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Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012

The evolving dimensions of U.S.-Japan relations


The encounter between Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira and U.S. President Jimmy Carter in the White House on May 2, 1979, at which I acted as interpreter, stands out in my memory as one filled with personal warmth and rapport.

According to the declassified minutes of the conversation, when Carter mentioned the desirability of a relationship of greater equality, Ohira responded: "As I look back over the postwar years, our relationship has gradually but steadily developed from a vertical to a horizontal relationship.

"In all candor, however, our relationship is not fully equal yet. It is important for our people to have an accurate perception of their own strength and responsibility so that they can have influence on a variety of issues in world affairs."

The "vertical" notion has played an important part in the debate on equality and other facets of the Japan-U.S. relationship for more than six decades.

The "guardian-protege" mind-set of the 1950s gave rise to amae (presuming upon U.S. benevolence) on one hand and the resentment of subservience to the U.S. and the hankering for autonomy and independence on the other. The picture became complicated as the perceptions of our relative strengths changed: from Strong U.S. and Weak Japan, to Not So Strong U.S. and Economically Strong Japan, to Still Strong U.S. and Economically Weakening Japan, then to More Constrained U.S. and Still Faltering Japan.

When Ohira mentioned a "horizontal" relationship, he clearly had in mind not just the bilateral Japan-U.S. context but also our engagements with other countries and our responsibility — or burden-sharing — in the international community. In that sense, the problem continues to this day.

Whether with respect to burden-sharing in defense, trade, macro-economic management, international peacekeeping and peace-making, or sustainable development of the developing world, there has been a perennial expectation gap between Japan and the United States.

The U.S. feels that Japan can and should do more. Japan feels that it is either not able or not yet ready to do more, and often resents being dictated to by the U.S. The pattern has repeated itself again and again.

We cannot allow this pattern to continue at a time when the world is beset with macroeconomic, energy, environmental and trade liberalization challenges as well as with conflicts in Afghanistan, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Closer to our shores, there is an increasingly acute sense of threat or tension regarding North Korea, South Korea, China and Russia. We need to demonstrate that the Japan-U.S. alliance ensures peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region and, more broadly, provides public goods to the international community.

To do that, we in Japan must get out of our inward-looking mind-set, which has become more pronounced since the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power crisis of March 11 last year.

Continuing disarray in our political leadership is stalling progress on the domestic agenda, which may be leading many to doubt if Japan can afford to do much for the international community.

Partisan and intrapartisan squabbling should be sorted out as soon as possible so that we can regain our national confidence and move on to chart a vision and strategy of how Japan will help shape a better world.

The Armitage-Nye Report of 2012, "U.S.-Japan Alliance: Anchoring Stability in Asia", pointedly raises the question as to whether Japan desires to continue to be a tier-one nation or is content to drift into tier-two status. Instead of resenting this as another case of U.S. meddling in our affairs, we should think about what Ohira might say if he were alive today and saw how we perceive our strength and responsibility and how we propose to act in the world.

Sadaaki Numata is a former ambassador to Canada and Pakistan. The article originally appeared on the website of the English Speaking Union of Japan.

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