Richard Holbrooke. Foreign Affairs. Volume 70, Issue 5. Winter 1991.
Anniversaries sometimes impose their own almost arbitrary logic on events. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the massive attention being paid in the United States to the fiftieth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The television programs, articles and ceremonies—with the president himself presiding over one of them—have caused alarm among many Japanese, who fear that memories of that infamous day and the world war that followed will fuel anti-Japanese sentiment.
The anniversary itself will quickly pass. But serious strains between Japan and the United States will remain long after December 7, 1991, and they are likely to increase. What has been called America’s most important single foreign relationship, one central to regional peace and global prosperity, has lately turned unhealthy and even nasty. While far from a breaking point, the U.S.-Japanese relationship is increasingly filled with friction, resentment and mutual recrimination.
For two decades nearly every study of this bilateral relationship has concluded that, as the two greatest economic powers in the world, Japan and the United States have a special responsibility to work together to address the planet’s most pressing problems, with each nation taking the lead in specified areas. In pursuit of this goal President George Bush and former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu talked frequently of a “global partnership” to deal with the world’s problems, and the two governments have created numerous task forces and commissions to address these issues.
The effort to reduce some of the specific difficulties has made progress. The trade deficit between the two nations is decreasing. American exports to Japan have doubled in the last five years—in fact, American exports to Japan are almost as large as those to the United Kingdom, Germany and France combined. And Japan has already taken major steps toward accepting its responsibility to do more to help the rest of the world. Over the last three years, for example, the Japanese have been the biggest donor of aid to the Third World, supplying an impressive 22 percent of all funds flowing to developing countries in 1989 (although they have been criticized for making loans instead of grants, and imposing stiffer repayment terms than other nations).
Nonetheless there is a general sense among many outside observers that the overall relationship is drifting slowly downward—its tone increasingly acrimonious and its original post-war rationale now largely irrelevant. Both sides have entered a period filled with false expectations and misunderstandings. Even as the interdependence between the two nations increases, each society is showing greater impatience and less sympathy for the other. The leaders of both nations continue to employ old rhetoric to explain what binds the two nations together. Yet to continue such outdated rhetoric in the face of the dramatic changes sweeping the world is to ignore the effect those changes are having on U.S.-Japanese relations.
In the fiftieth year after Pearl Harbor, two unexpected events have accelerated the pace at which U.S.-Japanese relations and Japan’s role in the world are changing. One is the end of the Cold War, the other the aftermath of the Gulf War. The time has come to factor both old history and these new realities into the equation and see what they mean for the future.
American displeasure with Japan has been well documented, and now for the first time the Japanese are beginning openly to show their own frustration and anger with the United States. Most Americans feel they have a right to make special demands of Japan because of history. And, indeed, history will judge America’s postwar policies toward Japan as perhaps the most remarkable and far-sighted ever conducted by a victorious nation toward a defeated foe. For their part, Japanese acknowledge the generosity of America’s postwar policies, but they generally feel that the United States no longer has the right to make seemingly endless demands based on obligations from that past. While Americans often say that the Japanese are ungrateful or that they still owe the United States something, Japanese are more likely to say that Americans should stop blaming Japan for America’s own failures. For years Japanese made such observations only in private, but their irritation and self-confidence have now increased to the extent that their complaints can finally be heard in the United States.
Attention has long been focused primarily on the American trade imbalance with Japan and charges that Japan plays by unfair rules in trade and business. But is this the fundamental factor? If identical trade problems existed with Germany or Britain, for example, would they create such animosity? Would the purchase of Rockefeller Center or Columbia Pictures by a Dutch or Italian company have generated the continuing public attention triggered by Japanese purchase of these two American trophies? Does a manufacturing plant in Tennessee owned by a European company attract the same attention as one owned by a Japanese company? Do the difficulties Americans have dealing with the regulations of European nations provoke the same anger as difficulties with Japan? In all cases the answer is clearly no.
