Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
It is now customary for both Americans and Japanese to reiterate on every major occasion the overriding importance of the ties binding America and Japan. There is much talk of partnership, of close consultations, of common interests and of friendship. Yet for a close relationship between two major powers-which the American-Japanese relationship undoubtedly is-there are disturbing imbalances in it which portend some difficult years ahead. In essence, politically, and even more psychologically, American-Japanese ties are more important to the Japanese than to the Americans, and this the Japanese sense and resent; economically, the relationship now favors the Japanese, and this the Americans increasingly begrudge. The interaction of the two makes for trouble, unless each side accepts major adjustments.
For many years, America has been both Japan's roof against rain and its window on the world. The present Japanese élite has become accustomed to relating itself to the world via America, and to taking foreign events into account by first calculating their impact on America and on American- Japanese relations. Symptomatic of this was the enormous emphasis placed in the Japanese Foreign Ministry (and also in leading businesses) on training an élite attuned to American ways of doing things. For a diplomat, the pinnacle of his career, after attaining the post of Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, was to be accredited Ambassador to Washington. All this has stood in sharp contrast to the American attitude which, while respecting Japan, has put higher emphasis on European and Soviet matters. Japan, on the American side, has been a matter of concern for Asian specialists, but not for generalists broadly concerned with international affairs (who, typically, were actually European specialists).
The sudden emergence of Japan as an economic power enjoying a massive surplus in trade with the United States, the success of Japanese industry in competing with American products, and the simultaneous difficulties confronting America as it shouldered alone, for better or for worse, the various cold-war legacies, all shook American complacency and have caused Americans to reassess their relations with Japan. As a result, on both sides of the Pacific, new attention is now focused on the American-Japanese relationship.
On the American side, highly exaggerated estimates of Japanese economic and military power have provided the backdrop for more specific grievances. The image of a Japanese giant threatening America has been as erroneous as it has been harmful to balanced American-Japanese relations. Americans have simply been insensitive to the weaknesses and fragility of today's Japan.
On the other side of the ocean, a new popular mood toward the United States is gradually emerging within Japan. It is more critical, less inclined to idealize all that is American, somewhat more prone to emphasize the negatives. This is not only a matter of the intellectuals and the students, some of whom have been calling for a more critical Japanese approach in the Japanese studies of America and among whom the self-flagellations of American intellectuals find an eager and receptive audience. It is felt also in the upper echelons of the government-business élite. In part, it is the outcome of Japan's own economic recovery: there is no longer quite the same need to envy and admire America's material attainments. But it is more than that: the change, encouraged by a much more critical attitude toward the United States in the Japanese mass media (which, in turn, reflects predominant attitudes of the intellectual community), is also caused by a rising sense of national pride. Given the international realities of Japan in the last two decades, rising national pride has no alternative but to assert itself in the first instance against the United States.
However, it would be wrong to conclude that the Japanese public is becoming anti-American. What is new is the more critical and more assertive mood, and the possibility of a sudden emotional upsurge in the event of a major crisis in American-Japanese relations. The public mood could then turn strongly against the United States, not because of an enduring and widespread anti-Americanism but because of feelings of betrayal and disappointment-as well as injured pride and some underlying resentment.
These highly complex and volatile feelings could surface particularly quickly if American-Japanese disagreements adversely affected Japan's economic well-being. A recession within Japan would be blamed by many Japanese, right or wrong, on America. Given the "metastable" interdependence between Japanese economic and sociopolitical order, an economic squeeze within Japan, especially if produced in part by external, particularly American, pressures, would almost certainly precipitate turmoil both in Japanese political life and in Japanese-American relations. At that stage, Japan might react desperately, either by undertaking a crash program of military development, in total disregard of public reactions at home and abroad, or by adopting a new foreign orientation more openly critical of the United States and more inclined to explore the possibility of Japanese-Chinese diplomatic-economic coöperation.
Of these two possibilities, the latter is more probable. A program of accelerated large-scale rearmament is more likely to be induced by broader international developments, particularly by a combination of continued American disengagement with some critical precipitating event. The consequences of an economic crisis within Japan would be as divisive politically as they would be anti-American internationally. Hence a consensus for a crash program of military development would be more difficult to obtain than agreement on what-in the back of their heads-even many right-wing, as well as left-wing, Japanese desire: some sort of grand accommodation with China.
