Courtesy Reuters

Rescuing the U.S.-Japan Alliance


At the start of 1992 the U.S.-Japan alliance was stood on its head. In December the two countries had marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor with dignity and restraint. Just a month later, after President Bush’s trip to Tokyo, the two countries were publicly bickering with a vehemence and bitterness entirely uncharacteristic of a friendly alliance.

If President Bush had visited Japan in early December, as originally planned, he and Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa would perhaps have gone further in symbolically healing the wounds of war and shifting the political focus to the future. But these lofty purposes were all but lost in the cacophony of criticism from both sides of the Pacific that assailed the visit and its participants. Also lost in the noise were a number of potentially meaningful agreements, including a common effort to revitalize the American and Japanese economies as well as an agreement to open the Japanese computer market to greater world competition.


How could an occasion designed to reinforce and reinvigorate the alliance have deteriorated so dramatically? Part of the answer is surely election-year politics, which caused the postponement of the president’s trip in the first place. Another part is the frustrating Japanese tactic of waiting until the pressure becomes unbearable before making any move.

Yet well before the president’s trip tension had been building. Japan and the United States entered the 1990s resembling two sparring adolescents: prickly, intense, awkward, critical and self-righteous.

Many Japanese harbor attitudes characterized by a certain degree of resentment, self-pity, hypersensitivity to criticism from Washington and a limited understanding of Japan’s global responsibilities. They see America as a nation in decline, plagued with crime and drugs and riddled with undisciplined minorities and immigrants. Japanese embarrassment over Tokyo’s slow response to the Gulf War has given way to a widespread feeling that the United States has gone too far in pushing Japan around.

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