What, then, lies at the heart of the American obsession with Japan? In a certain sense it is a reflection of America’s fear that it may have lost its own way. Japan seems to be better at the very things on which Americans once prided themselves: quality products, hard work, sacrifice, strong family structure, a sense of national unity and patriotism. In another sense, there may still be an underlying racism, not always conscious, in the attitudes of some Americans toward Japanese. Finally, there is resentment that Japan is not sufficiently grateful to the United States for its generosity and protection since World War II. Perhaps fifty years is not such a long time after all.
Postwar U.S.-Japanese relations were never immune to friction or misunderstandings. In the first forty years after World War II, there indeed were many difficult problems, but each was surmounted through the efforts of public officials on both sides of the Pacific committed to preserving good relations. Leaders in Washington and Tokyo recognized that close ties between the United States and Japan were of immense importance not only to both nations but to global peace, stability and growth.
Mike Mansfield, the former American ambassador who presided over the last decade of this productive era, was not the only person to believe that the relationship with Japan was “the most important bilateral relationship the United States has.” His view was shared by a large number of foreign policy experts and even reflected in public opinion polls, which showed that the American public increasingly understood the importance of Japan. In 1982, for example, Japan was perceived by Americans as more “important to U.S. interests” than any other country, and these results continued in subsequent surveys. But importance did not equate automatically with affection. The same series of polls showed a drop in Japan’s score (on a scale of 1 to 100) from 61 in 1986 to 52 in 1990, in response to a question that tested the “feelings” of Americans toward a number of countries. (No other country, except China in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, showed any comparable decline.) Seventy-one percent of those polled believed Japan was guilty of unfair trade practices, compared to 40 percent who said the same for the European Community. And most revealing, when asked if Japan’s economic power constituted a “critical threat” to the vital interests of the United States, 60 percent of those questioned said yes—a number far higher than that for any other “possible threat” to the United States mentioned by the poll’s respondents.
In the late 1970s, a period aptly described by the late Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohiro as one of unparalleled “productive partnership,” I believed that greater communication and interaction between the two nations would increase understanding and that greater understanding, in turn, would strengthen the relationship. I now believe this theory was wrong. Greater communication did in fact take place at almost every level of society; businessmen, scholars and students on both sides of the Pacific established close counterpart relations to an unprecedented degree. Americans became familiar for the first time with many elements of Japan’s impressive culture and society, from shimi to ikebana. But this hugely increased interaction did not bring with it a greater sense of common destiny, shared values and closer friendship. Even many Americans who admired Japan’s postwar achievements came to fear that the United States could never compete with Japan on a level playing field because of what Business Week, in a recent scathing cover story, called Japan’s “collusive network” of “politicians, bureaucrats, big business, and sometimes even gangsters.” As former Secretary of Commerce Peter G. Peterson wrote recently: “There is a strong streak of genuine admiration—indeed envy—for Japan’s hard work, managerial and product achievements….Yet, on the other hand, there is a growing fear of Japan and a suspicion that these better products have arrived in our markets on the backs of a closed market and an unfair business system in Japan.”
By the late 1980s many Americans harbored a fear that, despite the high quality of its products, Japan was in some insidious manner destroying or threatening the American way of life. This new alarmism in the United States was matched by a growing public candor in Japan about its frustrations with the United States. For the first time Japanese gave public voice to their feelings that the United States treated Japan unfairly.
Shintaro Ishihara received international attention (even that ultimate tribute, a Playboy interview) after writing The Japan That Can Say No, a powerful nationalistic tract stating, among other things, that “racial prejudice was behind the trade friction between our two countries,” and constituted “the root cause of Japan-bashing.” Ishihara did not mention the deep roots of racism in his own country, a problem that Japanese rarely admit exists. Some Japanese tried to minimize Ishihara’s impact in the United States by suggesting that his was a lonely voice. But in the introduction to the American edition of Ishihara’s book, Japan expert Ezra Vogel observed that, although “Japan’s political leaders are more pragmatic and more cautious than Ishihara,” his book should be read “as a reflection of deep currents of popular Japanese thinking about the United States.”