The issue of China could suddenly divide America and Japan in still another way. The Nixon initiative toward Peking violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the principle of joint consultation, and it is quite likely that in the future it will be more difficult for the two capitals to concert their policies. The Japanese henceforth will feel more justified than they have in the past to follow their own interests in such matters as Taiwan or the establishment of direct diplomatic relations with Peking.
It is, therefore, not unrealistic to conjure up the following scenario: China is in the United Nations and in the Security Council; Japan and China have diplomatic relations; the United States, despite the Nixon initiative, has still only indirect ties with Peking and it is still tied by the security treaty with Taiwan. A military crisis in the Taiwan Strait or in Korea could then have the effect of pitting Japan diplomatically, in the United Nations and elsewhere, against the United States and on the side of China. For the first time since World War II, Japan and the United States would be adversaries.
But such a reversal of alliances (whether because of economics or because of China) is the extreme possibility, and it is still unlikely. Enduring Japanese-Chinese collaboration would require more than just a tactical shift in the orientation of the Japanese ruling circles. It would go counter to the broader financial and economic involvements of Japan and to the widespread popular support for continued Japanese-American ties. A fundamental reversal would require the simultaneous conjunction of an emotional and political crisis in relations with the United States with a political upheaval within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) or in the LDP's national position, and an economic crisis within Japan. None the less, it is important to mention it, because both Americans and Japanese should ponder the imponderable, or they may both suddenly find that what is now a specter for each has inadvertently become a reality for both.
A progressive deterioration in the American-Japanese relationship could also, eventually, create a crisis. Such a lingering crisis is certainly more probable; indeed, it could be argued that we are already experiencing a crisis involving basically three broad issues: economics, security and status.
The economic issue has already surfaced and both sides are, at least, aware of it. The Japanese business community has finally come to realize that the deliberate U.S. policy favoring the Japanese recovery after World War II cannot be maintained in a setting of greater economic symmetry. This realization has been belated, grudging, and it is still hesitant. To the extent that they can, the Japanese will strive to minimize their concessions; they will wage a rear-guard action on the yen, conceding eventually but only when the world monetary system is on the eve of a broad crisis, and they will liberalize their economy while striving still to exclude some of the more sensitive items (e.g. computers). It is unlikely that they will abandon their limitations on foreign ownership.
They will resist and concede for the same reason: Japanese-American trade is more important to Japan than to the United States. On the one hand, this condition makes the Japanese reluctant to abandon their advantageous position because they feel themselves more vulnerable; on the other hand, eventually they will, because they have no option but to do so. But the concessions, slow and grudging, will probably not alter, at least in the near future, the basically favorable position that Japan enjoys in U.S.- Japanese trade. Japanese price indices favor exports over domestic consumer prices (giving rise to charges of dumping), and Japan will continue to import primarily raw materials and agricultural products from the United States and export finished, and increasingly sophisticated, goods.
Indeed, if Japanese concessions on liberalization obviate the American case against Japan and reduce the likelihood of American protectionism, it is quite likely that the advantage enjoyed by Japan will grow further. Computers and a few extremely advanced items aside, U.S. exports to Japan are likely to continue falling behind Japanese exports to the United States. Unless there is a major improvement on the American side (involving higher industrial productivity and competitiveness), or unless Japan is somehow prevailed on to exercise greater self-restraint (the American case for which would be much weakened by Japanese liberalization), big excesses in exports on the part of Japan are still to be expected.
Security problems are also likely to create lingering strains on the Japanese-American relationship. The return to Japan of Okinawa, and the assumption by the Japanese of the responsibility for the defense of that island, have thrust Japan into a strategic posture for which the country is not yet ready. Militarily, Japan is not prepared to play a strategic role, yet one is implied by the arrival of the Japanese Self Defense Force (SDF) on that geographically key Pacific bastion. Politically, Japan is not ready to play that role either by herself or in close military coöperation with the U.S. forces, as is implied by the present arrangements for Okinawa. Considerable public resentment is likely to be generated by complex tactical and strategic arrangements that will still have to be worked out for the joint use of bases and for the joint actions on Okinawa. The return of Okinawa to Japan has thus tied Japan to the United States more closely than before, and the new links have a political pinch.
More generally, the Japanese are somewhat confused by and resentful of U.S. efforts to get Japan to assume a larger security role in Asia. "Japanization" of Asian security does not appeal to the majority of the Japanese public nor to much of its business community, nor for that matter to most other Asians. Yet, perhaps somewhat unwittingly, the United States has generated the impression that the major objective of the Nixon Doctrine is to obtain a larger involvement of Japan in Asian security, in part as compensation for declining U.S. involvement. To be sure, this goal is not altogether unattractive to some Japanese, especially because it satisfies their status aspirations, but, for the moment at least, it does not command majority appeal.
