Japan has more reason to worry than any other country in the world about who becomes the president of the United States. In contrast to U.S. allies and partners in Europe, which are surrounded mostly by friendly states, Japan faces many neighbors that are undemocratic and increasingly hostile. Since January, North Korea has launched missiles in Japan’s vicinity 11 times, culminating in a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on July 4. China has continued its buildup of islands in the South China Sea. And in the face of such developments, Japan remains heavily dependent on the United States for its own security.

The unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election last year should have set off shock waves in Japan. Before and during the campaign, he repeatedly criticized Tokyo, accusing it of manipulating Japan’s currency and unfairly shutting out U.S. cars from the Japanese market. He questioned the U.S.-Japanese alliance, arguing that Japan and South Korea should cough up more money to retain U.S. military bases, speculated that Japan “may very well be better off” with its own atomic weapons, and suggested that he would consider ending the U.S. defense commitment to Japan. For the Japanese, accordingly, there was more than enough reason to doubt the new U.S. president’s competency and willingness to maintain the alliance—and thus more than enough reason to begin seeking alternative ways to ensure Japanese security.

The outcome of the U.S. presidential election was a surprise not just for the Japanese government but also for the Japanese public. Although some questioned whether President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia had delivered as much as promised, the Obama presidency had been seen as successful from the Japanese point of view. The U.S. military’s quick and effective response to Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami was widely appreciated. Caroline Kennedy, Obama’s ambassador to Japan from 2013 until earlier this year, was very popular. And in his final months in office, Obama became the first U.S. president to ever visit Hiroshima, where he delivered a widely praised speech. According to a poll conducted by the Japanese government just before the U.S. election, 84 percent of the Japanese public felt affinity toward the United States, 87 percent believed that current relations between the two countries were “on the whole good,” and 95 percent considered the future development of U.S.-Japanese relations to be important for the two countries and for Asia and the Pacific region.

Rather than panicking, the Japanese government has engaged in effective “Trump management."

After Trump’s election, conservative Japanese pundits, most notably the populist former mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, argued that the Trump presidency was a welcome opportunity for Japan to become more independent and “stand on its feet.” Most Japanese, however, were concerned. In a December 2016 poll, 61 percent of respondents said they were “worried” about U.S.-Japanese relations under Trump. In another poll, conducted shortly after Trump’s inauguration, 84 percent of respondents said they feared that the world would become less stable under Trump, and more than half said that U.S.-Japanese relations would worsen. And according to the Pew Research Center, Japanese confidence in the U.S. leadership fell from 78 percent to 24 percent from the end of Obama’s presidency to the beginning of Trump’s, 80 percent of the public said they considered Trump arrogant, and 56 percent said they considered him dangerous.

And yet so far, there has been no “Trump shock” in Japan. Rather than panicking, the Japanese government has engaged in effective “Trump management,” with the pragmatic support of the Japanese public. But that approach has started to show its limits. Going forward, Tokyo will have to step up and do more to preserve the liberal democratic order, which now lacks leadership from Washington. This will mean a role reversal for Japan: rather than being the beneficiary of a liberal order led by the United States, it now must do everything it can to save that order—and keep the United States from withdrawing from it altogether.


Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seem to have a natural affinity: both have pledged to restore their countries to greatness, both favor other strong leaders, and both enjoy golf. Yet their so-called honeymoon, which extended from a November 2016 get-together at Trump Tower to a February 2017 weekend at Mar-a-Lago, was not a simple expression of Abe’s affection for Trump. Rather, it was a well-calculated attempt by Japanese officials to manage Trump, drawing on two basic strategies.

The first was to “disarm” Trump. Immediately after the election, there were fears that Trump would stick to his anti-Japanese accusations from the campaign, especially given Abe’s meeting with the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during the UN General Assembly in September 2016. After Trump’s victory, Japanese officials immediately went to work to set up a meeting, and Abe and Trump’s November encounter consisted of gift giving (Trump got a golden golf club) and cordial conversation, with sensitive topics off the table. It was considered successful precisely because it was so insubstantial. It lasted twice as long as its scheduled time, and Japanese officials reportedly took the presence of Trump’s daughter Ivanka as a sign that the Trump family had embraced Japan.

Expectations for the first official meeting after Trump’s inauguration were higher. According to reports, multiple psychologists offered Abe advice for handling Trump: “no matter what Trump says, one should always express approval before any signs of disagreement,” and “never refer to a topic that is unknown to Trump.” Some officials worried about the length of the meeting: Abe and Trump were expected to spend 11 hours together, including over 27 holes of golf and four meals. But the preparations seemed to pay off: the personal rapport continued, and Trump apparently made no further complaints about the trade deficit, currency manipulation, or the cost of maintaining U.S. forces in Japan.