Ishihara’s outspoken views were sometimes echoed, more discreetly, by senior Japanese officials charged with maintaining good relations with the United States. “Why, of all countries in the world, is Japan America’s! favorite target?” asks Ryohei Murata, Japanese ambassador to the United States. Because, he says, “the average American feels that Japanese are somehow ‘different’ from Americans,” At the same time, Murata notes that Japan has begun to “view both reasonable and unreasonable requests as U.S. pressure and reacts defensively and antagonistically.”
For decades one could divide U.S.-Japanese relations into “high” policy and “low” policy. The former concerned political and strategic issues relating to regional stability and the containment of Soviet adventurism in the Pacific. Low policy, by contrast, consisted of a broad range of bilateral issues primarily related to trade and business practices on which the two nations were in constant contact and increasing conflict.
While not entirely passive on high policy issues, Japan generally followed policies designed to keep Washington content. Tokyo kept a certain distance from the United States in the 1960s, in part because of the widespread opposition within Japan to American policy in Vietnam (some Japanese leaders even stated at the time that their nation pursued a policy of “equidistance” between the United States and the Soviet Union). But once the war was over and both nations had opened relations with mainland China, an era of unprecedented cooperation began. Washington realized that, in the aftermath of the disaster in Vietnam, close ties with Japan were essential for America’s strategic and political interests. (This was true despite the attention paid by the American public and certain senior officials to the new and exciting relationship with China during the 1970s.) The cooperation between the United States and Japan during the late 1970s and most of the 1980s was an important ingredient in the reversal of the perception that America was retreating from the Pacific after Vietnam. The strategic relationship became increasingly close, including considerable, if unpublicized, cooperation between the defense forces of the two nations in such areas as joint naval operations.
Low policy involved the interaction of the internal politics of the two nations and thus was usually more complicated than high policy. While high policy problems were generally resolved by a handful of professional diplomats, low policy issues were usually the bailiwick of trade-oriented departments and agencies that were responsive to domestic pressures.
Both sides knew that no matter how serious trade differences were, they could not be allowed to jeopardize the strategic relationship. Throughout the last generation both governments successfully managed to keep tensions over low policy from destroying cooperation on high policy. If a trade negotiation appeared to be headed for collapse, the leaders of both nations would often step in (usually through trusted intermediaries) to make a deal that could be justified on grounds that the only beneficiary from any crisis in Japanese-American relations would be the Soviet Union. This potent Cold War argument won the political or bureaucratic debate every time, although it annoyed many who thought it was invoked excessively and without proof.
This ritual at times resembled kabuki theater, but it was crucial in resolving many tense trade problems, from Japanese automobile exports to American access to the Japanese telecommunications market. But by the mid-1980s, it was clear that this case-by-case approach to trade problems had run its course. The much-heralded Structural Impediments Initiative of 1989-90 was the result: an effort to create a broader system that would solve the commercial problems between the two nations through a structural approach. Both governments considered it a breakthrough. On both sides of the Pacific, however, there was serious public criticism of SII, and it fueled the developing anger between the two nations, especially among ordinary people. Karel van Wolferen articulated the view of many hostile and skeptical Western observers when he called SII a fraud and “the most recent instance of American wishful thinking.” On the Japanese side, Ishihara again said what others felt but rarely voiced in public: SII, he wrote, was “further evidence of an unequal relationship” in which the United States “presented Japan with more than two hundred items for discussion, including some farfetched suggestions that utterly ignored distinctive features of Japanese society, especially certain cultural aspects,” while Japan offered a few “limited” proposals that were ignored by the Americans.
American military involvement in East Asia and the Pacific has a far longer and deeper history than it does in Europe. American military forces have been in Japan and the western Pacific continuously since the end of World War II. They have been present in the Philippines since the beginning of the century and operated intermittently in China over many decades prior to 1949, Thus any discussion, however speculative, of the possibility of the departure of American troops from the western Pacific may cause concern, even fear, among some people, both in Asia and the United States, who have come to assume that there will always be American military forces in East Asia.
