Op-Ed: ‘Toward a balanced US-Japan relationship’

The following is text from an op-ed by Glen S. Fukushima published March 8, 2014, in the Nikkei Asian Review.

A curious aspect of contemporary U.S.-Japan relations is the strong preference of the Japanese establishment (the Liberal Democratic Party, government bureaucracy, business community, and much of the mass media) for Republicans over Democrats.

This was not always the case. In the 1960s, many Japanese revered President John F. Kennedy, and in the 1970s, most Japanese loathed President Richard M. Nixon, especially for the 1971 “Nixon Shocks” — establishing ties with China without consulting with Japan and taking the U.S. dollar off the gold standard.

When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, many Japanese questioned whether a movie actor was up to the task. However, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone proved to be a skillful handler of Reagan, as I witnessed while working at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in the mid-1980s.

In addition, Republicans successfully persuaded Japan that Democrats, supported by protectionist labor unions, were the main source of bilateral trade disputes. By the presidential election of 1984, when Walter Mondale ran against Reagan, the Japanese establishment had concluded that Republicans are easier to handle than Democrats. In every U.S. presidential election since then, the Japanese establishment — unlike the general public — has favored the Republican over the Democratic nominee. Why?

Birds of a feather

First, the GOP and LDP have long been ideological soul mates, especially during the Cold War era, being anti-communist, pro-big business, anti-labor union and culturally conservative.

Second, in the 28 years between the election of Reagan in 1980 and the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Republicans occupied the White House for 20 years versus only eight years for Democrats. Given their preference for continuity, stability and predictability, Japanese leaders understandably became comfortable and familiar with the ruling Republicans and felt no particular need to cultivate new friends among opposition Democrats.

Third, Republicans have skillfully portrayed themselves as free traders and Democrats as protectionists. Republicans also tell Japan that they are tough on China, whereas Democrats are soft on China and value China over Japan. Although not a few Republicans are protectionist and not all Democrats like China, the Japanese establishment finds this narrative persuasive, in part because it still suffers nightmares from the Clinton Administration’s contentious trade negotiations with Japan under the Framework Talks in the mid-1990s and from President Clinton’s “bypassing” Japan to go to China on a nine-day state visit in 1998.

Fourth, when Republicans take the White House, Democrats usually return to universities, think tanks and law firms. However, when Democrats take the White House, many Republicans return to business and continue their ties with Japan while conducting business. This leads to a continuity of human relationships and the creation of shared economic interests between Republicans and the Japanese business community.

Fifth, because of these close relationships, some Japanese journalists have become strong advocates of Republicans and convey to Japan news that is favorable to Republicans and unfavorable to Democrats.

Sixth, many Japanese claim that Republicans are generous and warmly embrace traditional Japanese-style human relationships and sentiments, including giri ninjo and being “wet,” whereas Democrats, they claim, tend to be cold, unemotional, businesslike and “dry.”

Finally, Democrats often insist on universal ideals and values (such as human rights) and expect Japan to adhere to them, whereas Republicans often show more understanding of Japan-specific issues such as North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals or Japan’s hunting of whales.

Virtues of bipartisanship

Because the U.S. is a two-party nation, most allies try to work with both Republicans and Democrats. Relying excessively on one party over the other is strategically unwise and can lead to misunderstanding and miscalculation. For this reason, most of America’s partners, and even its rivals, consciously strive to understand, establish ties and work effectively with both parties.

Japan’s pro-Republican stance goes counter to long-term demographic trends in the U.S., given that America’s growing segments — youth, women, African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans — are voting more Democratic than Republican. If Japan continues on its current path, it risks permanently allying itself with the opposition party and alienating itself from the party in power. Japan could also become increasingly isolated in American foreign policy debates as China, South Korea and other Asian countries actively strengthen their ties with Democrats.

Instead of resting on its past laurels, the Japanese establishment needs to recognize that the world is changing, strive to be more balanced and future-oriented, and — while maintaining ties with Republicans — actively cultivate a strategic relationship with Democrats. This will redound to the benefit of not only Japan, but to the U.S., U.S.-Japan relations and the two nations’ relationships with the other countries of Asia.

Glen S. Fukushima is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. He is a former deputy assistant U.S. trade representative for Japan and China, and former president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.