Op-Ed: ‘New Vision Needed for U.S.-Japan Relations’

The following is text from an op-ed by Glen S. Fukushima published on Sept. 22, 2013, in The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s leading daily newspapers. Download a PDF of the printed article in Japanese.

The strong ties that characterized U.S.-Japan relations in the postwar period have seen a relative decline over the past decade. This is true at all levels–legislators, government officials, and the private sector.

At the same time, the Obama administration’s “Asia pivot” or “Asia rebalance” has resulted in the United States paying greater attention than before to Asia. Despite this, Japan’s presence in Washington, D.C., has plummeted.

This is partly because the stagnation of the Japanese economy means that Japan is less of a threat, model, or significant player than it once was. But it is also because Japan has not made sufficient efforts to engage the United States.

Some Japanese seem to believe that because of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, they can take the United States for granted: “The United States will always be our ally, look after us, and protect us. We can leave our national security entirely up to them.”

These people appear not to realize just how competitive an environment Japan operates under. Countries from around the world are constantly and fiercely competing for the attention, support and friendship of the United States. In this complex and competitive environment, only an unrealistic optimist can expect the United States to side with Japan each and every time tensions and conflicts emerge in East Asia.

A senior Japanese government official recently commented, “During the height of U.S.-Japan trade conflicts in the 1980s and 90s, we tried desperately to take Japan out of the headlines and to make Japan as inconspicuous as possible. We did such a good job that now no one pays any attention to us!” Indeed this is a classic case of “Beware what you wish for.”

Exacerbating the problem is that, since the 1980s, Japanese leaders (Liberal Democratic Party, government bureaucrats, and business leaders) have assiduously forged close ties with Americans in the Republican Party but not in the Democratic Party. Japan is unusual in this regard. Most other countries, whether allies or not, understand that the United States is a two-party country and realize that a bipartisan approach is necessary.


Steven Schwarzman, founder of the Blackstone Group, recently announced the establishment of a $300 million (29.8 billion yen) fund, one-third out of his personal finances, to create a program similar to the Rhodes Scholarship, under which Americans will study in China, and Chinese will study in the United States. His rationale is that the future leaders of the world’s two leading countries need to deepen their understanding of each other to work cooperatively and effectively with each other.

The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the government of Vietnam have together established a training institute in Hanoi that every year graduates between 100 and 130 Vietnamese government officials in a two-year program, in English, on public administration and leadership.

More than a decade ago, the Chinese government started a training program to send its future leaders to Harvard’s Kennedy School for short-term leadership programs conducted in English. The number of students from South Korea studying in the United States has almost doubled in the past 15 years.

By contrast, the number of Japanese students studying in the United States has dropped precipitously. From a peak of 47,000 in 1997, the number plummeted to below 20,000 in 2011. Currently, the country sending the largest number of students to study in the United States is China, with 200,000.

Japan has dropped from number one to number seven. Vietnam is number eight, but given its rapid growth rate, it will certainly overtake Japan before long. This erosion in the opportunity for Japanese and American students to study with and to learn from each other will have long-term deleterious consequences for the U.S.-Japan relationship, especially given the significant strides being made in educational exchanges between the United States and other Asian countries.

The United States and China recognize each others’ differences and are trying to find ways to accommodate those differences, sometimes with difficulty. On the other hand, the United States and Japan often paper over differences or pretend they don’t exist, sometimes using the rubric that we “share common values.”

Too often, these discussions are conducted by a small group of like-minded individuals who end up agreeing on the facade without addressing the reality of the fundamental issues. An example would be those who claim that “The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty is fine and has no problems.” Perhaps it’s time to face the fact that there are some real differences in the threat perceptions of Americans and Japanese.

I grew up in the United States as a third-generation American of Japanese ancestry, and my wife grew up in Japan. At the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in the 1980s, my job was negotiating trade agreements with Japan and with China. After working in Japan for 22 years as a senior business executive heading several multinational corporations, I returned to the United States last year. Through my lifetime of personal and professional experiences in both countries, I have come to appreciate their profound differences.

For example, Americans and Japanese are polar opposites when it comes to the value they attach to age and experience. Japanese tend to pay excessive deference to age and experience, limiting opportunities for the younger generation. During my time in Japan, it appeared that only when I reached the age of 50 did some Japanese leaders start to think I had reached a sufficient stage of maturity to be taken seriously.

By contrast, Americans sometimes attach an excessively high premium on youth, energy and newness. There is often insufficient appreciation for the fact that experience can impart knowledge, judgment and wisdom. Americans should attach more value to experience, and Japanese should open up decision-making to younger people. By “younger,” I mean under the age of 50.

Incumbents in Japan have enshrined as holy writ continuity, stability, predictability, precedence and order. This may have served Japan well in the neatly organized, communist-versus-capitalist world order of the Cold War. But in today’s globalized, uncertain, unpredictable, disruptive, crisis-prone, and rapidly changing world, what Japan lacks, but needs most, is diversity, innovation, spontaneity, flexibility, new thinking, and willingness to change.


For over 20 years, many Japanese have aspired to change and reform, only to be thwarted by resistance from entrenched interests. At the same time, some Japanese have been lulled into a sense of complacency because they are comfortable with the status quo. However, the realities of global competition and of the massive government debt are slowly forcing even the most complacent to wake up to the need for reform.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “three arrows” hold promise for many, which is one of the reasons for his recent electoral victories and his relatively high support ratings. But the first two arrows, monetary and fiscal policy, are unlikely on their own to produce sustained, long-term economic growth.

What is more likely to produce this growth is the “third arrow,” which includes structural reforms aimed at enhancing Japan’s global competitiveness. But strong political leadership will be essential to overcome vested interests in order to realize the benefits of the “third arrow.” This may be the last chance for Japan to achieve the kind of breakthrough reforms needed, and that have been postponed for two decades, to pull Japan out of its post-bubble economic stagnation.

If all the decisions about the “third arrow” are to be made by the established incumbent order, fundamental reforms are unlikely. Hiring, promoting and listening to capable individuals regardless of their age, gender or nationality are key to bring in fresh, diverse, innovative and globally informed ideas. In this regard, the United States and Europe can offer successful examples of the value of diversity.

It is my hope that Japan will leverage “Abenomics” to capitalize on the contributions of the younger generation, women and non-Japanese to reinvigorate and revive its economy, and that Japan will leverage globalization to strengthen its relationship with the United States through diversity, innovation and greater personal and institutional connectivity and engagement at all levels.

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Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. Born in 1949, Fukushima is a graduate of Stanford University and Harvard University. He served as Director for Japanese Affairs and as Deputy Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Japan and China at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Executive Office of the President. After government service, he was a senior executive in several multinational corporations and President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.