For the present, of course, the United States still has important obligations in East Asia, Northeast Asia, a perennial cockpit of great power rivalry and conflict, is today more peaceful and stable with American troops in Japan and South Korea than at any time since the beginning of the century, and those troops should not leave Japan or South Korea as long as North Korea remains a threat to peace and as long as Japan’s Northern Islands, seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, remain in Soviet hands. Their presence is an important factor encouraging a peaceful outcome to both problems.
But in the long run, the removal of permanent American military facilities and troops from East Asia is probably inevitable, as recent events in the Philippines suggest; when the reasons for their deployment disappear, force withdrawal could be healthy for both Asians and Americans alike, provided it is handled correctly. When the new post-Cold War Pacific emerges, the American Seventh Fleet, with access to ports of call in the western Pacific, should be sufficient to defend U.S. national security interests and make the necessary contribution to regional stability.
In the United States the commitment to defend Japan’s home islands has been widely supported since 1950 when Mao Zedong’s takeover of China and the outbreak of the Korean War alerted Americans to the communist threat in Asia. In Japan the security ties and the American troop presence had often come under heavy pressure, especially in 1960 when student demonstrators snake-danced through the streets of Tokyo and forced the cancellation of a planned trip to Japan by President Eisenhower. As late as 1981, Tokyo, fearful of serious domestic repercussions, still resisted the use of the word “alliance” in any official statement describing its relationship with the United States. In recent years this problem subsided, and the once-controversial word is now used routinely. A strong U.S.-Japan relationship came to be recognized as the key to stability in the entire Pacific region—a bulwark against Soviet adventurism, a symbol of the American commitment to the security of the region and one of America’s greatest policy successes since the end of World War II.
The continuity of this commitment was made strikingly clear last September, when the huge American aircraft carrier Independence, with 5,300 personnel, steamed into its new homeport 25 miles south of Tokyo (replacing the aged Midway), as though the world had not changed in twenty years. Objecting to the deployment, Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) foreshadowed a debate, “Why do we have to spend all these dollars,” she asked, “to defend a rich country that is an economic competitor?” But in this case the answer was readily available: since Japan absorbs most of the “in-country” costs for the large American base at Yokusuka, where 18,000 American military personnel and dependents are stationed, it is cheaper to homeport the Independence in Japan than in the United States. Responding to constant American pressure since 1975, Japan now contributes over $3 billion a year to support the American military presence in Japan, far more than any other American ally has ever contributed to the costs of stationing American troops on its soil.
Even as communism collapsed in eastern Europe, the residue of the Cold War that remained in East Asia prevented comparable progress. Yet the disintegration of communism inside the Soviet Union in August 1991 greatly increased the possibility of eradicating such legacies. Both Russian Republic President Boris Yeltsin and spokesmen for the “former Soviet Union” hinted last September that the question of the Northern Islands could soon be resolved on terms that would satisfy Tokyo. North Korea remains a Cold War anachronism and a danger to regional stability, but it is now almost completely isolated. It seems increasingly unlikely that when Kim Il Sung, the world’s longest-lasting dictator, finally passes from the scene, his shadowy son will be able to maintain absolute power. The admission of both Koreas to the United Nations last September—delayed for decades and to the end opposed by North Korea was surely an omen that sooner or later this last bastion of Stalinism would crumble. And further to the south another protracted tragedy, the Cambodian problem, moved closer to resolution, however imperfect, under U.N. auspices.
Thus it is finally possible to envision East Asia in the approaching future free from the Cold War environment that dominated the region and helped shape the U.S.-Japanese relationship for forty years. But what will then remain of the old strategic relationship? What will be the rationale, if any, for the continued presence of American troops in Japan and, for that matter, in South Korea?