The second strategy was to “disengage” Trump from key policy matters. Japanese officials feared that Trump’s transactional dealmaking approach, and especially his coupling of economic and security matters, would force them to make concessions on trade in exchange for maintaining the alliance. So they worked to put economic and security policy in separate negotiating channels, both away from the White House.

Moves by the Trump administration that have led to condemnation in other countries have provoked a more muted response in Japan.

The security discussion progressed more quickly and successfully than expected. According to a report in the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, Japanese officials were gleefully taken by surprise by statements that U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis made when he visited Japan in early February. He called the maintenance of U.S. forces in Japan a “model of cost-sharing” and hailed Japan’s efforts to increase its defense spending. More important, he emphasized the enduring value of the U.S.-Japanese alliance and confirmed that the United States would continue to back Japanese administration of the contested Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, explicitly affirming that Washington considers the islands to be covered by Article 5 of the U.S.-Japanese security treaty, which commits the United States to defend Japanese territories against attack. Having gotten everything they wanted from Mattis, the Japanese had only to hope that Trump would not undercut his secretary of defense; so far, he has not.

The economic discussion proved more challenging. Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), although expected, was disheartening for Japanese officials, who had worked hard for the agreement. They also realized that the trade numbers that mattered most to Trump did not look good. In 2016, for example, a mere 15,000 American cars and light trucks were sold in Japan, while Toyota alone sold 2.1 million automobiles in the United States. The Trump administration’s frequent use of the term “reciprocity” in reference to trade reminded them of the fierce disputes of the 1980s.

In order to disengage Trump from such matters, Tokyo proposed an economic dialogue headed by Taro Aso, Japan’s deputy prime minister and finance minister, and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. Aso and Pence would cover macroeconomic policy, infrastructure and energy cooperation, and bilateral free-trade agreements. 

The combination of disarming Trump and disengaging him from core issues seemed to work even better than expected. And the Mar-a-Lago summit came with an unexpected twist: as Trump and Abe were dining on February 11, North Korea launched a missile test, providing an opportunity for the two leaders to bond. Later that night, Trump declared that “the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, one hundred percent.”


In the wake of that visit, the Japanese public was reassured. Most polls showed that a sizable majority of the public approved of the outcome of the meeting; in one poll, only 28 percent of respondents said that being too close to Trump could be a liability for Japan.

Abe at his official residence in Tokyo, July 2017.
Abe at his official residence in Tokyo, July 2017.
Toru Hanai / Reuters

A number of factors contributed to this turnaround in opinion. First, most of the Japanese public understands that the U.S.-Japanese alliance is the only viable means of guaranteeing Japan’s security, leading to a strong preference for the status quo. If U.S. forces were to leave Japan, the cost in terms of the military spending to replace them and the broader economic harm would be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Meanwhile, certain moves by the Trump administration that have led to condemnation in other countries have provoked a more muted response in Japan. (In part, this is because Japanese media coverage of the Trump administration has focused more on the bilateral relationship than on U.S. policy elsewhere or at home.) That is not to deny that there is considerable interest in how and why Trump was elected (a Japanese translation of J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy has already been published) or that Trump’s tweets are not reported on every day. But much of what has consumed U.S. domestic politics is simply difficult to comprehend in a Japanese context. For example, Abe declined to comment on Trump’s proposed ban on travel from six Muslim-majority countries, and only about 350 people gathered to protest it in Japan. Owing in part to Japan’s miniscule populations of foreign-born people and Muslims, the issue did not resonate. Moreover, Tokyo itself has not been friendly to refugees either. In 2016, of the 10,901 people who applied for refugee status in Japan, only 28 were accepted. 

Accordingly, as long as the bilateral relationship is successfully managed, most of the Japanese public seems willing to overlook other controversial aspects of Trump’s presidency. Trump is often portrayed as a bully in Japanese media, but many people in Japan seem to have decided that it is better to have the bully on your side. Opposition parties and some pundits may criticize Abe for “sucking up” to Trump. Overall, however, the strong preference for the status quo and the relative lack of sensitivity to many of Trump’s moves have moderated such criticism. 


For all the success of disarmament and disengagement thus far, the limits of Tokyo’s Trump management are starting to become clear. For one thing, Trump himself has proved even less predictable than expected; disarming him in one meeting offers only so much comfort, since he could reverse course soon afterward. Disengagement, meanwhile, has been challenged by Trump’s recent tweets on North Korea and by complaints that Trump made just prior to the G-20 meeting in July regarding market access for American products.

