Getting It Right: The U.S.-Japan Alliance

An important partnership at a critcal moment. Can Washington and Tokyo enhance ties? 

As President Obama kicks off his Asia trip this week with a visit to Japan he will likely discuss with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ways to modernize the U.S.-Japan alliance and maintain its role as a vital cog in Washington’s rebalancing strategy. Obama and Abe will also try and overcome the remaining hurdles—largely focused on U.S.-Japan tariff and nontariff barriers—to a successful conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). A renovated security alliance, wedded with enhanced economic integration via the TPP, represents the pillars on which Washington and Tokyo will base their future partnership. Indeed, Daniel Russel, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State of East Asia, recently referred to the alliance as the “cornerstone” to peace and prosperity in the region.

In many respects, the U.S.-Japan alliance has never been in a stronger position, as Japan under Abe has shed years of political futility highlighted by its “twisted diet”. Abe has also exorcised some of the demons from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) years and spent the necessary political capital to finally resolve the delicate issue of a replacement facility for U.S. marines based in Futenma, Okinawa. The Abe 2.0 administration has also taken politically risky gambles on the economy and in the political-security realm through a suite of economic reforms and a retrofit of Japan’s antiquated national security infrastructure. Washington has long desired all of these reforms.

These reforms and their relevance to the U.S.-Japan alliance, especially in light of the revision of bilateral defense guidelines currently underway, will form a solid foundation for discussion between Obama and Abe. But, while maintaining these pistons in the alliance is significant, it would be a mistake for Obama’s trip to narrowly focus on the logistical challenges and opportunities of the alliance and sidestep the gradual trust deficit that is growing at the leadership level. This trip to Japan needs to have a strong focus on building the personal rapport between Abe and Obama, whose relationship does not match the warmth and depth of those at the working levels in Tokyo and Washington.

The relationship between Obama and Abe started out well after the latter’s stunning political comeback cemented by his electoral victory in December 2012. Abe came out of the gate with purpose and arrived in Washington two months later declaring that, “Japan is back”, and supported his assertion with an announcement of his bold policy of “Abenomics” and decision to enter into TPP negotiations. Moreover, despite some harsh campaign rhetoric, Abe remained largely pragmatic with regard to Japan’s territorial disputes with its neighbors and resisted the temptation to break this patience with regard to China’s sustained intrusions into Japanese territory in the East China Sea. These developments, along with the more logistical reforms discussed above, provided a fertile environment for a strong rapport between Abe and Obama.

Unfortunately, domestic horse-trading in Japan and geopolitical uncertainties in East Asia have resulted in a number of incidents that have eroded this trust. Where did things go astray? The first hiccup in relations came as a result of Abe’s originally vague remarks on whether his government would standby the Kono and Murayama statements, which serve as landmark expressions of Japan’s contrition for crimes it committed before and during World War II (Abe has since publicly reaffirmed Japan’s support for both statements). Adding fuel to this fire were comments made last spring by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto who seemingly appeared to justify Japan’s use of “comfort women” during the war: “When soldiers are risking their lives by running through storms of bullets, and you want to give these emotionally charged soldiers a rest somewhere, it’s clear that you need a comfort-women system.”

Hashimoto further inflamed the situation by making a broken analogy, saying a larger sex industry was needed in Okinawa in order to deter further incidents of sexual violence by U.S. marines stationed there. These remarks were not only harmful to Japanese-Korean ties, but they also gained attention in the White House and caused a minor setback in Tokyo’s ties with Washington, which had been blossoming under the return of the Liberal Democratic Party. The “comfort women” issue remains problematic for the United States on two fronts: first, on a moral level, as the issue provoked a strong stance from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and some attention in Congress; and second, on a strategic level, as the lingering issue has been one of the factors stifling much-needed trilateral cooperation between the United States, Japan and South Korea.