration and now head of the Council on Foreign Relations, whom Trump is reported to trust. But Haass is hardly an important enough figure for the foreign minister to call on by changing his diplomatic itinerary, since Haass’ support for Trump is seen as an act of revenge against the Republican Party establishment that opposed him during his days at the State Department.

On the Japan side, there are only a handful of people who may be relied on to serve as a bridge with the Trump presidency. One is Mitsunari Okamoto, who as an employee of Goldman Sachs once worked with Trump, and is now an Upper House member of Komeito, a junior partner of the ruling coalition. But he is still a junior lawmaker in his second term in the Lower House and may not be counted on as a key channel of communication with the Trump administration. Some Japanese experts familiar with U.S. affairs claim to have had contacts with Trump and his men, but they can hardly be called connections with the president-elect.

Expectations are mounting meanwhile on two Americans to serve as key links between the two governments. One is Michael Flynn, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency handpicked by Trump as his national security adviser, and the other is Wilbur Ross, president of the Japan Society, who has been tapped as Trump’s commerce secretary.

Flynn came to Japan in October and met with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, and had talks with several lawmakers in both the ruling and opposition parties. One of them, former Vice Defense Minister Akihisa Nagashima of the Democratic Party, claims to have built a congenial relationship with Flynn and drew the spotlight on himself when Trump went on to win the election. But such brief contacts cannot possibly build anything more than courtesy relationships.

Given the shallow base of Japan’s contacts with the U.S. under the incoming administration, what the country needs is to mobilize its resources from its various sectors. Since Ross is an investor and Trump is a real estate tycoon, it would be more effective if Japan’s political and business circles work together to explore access to the Trump administration, instead of pursuing a straight diplomatic approach. The least that Japan needs to do is change its reliance on a small group of Japan hands in the U.S. Otherwise it could find itself at a loss as it faces the unpredictable new administration in Washington.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the December issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes. More English articles can be read at www.sentaku-en.com .

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