By decade’s end, if not sooner, there may be no American troops in Japan or, in fact, anywhere on foreign soil in the western Pacific or East Asia (with the exception of American deployments on Guam and some other small Pacific islands that have a special relationship to the United States). The departure of American troops from Japan—where they have successively symbolized wartime victory, the Occupation and the American commitment to defend their homeland—would affect deeply the psychology of the relationship, removing a sense of dependency and obligation that has existed since 1945. The common strategic objective of keeping the Soviet Union at bay, which helped contain trade disputes, would no longer exist. At the same time, ironically, major irritants caused by the troops and exploited by politicians for a generation would no longer exist either: Japanese could no longer complain about American behavior or special privileges on the bases, and American politicians would no longer be able to demand trade concessions in return for Japan’s “free ride” on defense. Both the positive and negative aspects of the American troop presence would disappear—and the relationship between the two nations would change, gradually but profoundly.
Nothing could have been less helpful to U.S.-Japanese relations than Operation Desert Storm. Most Japanese did not see their vital interests threatened by Saddam Hussein’s takeover of Kuwait and were sharply divided about the wisdom of supporting the coalition. But listening to prescient warnings from Ambassador Michael Armacost that its actions would have a profound effect on future relations with the United States, the Japanese government contributed an impressive $13 billion to the gulf effort, far more than any other nation outside the gulf. Had Japan not given such a vast sum, the American reaction undoubtedly would have been worse, but it was bad enough: Americans felt that Japan’s support of the coalition was slow, grudging and inadequate, especially since three-fourths of Japan’s oil comes from the Middle East. Japan’s political style requires that major changes in its foreign policy be worked out through a methodical, consensus-building ritual that Westerners often find frustrating and confusing. The rapid American timetable for assembling the Desert Shield coalition did not fit that process. American public support for Japan dropped during and after the war and has yet to recover.
The Gulf War gave further impetus to Japan’s quiet reevaluation of its foreign policy. Most Japanese felt that their vast monetary contribution was not appreciated by the United States. For Japan one of the main lessons was that it should not allow itself to be placed in a position where the United States could drag it into a foreign policy adventure without adequate prior consultation.
Quiet evidence that Japan intends to accelerate the process, already under way, of developing its own foreign policy came in the fall of 1991. Predictably it received little notice in the United States. When the U.N. General Assembly convened, Tokyo made a concerted effort to gain a seat on the Security Council because, according to foreign ministry spokesmen, it felt that it needed to have a Stronger voice in international affairs. In Tokyo the government devised a new plan to deal with future crises, which would allow up to 2,000 troops from Japan’s Self Defense Forces to participate in a future U.N. peacekeeping force—after any fighting had stopped and only if the government approved the specific mission. More specifically Japan put the word out that it would be willing to send troops to Cambodia as part of a U.N. force—a small step for international peacekeeping, perhaps, but a giant step for Japan, which has not sent troops abroad, under any flag, since 1945,
More incremental steps of this sort from Japanese foreign ministry officials, once regarded as custodians of a passive foreign policy, can be expected. They will certainly create apprehension in some nations that fear Japan’s ambitions or cannot forgive the past. China, for one, has already indicated concern. But Japan’s eventual involvement in such activities outside its home borders, once unthinkable, is now inevitable. (Already Malaysia has proposed a regional economic bloc that would exclude all non-Asian nations and be dominated by Japan; while Tokyo will probably keep its distance—under American pressure—the proposal itself marks another milestone in Japan’s new regional acceptability,) One probable consequence of such activity will be a further gradual distancing of Japan’s foreign policy from that of the United States—even were the United States to dominate the United Nations again in a crisis, as it did during the summer of 1990.
Accepting a more assertive and independent Japan will prove difficult for many Americans, who have come to regard Japan as a junior partner on most important foreign policy issues. This attitude was most evident during the 1970s and 1980s, when the United States embarked on a particularly shortsighted effort to get the Japanese to increase their own defense spending. Behind this effort lay the fact that, because Japan spent less than one percent of its GNP on defense compared to over five percent for the United States, Japan was able to devote more of its resources to nonmilitary spending, creating resentment in the United States over the “free ride” Japan was getting from the American security umbrella, From Congress and four successive administrations came pressure on Tokyo to break through the one percent barrier and take up more of the burden of defending the northeast Pacific against the Soviet Far Eastern fleet, which had, in fact, peaked in strength by the mid-1980s. This effort was a particular favorite of members of Congress looking for ways to reduce America’s own defense expenditures or criticize Japan. Little thought was given to the long-term consequences: its potentially destabilizing effect on Japan’s East Asian neighbors, whose memories of World War II were more vivid and stronger than those in the United States; and the possibility that Japanese military capability might, over time, lead to a more aggressive foreign policy from Tokyo that might even eventually be at odds with America’s.
