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 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.
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