The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Ultimate Confusion
Published on December 4, 2012

“All the balls are in our court now,” quipped one Japanese pundit. Rightly so. Now that U.S. President Barak Obama has been reelected, he says, all the alliance issues, including the stalled plan to relocate a U.S. Marine Corps base in Okinawa and delayed participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, must be taken off the back burner they were put on throughout the presidential election season. But now the player on the Japanese side responsible for hitting the ball back into America’s court, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, is likely to be benched when Japan holds parliamentary elections on December 16. The problem is, however, even bigger than that: The player on the Japanese side has changed so often, “like every 10 minutes,” that the game has hardly advanced at all.

“We don’t expect any major change of U.S. policy towards Japan,” said another former diplomat-cum-pundit, “but the problem is on the Japanese side. We are experiencing ultimate confusion. We need to think about what message we get through to the U.S. and how we act.”

These two pundits were voicing widespread concerns in Japan about the relationship with the United States. For Japan, the choice of Obama or Romney mattered far less than Japan’s own imminent choices amid both domestic and regional crises. The country feels itself afflicted with a siege mentality for the first time in many decades—one that could even be compared to the ABCD (American-British-Chinese-Dutch) natural resource encirclement on the eve of the Pearl Harbor attack—although so far that comparison has remained too edgy to be voiced publicly.

This time the feelings of encirclement began with a sudden visit in July by Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev to one of the islands to the north of Hokkaido that are claimed by both nations. These islands were seized by the Soviet Union illegally, Japan claims, following the surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945. The Japanese saw this visit as an egregious affront, particularly coming as it did in the summer season, the traditional time that Japan pays tribute to the war dead.

Then came the sudden landing by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on the tiny Takeshima Island (also known as the Liancourt Rocks) in the middle of the Sea of Japan, claimed by both Japan and Korea. This landing occurred a few days before the anniversary of the Japanese surrender in World War II, the timing of which was also seen as an affront. Though South Korean border guards heavily protect the island, no previous South Korean president had ever dared to visit it.

On the very anniversary of the Japanese surrender, Hong Kong activists landed on one of the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, triggering a serious Sino-Japanese dispute and leading to massive anti-Japanese demonstrations in more than a hundred cities throughout China. Some of the protests degenerated into acts of vandalism, looting and arson targeting Japanese factories, stores and restaurants and causing damages in the billions of yen.

All of this happened while the one-year-old administration of Mr. Noda, the sixth Prime Minister in six years, was on the verge of collapse—again! Just this past summer, the Democratic Party of Japan, led by Mr. Noda, had successfully enacted legislation to hike consumption taxes and reform the national social security program (the Premier’s key policy goals) with the help of Liberal Democrats and the Buddhist Party, New Komeito. In exchange for the help, Noda promised to call a general election “sometime soon.” In the end, he dissolved the Lower House on November 16, setting up the coming showdown on December 16, in which his party is all but certain to lose power.

Proceeding in parallel with all of the above has been a confusing political party realignment, with the Mayor of Osaka and the Governor of Tokyo forming the twin eyes of a political typhoon, while Noda’s DPJ has lost four scores of Diet members and the LDP has changed its leader.

Thus the heightened partisanship, ideological division and confrontation that marked the U.S. elections this fall may pale in comparison to what Japanese politics has faced since Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi stepped down in 2006. The United States, at least, has a solid two-party system; it is very hard for the Japanese even to say how many parties they have in the Diet at any particular moment.

Amidst Japan’s lamentations over this chaotic state of affairs came another shock, this one from America: A group of well-known bipartisan Japan hands headed by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage and Harvard Professor Joseph Nye, both of whom held senior posts in previous U.S. administrations, made a rather alarming pronouncement in a report titled “The U.S.-Japan Alliance: Anchoring Stability in Asia”:

For Japan, however, there is a decision to be made. Does Japan desire to continue as a tier-one nation, or is she content to drift into tier-two status? If tier-two status is good enough for the Japanese people and their government, this report will not be of interest.

More shocking than these words was the fact that the report came out on the very anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II, at the very moment a Chinese group had landed on the Senkakus! So it was that, with the report’s words still ringing in Japanese ears, we saw Chinese citizens chanting in the streets of Shanghai, “Destroy Japan and retrieve Okinawa!” So it wasn’t only about the Senkakus!

Again, no one said so in public, but the Armitage-Nye report felt a bit like the famous “Hull Note” of 1941—the ultimatum handed to Japan by then Secretary of State Cordell Hull demanding the total and unconditional withdrawal of Japanese troops from Manchuria. Of course, this association is outrageous for all sorts of reasons, but the timing of various incidents this summer reminded at least some Japanese of the predicaments the country faced on the eve of the Pacific War.

So it remains. When Japanese look around the neighborhood many feel besieged at a time when domestic politics seem to be collapsing into a heap of confusion and revolving door prime ministers—again, in a way not wildly different from how pre-war Japanese citizens observed their situation in the early 1940s.

Thus, when Japanese were following the news of the U.S. presidential election, many of them, and the history conscious most of all, had to be wondering whether the U.S. leadership would really come to Japan’s help under the obligations of the bilateral security treaty. The simple, if not publicly admitted truth, is that increasingly numbers of Japanese think the United States might not be on our side in a possible military collision with China. This is so despite the fact that, according to a rolling survey, positive feeling toward America, along with negative feeling toward China, has been climbing over the past several months. There is no law of human nature preventing people from worrying about their friends, after all.

Some Japanese are thus asking themselves why the United States, which made a sudden about face to secure a surprise grand bargain with China forty years ago, should not repeat it if, indeed, Washington is disappointed with Japan for possibly being content to drift into tier-two status. The rebalancing toward Asia that the Obama Administration has been so eager to claim credit for may be laying the groundwork for that, for all Japanese know.

Hiro Aida is chief editorial writer of Japan's Kyodo News, visiting professor of Kansai University (Osaka) and research associate of the Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Monotheistic Religions at Doshisha University (Kyoto).