The problem, of course, is further complicated by the fact that the security of Japan proper is inseparable from the wider problem of Asian security, and the American side has a legitimate complaint when it argues that even defense of Japan in the main is still shouldered (and financed) by the United States. Yet a more autonomous self-defense of Japan, less reliant on U.S. protection, inevitably raises broader strategic problems for the region as a whole.
The psychological dimension in the relationship between the United States and Japan is extremely important, especially on the Japanese side, and both sides have been insensitive to it. The American side has not been fully responsive to the Japanese quest for higher status and to the need to appeal to the more honorable and magnanimous side of the Japanese character when confronted with difficulties. Instead, the United States has alternated between a highly paternalistic attitude and blustering threats. The result has been to undermine the credibility of the argument that the Japanese must make concessions for the sake of good American-Japanese relations, and to stimulate Japanese resentments. The following secret telegram might have been sent by the U.S. Ambassador to Tokyo early in 1971:
The Ambassador stresses the importance of understanding Japanese psychology, fundamentally unlike that of any Western nation. Japanese reactions to any particular set of circumstances cannot be measured, nor can Japanese actions be predicted by any Western measuring rod. . . . Should the United States expect or await agreement by the Japanese government, in the present preliminary conversations, to clear-cut commitments which would satisfy the United States government both as to principle and as to concreter detail, almost certainly the conversations will drag along indefinitely and unproductively until the Sato cabinet and its supporting elements desiring rapprochement with the United States, will come to the conclusion that the outlook for an agreement is hopeless and that the United States government is only playing for time. . . . This will result in the Sato government's being discredited and in a revulsion of anti-American feelings, and thus may, and probably will, lead to unbridled acts. . . .
Actually the telegram was sent in early 1941 by the U.S. Ambassador to Tokyo at that time and only the word "Konoye" had been changed to "Sato."[i]
On their side, the Japanese have been short-sighted and motivated primarily by short-term goals. Also in part because of their inferiority complex vis- à-vis the United States, the Japanese side has been excessively rigid. Thus, they have failed to win the goodwill that concessions should have generated because when such concessions are finally made, they are made so gracelessly that they cease to look like concessions and begin to look like extortion.
The American side, having failed to articulate clearly where it stands, oscillating between stealth and threat, neglecting to exploit the elements of honor and sentiment in the Japanese character, slighting Japan on the grand issues of world affairs, is made to look alternatively as if it is almost entirely dependent on Japanese kindness or as if it does not care at all for the Japanese-American relationship.
Given this web of emotional complications, in addition to Japan's dependence on the United States for almost a quarter of a century, the Japanese quest for higher international status thus tends to be deflected into self-assertiveness, potentially even hostility, against the United States. The problem is made more difficult by the fact that Japan wants to be treated and considered as a world power, yet she does not quite know what she takes to be one. This is a condition which imposes a special burden on the United States. Since the Japanese have still failed to define for themselves how they envisage a greater world role for Japan, the United States must be extremely careful to avoid pushing Japan into an essentially anti-American definition of that role. There is, as we have noted, the potential for a demonstratively anti-American leadership even within the LDP, and American clumsiness and insensitivity could easily have the effect of bringing it to the surface.
This would be especially tragic, since neither side really wishes a rupture and since both sides, on a rational level, recognize the desirability of closer coöperation. Indeed, one can almost say that it is primarily the United States that can turn Japan away from the United States, since the Japanese will not do it as a matter of rational choice. Short of a dramatic rupture in the context of a sudden crisis, even the lingering tensions should not bring about a divorce, though the relationship may become poisoned by mounting antagonisms.
On our side, we must pay more careful attention to atmospherics and symbols. It is most unfortunate that President Nixon chose to announce his planned visit to Peking before going to Tokyo. The Japanese, given their sensitivity to international hierarchy, would have welcomed the American President eagerly, not only in order to erase the blemish associated with the abortion of Eisenhower's visit but also to underline the preeminence of American-Japanese ties in the Pacific. It is therefore very important that the exchange of visits between the heads of state of Japan and the United States be undertaken with the most minute attention to detail and with every effort to assure their success.
