Viewpoint: Yes, Japan Does Want a New Relationship with the U.S.

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Kyodo / Landov

Democratic Party of Japan President Yukio Hatoyama (right) talks with U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos at the DPJ's headquarters in Tokyo.

After last week's momentous Japanese election, both American and Japanese commentators picked up a comment by Prime-Minister-in-waiting Yukio Hatoyama that there needed to be more "balance" in the U.S.-Japan relationship, read an article in which Hatoyama had been critical of the U.S., and wondered if the solidity of the long alliance between Japan and the US was about to go soggy. Then Hatoyama called President Barack Obama and told him that of course — of course! — the alliance was the bedrock of Japanese foreign policy, and everyone relaxed. Picking on the U.S., it seemed, was just an election gambit by which Hatoyama's Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) distanced itself from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled Japan for all but a few months since the 1950s.

But this happy conclusion is way too neat. There are genuine issues with the U.S.-Japan alliance, and they need to be taken seriously in both Tokyo and Washington.

In the first place, the DPJ's interest in finding a new balance to the alliance — for which read, a situation in which Japan is less automatically subservient to the U.S. — is not just a matter of Hatoyama's speeches. Ichiro Ozawa, the veteran politician man who cobbled the DPJ together and who is bound to influence policy as the party's general-secretary, has argued for decades that Japan should be a "normal" country, with its own foreign and domestic policy priorities, set in relation to its own interests.

Ozawa is not anti-American; when I spoke to him at length earlier this year, he stressed that the U.S.-Japan alliance is "the most important relationship for Japan." At the same time, Ozawa insisted that in "global disputes," Japan should take a "U.N.-approach." "When it comes to an exercise of power by the U.S. alone," Ozawa said, "then Japan is not able to go along." Within a U.N framework of dispute resolution, however, "Japan should be proactive in rendering support." Ozawa said that this position was "starkly different" from that taken by the LDP. He really could not have been clearer that a DPJ government would mean a new line on foreign policy.

Second, the article by Hatoyama that caused so much fuss — initially published in The Voice, a Tokyo monthly, and (in shorter version) on the website of The New York Times and International Herald Tribune — does not read like some little op-ed casually dashed off by a summer intern. It is a thoughtful, sophisticated, and quite radical analysis of how globalization and the financial crisis have changed the landscape in which Japan and the U.S. find themselves.

Hatoyama said that Japan had been "buffeted by the winds of market fundamentalism in a U.S.-led movement that is usually called globalization." He said that "unrestrained market fundamentalism and financial capitalism" are "devoid of morals or moderation," and criticized a "way of thinking based on the idea that American-style free-market economics represents a universal and ideal economic order." "The influence of the U.S. is declining," Hatoyama wrote, in a "new era of multipolarity." While saying that the "Japan-US security pact will continue to be the cornerstone of Japanese diplomatic policy" (of course!) he insisted that "the East Asian region.... must be recognized as Japan's basic sphere of being." Hatoyama, went so far as to call for the development of something like a European Union — with a single currency, no less — in East Asia.

This is heady stuff. (Imagine a putative British prime minister talking openly about American decline and looking forward to Russia's membership in the EU.) It is all enough to make one wonder how well-founded the U.S.-Japan relationship really is, and how resilient to a changing global environment it is likely to be.

Start with the basics: The U.S.-Japan alliance did not come into being because the two countries decided they loved each other. It did so because one defeated the other in war; occupied it; then wrote and imposed a new constitutional settlement upon it. Japan may have "embraced defeat," to adapt the title of John Dower's book on the postwar period, but let nobody suppose that this had nothing to do with a naked assessment by Japanese leaders of their interests, rather than in a sudden passion for all things American.

In truth, it is hard to think of any industrial society that in its essentials is less like the U.S. than Japan. Yes, Commodore Matthew Perry's black ships opened up Japan to trade more than 150 years ago. Yes, Japan plays baseball. But Japan is a nation with very deep cultural roots and habits — in everything from food, art, style, religion, the expected role of women and children, and so on — few of which have any point of contact with modern American mores.

Since the bursting of Japan's financial bubble 20 years ago, moreover, many observers have noted that Japanese society has become more "Japanese," cherishing tradition and homegrown values — a phenomenon that TIME's Hannah Beech a year ago called Japan's "discovery of Japan." Perhaps tellingly, the number of Japanese students at U.S. universities has declined in the last decade; there are now fewer Japanese students in the U.S. than Chinese or Indian ones. How Japanese is Japan? Well, consider this datum: Junichiro Koizumi, who led Japan from 2001 to 2006, and who in terms of economic-policy terms was the most "American" Prime Minister Japan has ever had, routinely paid his respects at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, which memorializes those who died in war — including, inconveniently, a number of convicted war criminals from World War II. (Don't get me started on the revisionist history of the run-up to World War II — that's putting it politely — in the museum attached to the shrine.)

Now look at the relationship from the U.S. perspective. For many years, there has been a layer of academics, policymakers and others politicians in the U.S. who have devoted their professional lives to the relationship with Japan. Countless Americans drive a Japanese car or use Japanese consumer electronics. At the same time, anyone who remembers the depth of anti-Japanese feeling over trade issues in the 1980s will need no reminding that familiarity with Japanese goods does not translate into popular political support for Japanese interests.

The comparison with China is inevitable. Many U.S. businesses have seen Japan's companies as rivals in international and American markets. But in the case of China, the business relationship is quite different. China does not yet have many obvious competitors to U.S firms, though one day it will. At present, not only is China itself a huge and growing market for American firms, but those businesses increasingly source their goods in China — in a way that few have in Japan. That has created a "thickness" to the economic relationship with China of a sort that has not been so marked with Japan.

All the more reason for official Washington to take Japan seriously. The U.S. is going to have to display sophisticated diplomacy in Asia over the next 20 years, easing China's rise to international prominence while helping to ensure that democratic allies such as Japan do not feel threatened by it. To show how important the alliance with Japan used to be considered, the U.S. for many years appointed seasoned politicians to the Embassy in Japan — Senators Mike Mansfield and Howard Baker, former Vice-President Walter Mondale and Speaker of the House Tom Foley. The pattern was broken when Baker retired after George W. Bush's first term, and the President appointed Tom Schieffer, a friend and business partner from Texas; Obama has followed suit with the appointment of John Roos, a lawyer and Democratic fundraiser from Los Angeles.

In the American system, there's nothing obviously wrong in making such ambassadorial choices; Roos may turn out to be an excellent envoy. But at this particular juncture in Asian politics, it was inevitable that the appointment looked like an opportunity missed. The U.S.-Japan alliance really has been important to stability in Asia, but its foundations, in my view, have never been quite as secure as its boosters have liked to assert. The Japanese election — it becomes clearer every day — represents a real sea-change in politics there. If the alliance is not now to drift into irrelevance, or worse, some high-level attention to what its purposes might be in the new world is needed.