Abe with his wife on a visit to Finland, July 2017.
Abe with his wife on a visit to Finland, July 2017.
Lehtikuva Lehtikuva / Reuters

More fundamentally, the broader shift in U.S. foreign policy—the retreat from international institutions, the uncertainties about U.S.-Chinese relations, the growing threat of conflict on the Korean Peninsula—has forced Japan to think beyond Trump management. This means reconsidering both how Japan can strengthen its own defense capabilities and how it can expand its policy portfolio and thereby help bolster international institutions. 

The most acute security concern today is North Korea. Security experts have long argued that the successful North Korean development of an ICBM that could reach the continental United States would be a game changer for the U.S.-Japanese alliance, undermining the value of Washington’s security guarantee. Pyongyang’s apparent achievement of this goal will thus likely spur greater Japanese public support for moves to enhance Japan’s defense capabilities. In June, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Research Committee on Security released recommendations for defense planning for fiscal years 2019 to 2023. It advocated increased spending, with NATO’s target of two percent of GDP as a reference point, and introducing new land-based missile defense systems. 

Japan is contending not just with Washington’s withdrawal from the TPP but also with larger questions of regional economic order.

The committee also endorsed an earlier proposal to consider acquiring counterattack capabilities, including cruise missiles. This is not a new idea: since 1956, the Japanese government has considered striking an enemy base to be permissible within its definition of self-defense under the constitution if there is an imminent threat to Japan that cannot be dealt with by other means. But the growing North Korean threat has made it easier for proponents to make their case, and the added uncertainty coming from Washington has muted critical reactions. In an April poll conducted by the conservative-leaning newspaper Sankei Shimbun, 91 percent of respondents reported feeling threatened by Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development. Forty-five percent said they would support a Japanese counterattack after a North Korean missile had been launched toward Japan, and 31 percent said they would favor a preemptive strike once North Korea had started to prepare for a launch.

A counterattack capability would add an additional layer of deterrence against North Korea, but it might also affect the strategic calculation of other actors in the region. Japan needs to be careful about the message it might send to other countries, as well as such a capability’s implications for the relationship with the United States, since Japan would need to rely on U.S. detection and intelligence support in order to carry out a strike. Still, despite the challenges associated with new Japanese capabilities, Tokyo has no choice but to consider its options more broadly than before, especially as Washington recalibrates its own approach to North Korea.

On the economic front, meanwhile, Japan is contending not just with Washington’s withdrawal from the TPP but also with larger questions of regional economic order. In April, a day after meeting with Pence, Aso stated that Japan would proceed with the TPP. Since then, discussion among the remaining 11 countries has continued, in an effort to come up with an amended agreement that leaves out the United States. But it will not be easy. Countries such as Malaysia and Vietnam will not see the same advantages to the TPP without U.S. participation, and thus the negotiations must arrive at a means of keeping the door open for later U.S. membership. 

The most important regional economic question is whether to compete, coexist, or cooperate with Chinese expansion in the region, especially Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. As the Trump administration has weakened U.S. economic leadership in Asia, Tokyo has been forced to rethink its approach. Earlier, it had worked with Washington to oppose Chinese projects, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and had viewed the Belt and Road Initiative with suspicion. With the United States leaving the TPP, Japan has decided to reconsider its relationship with China. In June, Abe declared that Japan was ready to cooperate on the Belt and Road Initiative, a reversal that shows a new effort at engagement with China rather than opposition. He also expressed his desire to “see a world in which high-quality rules cover an area from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean,” with free trade a force that can bring both peace and prosperity. Although he insisted that he has not given up on the TPP, he emphasized Japan’s Economic Partnership Agreement with the EU as a means of expanding trade beyond Asia.

None of this means that Japan is turning away from the United States and toward China. After all, Tokyo and Beijing still have significant disagreements and territorial disputes, and the U.S. military commitment to the region remains strong. And what China does, or does not do, in the face of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests could easily derail any progress in the Chinese-Japanese relationship.

The most fundamental challenge that Trump poses for Japan relates to the liberal democratic order, which has always been critical to Japan’s success. Going forward, Tokyo cannot be preoccupied simply with managing Trump. It must also seek ways to play a greater role in its region and around the world. Even for immediate challenges such as North Korea, thinking beyond the bilateral relationship will be crucial.

In Asia, Japan should work with other countries to keep the TPP alive and to make sure it will be possible for the United States to join it in the future. Along the same lines, Tokyo should support Washington’s reentry into the Paris climate accord, if and when the time comes. Japan can also play a leading role in coordinating with other Asian countries to prevent the North Korean crisis from turning into a tragedy. Keeping the door open for the United States—even Trump’s United States—is a role Japan should seek, not just in Asia but also worldwide.

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  • TAKAKO HIKOTANI is Gerald L. Curtis Associate Professor of Modern Japanese Politics and Foreign Policy at Columbia University. 
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