It’s now conventional wisdom that American foreign policy under the Joe Biden administration will revert to a more traditional and stable approach. That means restoring cooperation with friends and allies, as well as taking a professional and institutional course, rather than the intuitive and theatrical one practiced by Donald Trump.
Biden’s appointment of highly regarded experts like Kurt Campbell, architect of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” to handle for Indo-Pacific affairs has certainly been welcomed by Tokyo.
But that’s only half of the story. A key component in understanding the nature of Biden’s foreign policy is diversity. Biden has made clear that inclusivity and diversity will be a core value of his administration. As he said in an interview in December: “I’m going to keep my commitment that the administration, both in the White House and outside in the Cabinet, is going to look like the country.”
In addition to Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as vice president, he appointed five women, three Latinos, two Blacks, one Native American and one openly gay person to Cabinet posts. Biden appointed women and minorities to key positions in the administration. It is also critically important for Biden that his appointments include several significant historic firsts in terms of diversity.
In the words of a recent study by the Brookings Institution, “the Biden team is on track to assemble the most diverse set of Senate-confirmed appointees in American history.” Things are shaping up to be a “totally different Washington,” as Abby Phillip of CNN put it as she reported on the inaugural ceremony.
As a matter of fact, Biden elevated diversity to the top of his foreign policy agenda. On Feb. 5, he issued a historically important memorandum committing the United States to LGBTQ rights in the international community. In the “Memorandum on Advancing the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex Persons Around the World,” Biden ordered the U.S. overseas government agencies “to ensure that United States diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons.”
Japan should take note.
In spite of the fact that diversity is a key tenet of the new Biden administration, it is an element that Japan has not fully grasped yet as part of the bilateral relationship. Reflecting the fact that most positions of power in American politics were long occupied by white men, Japan’s counterparts with Washington have been mostly white men. For example, Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, who served in Tokyo from 2013 to 2017, was the only female U.S. ambassador appointed to Japan ever.
This is something Japan needs to work on, as diversity in the modern Western sense is still not a main part of Japan’s main political discourse. The United States and Japan may share many fundamental values such as democracy, freedom and the rule of law, but their respective societies differ on the matter of race and ethnic diversity.
For another, the gender gap remains wide in Japan, where traditional gender roles persist. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020, Japan ranks a dismal 121 out of 153 countries. The report also points out “Japan’s gender wage gap is the second largest among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations, with the Republic of Korea having the largest gap.”
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rightly identified the issue and made a public effort to create “a Japan in which women can shine,” as well as launching an international conference on gender equality, inviting global women leaders to Japan in 2013.
The former prime minister also promoted a vision of “Womenomics,” in which 30% of leadership positions would be filled by women in 2020. But with progress moving at a glacial pace, Abe lowered the goals in 2015. Furthermore, Prime Minister Suga abandoned numerical goals all together.
Going forward, it is crucial for Japan to fully recognize and embrace the importance of diversity in American politics as it engages with the Biden administration. On a practical level, if Japanese officials and politicians only reach out to its traditional counterparts — namely white men — Japan will miss out dealing with more than a half of the 15 new Cabinet members, not to mention key administration officials.
A recent case in point is the comments on women made by former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who serves as the Tokyo Olympics games chief. Mori was earlier quoted as saying in an official meeting on the Games that women talk too much and that meetings with many female participants would “take a lot of time.” Mori issued an apology for making “inappropriate remarks” about women, and the International Olympic Committee, which initially said the issue has been closed with Mori’s apology, later called the comments “absolutely inappropriate.”
Mori, who is 83 years old, is generally regarded as part of the old guard with traditional values even by Japanese standards. He is also known for gaffes and undiplomatic comments. As a matter of fact, his remarks have been heavily criticized by many including Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto, a former female Olympian skater. However, Japan should take this incident seriously and to learn from it so that Japan engages the Biden administration on the same wavelength.
To be sure, the Biden administration also has its share of officials who happen to be white and male. As a matter of fact, there is criticism that some of the most important positions close to the president are largely occupied by white men, as seen in the chief of staff, national security adviser and Secretary of State positions.
But the trend for increased diversity in positions of power and influence is clear, and a generational change is imminent. Biden is 78; Harris is 56. On a conceptual level, if Japan doesn’t pay enough attention to the importance of diversity in American politics, Japan may fail to develop trust and rapport with the Biden team.
Diversity has become a fact of life and a core political value in America, along with democracy, freedom, rule of law, free enterprise and transparency. If Tokyo recognizes this and promotes diversity as a universal value, it will not only strengthen Tokyo’s relationship with Washington but also bolster Japan’s standing in the international community.
Satohiro Akimoto is chairman and president of Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.
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