On the other hand, it is both inaccurate and unwise to stimulate in the Japanese an exaggerated sense of their power in the world and to subject them to excessive and exaggerated flattery. Japan is a major force in the world, largely because of her unusually gifted and in many ways admirable people. Yet she is not a superpower and it is doubtful that she can become one. Indeed, efforts to become one-in part stimulated by excessive expectations that she will become one-could become counterproductive, obscuring the sense of balance and restraint, as well as the sense of responsibility by which Japan should be guided as she assumes a major role in the world.
We should nurture, instead, Japanese realism. There is an ambivalent strand in the Japanese psyche: the hierarchical preoccupation and the competitive urge can easily get out of hand, even though in many practical matters the Japanese are extremely realistic. It is that realism that should be encouraged and offered real as well as emotionally satisfying outlets. It is, therefore, undesirable to encourage a sense of inevitability about Japan's acquisition of nuclear weaponry. Instead, we would be much wiser to seek to obtain for Japan a permanent seat on the Security Council of the United Nations (a position to which she has much more real claim than either France or Great Britain), the assumption of which entails real and constructive international responsibilities.
Since the Asians do not want the Japanization of Asian security, the Japanese cannot achieve it. It would be much wiser for the United States to encourage broader Japanese involvement in international peacekeeping-for example, in the Middle East, where the Japanese have major interests-than for us to press them to become the protectors of Korea, Taiwan and perhaps even Southeast Asia, A wider peacekeeping function, perhaps based formally on the device of individual "volunteers" coalescing outside of Japan into Japanese-U.N. units (since the SDF is constitutionally forbidden from serving outside Japan) would be an excellent way for Japan to assume a constructive and a more active global security role.
The problem of China, while a major issue in its own right, is related to the regional question. To boost Japan as the main regional power in East Asia is tantamount to stimulating Japanese-Chinese rivalry, which will undermine American-Chinese relations and complicate both internal Japanese politics and Japanese-Chinese relations. Much to be preferred would be some effort to stimulate three-way Japanese-American-Chinese consultations on the economic and social problems of the region and eventually also on political-security matters.
In my judgment, the United States should not encourage Japan to "go nuclear," because the decision to do so is certain to create fissures in the Japanese body politic, and even unpredictable international consequences. No evident benefit would accrue to the United States. At the same time, active discouragement would be counterproductive, since it would simply irritate Japanese national feelings, Noninvolvement-"nuclear neutralism"-is the wisest posture for the United States at this time, especially given the Japanese inclination to defer a clear-cut decision.
However, it will become a different matter if Japan itself decides to go nuclear. That decision-if our analysis is sound-is likely to be taken in a setting which will have become somewhat unfavorable to the United States. We should bear in mind that it is not a foregone conclusion-indeed far from it-that Japan will actually go nuclear. But if it should, it actually may then be in the Interest of the United States to assist the Japanese nuclear program, through direct technical assistance. For one thing, the United States will then, need allies even more than before, and hence will not be in a favorable position to oppose the Japanese decision actively. Secondly, and more problematically, it can be argued that when the United States had nuclear superiority, nuclear proliferation was definitely contrary to U.S. interests; but in a less favorable setting of parity, proliferation may be advantageous to the United States by complicating the strategic and political planning of the power that then enjoys the nuclear edge.
In the meantime, the United States would be well advised to upgrade joint American-Japanese strategic-political planning and to reduce the more visible manifestations of its military presence, concentrating more on joint basing and on maintaining facilities for emergency deployment in a state of high readiness. A more direct Japanese financial contribution for maintaining the U.S. strategic deterrent, and wider Japanese participation in strategic planning also seem appropriate, perhaps through joint high- level civilian-military planning staffs.
However, an undeniable dilemma is involved in the argument here: continued U.S. military presence in Japan offends Japanese nationalist feeling and creates strains in the U.S.-Japanese relationship; but a reduced U.S. presence there would intensify Japanese insecurity, increase the need for larger Japanese armed forces and give rise to renewed fears of Japanese militarism. Under the circumstances, the best that can be done is for both the Japanese and the Americans to try to harmonize a gradual change in their military relationship with Japan's gradually increasing self- assertiveness.
In so far as Japanese security is concerned, the United States would also be wise to back the emergence of a Pacific maritime triangle based on Japan, Indonesia and Australia. The three together have certain overlapping security problems and economic interests. A Pacific maritime triangle, though not necessarily a formal alliance (and with the United States associated with it only indirectly) could provide stability and wider coöperation, without precipitating fears of Japanese domination.