Washington was on sounder ground when it embarked on several policies designed to encourage Japan to make a larger contribution to the international financial institutions and foreign assistance agencies. These policies were not only correct; they should have been pursued earlier and more vigorously, in lieu of efforts to increase the defense budget. At least a decade ago, before it was too late, Washington should have offered Tokyo a “grand bargain”—that it would continue to provide the security umbrella for Japan and not ask Tokyo to increase its defense budget, in exchange for a quantum leap by Japan in foreign assistance levels, support of international financial institutions and contributions to such international problems as refugees, famine relief and environmental disasters. A provocative version of this idea was contained in Peterson’s proposal for a new relationship in which “Japan would be senior partner on economic issues and the United States the senior partner on political and military ones,” with both countries committing themselves to substantial transformation of their own societies: Japan becoming more open; the United States putting its economic house in order.”
When it was timely, such an arrangement was discussed neither with the Congress, whose approval would have been essential and difficult to obtain, nor the Japanese government. Today, regrettably, the time for such a division of responsibility between the United States and Japan has faded: with the passing of the threat from Moscow, Japanese seniority on economic issues, with American primacy in political and security issues, would not be a particularly good bargain for the United States.
Despite their vast cultural and stylistic differences, Japan and the United States are linked by an extraordinary series of events stretching back to the arrival of Commodore Perry’s black ships in Tokyo Bay in 1853. The two nations were destined to a stormy and often unpredictable relationship, with the exception of the U.S.-Israeli relationship probably the most unusual American bilateral tie in the world. But until now it has always been an association between two unequal partners, one clearly inferior to the other. In that form it has run its course and no longer serves the interests of either nation.
What does this mean for the future? Are U.S.-Japanese relations doomed to deteriorate still further? Or are they essentially cyclical in nature, destined to improve if Japan’s economy slows down and America catches up? Is this, perhaps, less of a crisis than meets the eye? Will the relationship simply go on much as it has been before, enduring out of mutual need and everdeepening economic interdependence, despite chronic complaining that resembles the bickering of an unhappily married couple for whom divorce is nonetheless impossible?
There are no easy answers, yet on these questions much will depend. The extraordinary size, scope and importance of the relationship will not only continue; it should increase—but not on the old basis. Clearly Americans and Japanese alike should seek to accelerate the day when Japan is completely freed from the dependency relationship that has existed in one form or another since 1945. So long as the United States expects constant repayment for past generosity and for its open markets, a relationship based on dependency, resentment and false expectations will continue. The best basis for post-Cold War relations with Japan is a mature relationship of equals. The two most powerful economies in the world, while competitors, must learn to interact with each other in a manner that sets aside ideas of junior and senior partnerships. Natural concepts in the early postwar and Cold War eras, such notions defied realities of domestic politics in both countries and were made obsolescent by events in the communist world and by the Gulf War.
The current mood is one of unfulfilled hopes and disappointments. High rhetoric about a special “global partnership” only adds to false expectations and increases the sense, on each side, that the other has failed to live up to its obligations. In the days of the Occupation and the Cold War, the relationship worked to the mutual benefit of both nations. But what the United States did for Japan during the Cold War it did out of a belief that it was also in the American national interest, that it was essential for strategic reasons. The extraordinary generosity of the United States in giving Japan, and other nations, access to the Vast American market without full reciprocity has to come to an end, not as an act of neo-protectionism, but as a simple political and economic fact reflecting the recent changes in the world, the limitations on American resources and the tremendous economic competition America faces from abroad.
