Washington – Who should lead America? Japanese attitudes toward U.S. presidential elections reveal an intriguing gap between Japanese leaders and the Japanese public in their answer to this question. From the presidential election of 1984 to the present, Japanese leaders have, with few exceptions, preferred the Republican presidential nominee, whereas the Japanese public has often preferred the Democrat.
Regarding this year’s election, a public opinion poll conducted by Gallup and the Yomiuri Shimbun in November 2019 found that 76 percent of Japanese responded that “it would not be desirable for President Donald Trump to be re-elected in 2020.” Similarly, a Nikkei poll conducted in January found that 72 percent of Japanese would not like to see Trump re-elected, while only 18 percent said they would. An NHK poll conducted in February and March found that 57 percent of Japanese replied, “Re-electing Trump would have a more negative than positive impact on Japan” (only 10.3 percent answered that it would be more positive than negative).
By contrast, the Japanese leadership — Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers, government bureaucrats, the business community, and journalists and scholars close to the LDP — has generally supported Trump’s re-election, based in part on what it believes is a close personal relationship that has been established between the president and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and based on perceived policy alignment between the two on such issues as China, Russia, North Korea and national security.
This preference was made explicit in a now-famous article published in the April issue of The American Interest titled “The Virtues of a Confrontational China Strategy.” The article, written by an unidentified “official of the Japanese government,” asserts: “Trump’s unpredictable and transactional approach is a lesser evil compared to the danger of the United States going back to cajoling China to be a ‘responsible stakeholder.’” The author apparently assumes this is what a Democratic administration would do.
This preference for Republicans has not always been the case. In the 1960s, many Japanese revered President John F. Kennedy, and in the 1970s, most Japanese loathed President Richard M. Nixon, especially for the 1971 “Nixon Shocks”— establishing ties with China without consulting Japan and abruptly taking the dollar off the gold standard, strengthening the yen overnight.
When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, many Japanese openly questioned whether a former movie actor could lead the world’s most powerful nation. However, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone proved to be a masterful handler of Reagan, as I witnessed firsthand while working at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in the mid-1980s.
In addition, Republicans successfully persuaded Japan that Democrats, supported by protectionist labor unions, were the main source of bilateral trade disputes. By the presidential election of 1984, when former Vice President Walter Mondale ran against Reagan, the Japanese leadership had concluded that Republicans served Japan’s interests better than Democrats. Why?
GOP and LDP affinity
First, Republicans and the LDP have been ideological soul mates since the 1950s, especially during the Cold War, with both parties being anti-communist, anti-labor union, pro-business, pro-military, pro-elite and culturally conservative.
Second, in the 28 years between the election of Reagan in 1980 and the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Republicans occupied the White House for 20 years versus only eight years for Democrats. Given their preference for continuity, stability and predictability, Japanese leaders became comfortable and familiar with Republicans and felt little need to cultivate ties with Democrats. In fact, because the LDP has enjoyed virtual one-party rule since the 1950s, they came to believe that the Republican Party, being their American counterpart, is “the party in power” and the Democratic Party is perpetually “the opposition” — even when Democrats occupy the White House.
Third, Republicans have portrayed themselves to Japan as free traders and Democrats as protectionists. Republicans also tell Japan that they are tougher on China than Democrats, who value China over Japan. Although not a few Republicans are protectionist and not all Democrats favor China, the Japanese leadership finds this narrative persuasive in part because it still suffers nightmares from the Clinton administration’s contentious trade negotiations with Japan under the framework talks in the mid-1990s and from President Bill Clinton “bypassing” Japan to go to China on a nine-day state visit in June 1998. This despite Clinton’s five trips to Japan as president, more than any other sitting president.
Fourth, when Republicans take the White House, Democrats usually return to universities, think tanks and law firms. However, when Democrats take the White House, many Republicans return to the world of commerce and continue their ties with Japan while conducting business. This leads to a continuity of human relationships, so important to Japanese, and the creation of shared economic interests between Republicans and the Japanese business community.
Fifth, Japanese have concluded that Republicans are fundamentally interested in commerce, so offering them financial rewards, such as business contracts, will keep them happy. Democrats, on the other hand, are seen as more excited and impressed by ideas, policy dialogues and intellectual debates, for which Japanese leaders are ill-equipped to engage, especially in articulate, logical and sophisticated English.
Sixth, because of the close relationships that have developed over many years between Japanese leaders and Republicans, some Japanese journalists and scholars have become loyal Republican advocates and champion their worldview to the Japanese public through the mass media.
Seventh, many Japanese claim that Republicans are personally generous and warmly embrace traditional Japanese-style human relationships and sentiments including giri ninjo, naniwabushi and being “wet,” whereas Democrats, they claim, are often cold, arrogant and “dry.”
Eighth, some Japanese find the diversity and inclusiveness of the Democratic Party to be unsettling and prefer the more homogeneous and exclusive Republican Party, which Japanese leaders consider more compatible with the uniformity, orderliness and social solidarity that define Japanese society.
Finally, Democrats are seen as to preach what they believe to be universal values (e.g., human rights) and expect Japan to adhere to them — and berate them when they don’t — whereas Republicans dealing with Japan often show more understanding and empathy for Japan-specific issues such as North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals or Japan’s hunting of whales. Some Japanese assert that a Republican administration — unlike the Obama administration — would never have publicly expressed “disappointment” when Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013.
In 2016, for the first time in 32 years, the Japanese leadership preference for Republicans shifted. Although Japanese leaders during the presidential primary favored Republicans such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, when faced in the general election with a choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton, Japanese leaders favored Clinton, who had shown as secretary of state that she valued Japan as a security ally and economic partner.
However, Trump’s victory caused Japanese leaders to revert to their default position of favoring Republicans. And Abe, with considerable patience and persistence, has managed to establish a better personal relationship with Trump than have most other Group of Seven leaders. Some in the LDP have even argued that if Trump is re-elected, Abe should serve a fourth three-year term as LDP president (and prime minister) to capitalize on the close personal ties cultivated through Abe’s massive investment of time and effort.
If Trump wins on Nov. 3, the Japanese leadership will feel relieved, thinking that continuity and familiarity will prevail. If Biden wins, Japan’s leaders will quickly adjust to establish ties with the new administration — just as it did in 2016, when Abe flew to New York to meet with the president-elect (the first foreign head of state to do so) in Trump Tower on Nov. 17, less than 10 days after he had been elected. Abe will thus be able to demonstrate his resilience as prime minister, having dealt with American presidents as diverse as George W. Bush, Obama, Trump and now Biden, and to show that despite his strong personal preference for Republicans, he can work with Democrats if required.
Glen S. Fukushima is a writer based in Washington. He has served as deputy assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Japan and China and as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.