Finally, we must recognize that the problems of security or of status or of economics in the Japanese-American relationship can no longer be handled adequately on a purely bilateral basis. The question of security will require, in the years ahead, a far greater meshing of minds on political- strategic trends in the region as a whole, This means continuing consultation concerning likely threats, possible contingencies and common objectives. The process cannot involve the United States and Japan alone, but must include also other interested powers, such as Australia, Korea, perhaps Indonesia and so forth. Under certain circumstances, it could also involve NATO. What is needed, therefore, is not a new alliance, but machinery to ensure such consultations, not necessarily on the basis of binding obligations so much as of common interests.
The need to transform the American-Japanese relationship into something wider and more globally constructive is even more evident in regard to the problems of economics and status. This does not mean that bilateral efforts to resolve economic difficulties are futile-quite the contrary. Much more needs to be done by both Americans and Japanese to anticipate difficulties in the very large trade between the two countries. As in the political- military field, so in economics a standing joint consultative machinery-and not only ad hoc level meetings-is very much needed, in order to anticipate likely difficulties and to develop mutually acceptable regulatory procedures. Both sides should have learned by now that ad hoc resolution of problems usually means that problems are dealt with only when they become painfully acute.
Moreover, the Japanese must learn that foreign investment in their country can be mutually beneficial and that it does not lead to foreign domination, Western Europe has benefited technologically and economically from American investment without loss of political independence. France is a good example. Moreover, the Japanese can hardly expect to step up their own foreign investment abroad without opening themselves to foreign investment. Their continuing restrictions on foreign investments are, in the final analysis, an expression of an insularism incompatible with Japan's growing international involvement
Beyond that, the economic relationship of the two countries has to be set in a wider framework. The emergence of the Common Market highlights the fact that increasingly the three economic pillars of possible global stability and coöperation are the United States, Japan and Western Europe. Movement by stages toward a free-trade area among these larger units, as well as among some associated advanced economies, would make it easier to reduce the strains and imbalances that prevail in a more limited bilateral relationship. An international division of labor, which some leading economists have been urging, could then more easily emerge, permitting broader and more indirect exchanges of goods, services and products, reducing bilateral strains and imbalances. A number of Japanese have signaled their interest in such a wider arrangement; and the benefits would spill over into the political realm as well.
In a bilateral U.S.-Japanese relationship, Japan will remain the weaker and hence a somewhat uneasy partner. In a wider coöperative framework of the developed nations Japan would be in the front rank of a global effort to reorder international political and economic relations. Such a community of the developed nations would not be just a rich man's club; indeed, one of its key purposes would be to undertake a more rational and coöperative effort to help the less developed countries. It would not-or should not- become a new anti-communist alliance; indeed, by reducing temptations in Moscow or Peking to play on national rivalries and by deliberately inviting communist states into those areas of coöperation for which they are suited, the community of the developed nations would help to terminate gradually the ideological global civil war. For the American-Japanese relationship, a wider framework would encourage an internationalization of Japan which would not be tantamount to to Americanization.
A community of the developed nations is gradually emerging but more deliberate steps are needed to give the process direction and purpose. To that end, regular annual meetings of heads of state of Japan, Western Europe and the United States are desirable, as well as some stand-by consultative-planning machinery. Over time, this would help to stimulate common perspectives and programs. Three-way consultations between parliamentarians should similarly be institutionalized. In addition, more informal three-way contacts are needed among the social élites of the three entities. More active Japanese participation-personal and financial-in international corporations would also be a constructive part of the process.
Seen in a broader historical perspective, America, Western Europe and Japan are sharing a unique experience: they are in the vanguard of societies leaving the industrial age and beginning to confront the challenge of the new technetronic era. They thus confront similar problems in the attitudes of their younger people, as well as a broader transformation of values; they share some of the same social dilemmas; because of their wealth, they also have similar responsibilities in regard to less fortunate portions of mankind. Moreover, they are linked by a further very important similarity: they operate within a framework of democratic institutions which, though far from perfect, represents the most decent and just system of government so far devised. Taken together, the above do provide a point of departure for common and more constructive efforts.
The key point to bear in mind is that Japan is now entering the world on a massive scale. The process may either disrupt its external relations and domestic stability, or propel it into a central position in a wider pattern of global coöperation. Neither outcome is inevitable-and both the Japanese and the Americans have a vital stake in which it will be.
[i] John Toland, "The Rising Sun." New York: Random House, 1970, p. 106.