The United States gains nothing by dwelling on alleged Japanese ingratitude. One cannot hold an entire people hostage to repayment of a debt without eventually provoking resentment that outweighs any obligations imposed by the past. It is time to accept Japan as a full member of the world’s leadership, not just in the economic arena but across the board. This likely will be more difficult for Europeans than for Americans, given their far greater lack of understanding and communication with Japan,
Japan gains nothing by showing open or thinly veiled contempt for America’s internal problems and inefficiency. Every indicator shows that Japan has earned the right to participate in international affairs as an equal of any other nation on earth. But Japan would be well advised to proceed cautiously in the brave new era that lies ahead. The future may not be as bright as the last twenty years for Japan, as other parts of the world catch up. Furthermore as the twentieth century nears its end, Japan is undergoing some important internal changes of its own, including the rapid growth in the number of its elderly and the increasing demand for leisure time among its youth that could significantly reduce its comparative advantages in international commerce.
Japanese are always quick to remind the rest of the world how resource-poor and vulnerable they are. This vulnerability may tempt Japan to seek primacy or domination in areas that contain vital natural resources or important trading partnerships. This would be a natural policy to follow, especially if it is true, as many experts have concluded, that Japanese have great difficulty dealing with other people or nations as equals. According to this widely accepted theory, the Japanese either accept inferior status or seek superiority in all relationships, and true equality is virtually impossible. It would be a tragedy if Japan were to attempt, in a nonmilitary form, to control certain resources or regions of the world. It may be true that the United States once had such dominance in many parts of the world, notably Latin America, but those days are over, not only for the United States but for every other nation. In the modern world, any nation that seeks to dominate any region of the world through either political or economic pressure risks massive economic retaliation from other major trading nations. Shooting wars may be out of the question between the major powers, but trade wars, stimulated by powerful domestic interests, are still possible—and both the United States and Japan run risks in this regard. This is why even Americans with impeccable pro-Japan credentials, who often have been embarrassed by statements by their own countrymen, feel a shiver of concern as they listen to some of the recent rhetoric coming from Tokyo.
Economic and political necessity makes it imperative that discourse between the two nations not reach the breaking point. In this regard, the selection of Kiichi Miyazawa, the senior Japanese political figure most at ease in dealing with Americans, as prime minister is welcome news. Miyazawa has broader knowledge of the United States than any other senior politician and is well-liked by his many American friends. Although it is reasonable to assume that he will continue to develop a more independent Japanese foreign policy, Miyazawa can be counted on to use his substantial diplomatic and personal skills to contain tensions with Washington. But Washington must be careful not to expect from Miyazawa special favors; he has long been suspect in Japan precisely because of his ease and fluency with Americans, and he will have to protect himself from any charges that he is subservient to the United States.
As the Japanese gradually embark on a more assertive foreign policy, they must remember two unpleasant and rarely voiced truths: they remain generally unpopular overseas, and the United States is still Japan’s best friend, and perhaps at times its only friend.
If the comparative economic strength of the two nations continues to move in Japan’s direction, and Japan continues to diversify its overseas markets and sources of supply, Japan’s relative importance to the United States may increase as Washington’s relative importance to Tokyo decreases. Nonetheless the United States will remain the most important nation in the world to Japan, and Japan will remain among the most important nations to the United States, if not always the most important.
Perhaps it is time for a statute of limitations on invoking the past in the current debate: while no one should have to repeat history because they have forgotten it, there is also a risk of being trapped by half-accurate myths presented as history. This has happened in many other parts of the world (Ireland, Cyprus and Lebanon leap to mind), always with unfortunate results. Let us hope that it does not happen between the United States and Japan.
Each side will have to change certain attitudes deeply engraved into their national subconscious in the half century since December 7, 1941. The United States will need to accept a Japan that carries out an independent foreign policy and no longer automatically follows the American lead on international issues. Japan will need to recognize the necessity of true equality of market access between the two nations and avoid the temptation to seek complete domination of the East Asian region. Japan will also have to learn how to treat other nations as equals. Both nations will need to move beyond a period of history that was immensely successful, helped preserve the peace and brought prosperity to a region covering one-third of the globe—but a period that is rapidly coming to an end.