Home

America and Japan: the next century and a half

John Dower Yoshio Okawara
24 October 2004

okawara_dower.jpg

Dear Professor Dower,

I welcome this opportunity to write to you as part of openDemocracy‘s ‘Letters to Americans’ project, and in particular to discuss the relationship between the United States and Japan.

Although I have not had the pleasure of meeting you, I have known your name for some time as a prominent historian of the relationship between our two countries. The publication in 2003 of the Japanese edition of your bestselling book Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II has made you more widely known to Japanese readers.

I visited the United States for the first time in 1951 as one of 480 students under the Government Aid and Relief in Occupied Areas (GAROIA) – forerunner of the Fulbright Exchange Programme – on a year’s study. Arriving from a country struggling hard to recover from the second world war’s devastation, I was impressed tremendously by the vastness of land, the prosperity of the country and above all the warm–heartedness of American people.

The images and impressions of that period remain embedded in my mind, and had long–lasting effects on my career as a diplomat, in which I served at the Japanese embassy in Washington on three separate occasions.

During my period of service as ambassador of Japan from 1980–85, the United States–Japan relationship chronically suffered from frictions caused by the huge trade imbalance in favour of Japan, and from American pressure on Japan to intensify its defense efforts against the common threat of the Soviet Union. More recently, and in sharp contrast to the earlier period, the relationship has markedly improved.

The protracted stagnation of the Japanese economy from the early 1990s, and the consequent weakening of its competitiveness, helped to resolve trade tensions. These days, the US media appear more interested in the “rise of China” than the recovery of the Japanese economy.

Moreover, Japan since the early 1990s has gradually transformed its defense policy stance to become more positively engaged in international peacekeeping operations – especially after it suffered from bitter experiences at the time of the Gulf war in 1991, when the country was criticised internationally for its “chequebook diplomacy”.

Since then, a series of laws has been passed enabling Japan to engage in various overseas security operations, while remaining within the confines of its 1947 constitution. Currently, Japan is playing a role as a trusted ally of the US, dispatching units of its Self–Defense Forces to Afghanistan and Iraq for logistic support and reconstruction operations.

2004 marks the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Kanagawa Treaty of Peace and Amity between the United States and Japan in 1854. This opened Japan’s door to the outside world, and the country radically departed from the self–imposed seclusion of over 260 years under the Tokugawa government.

A ceremony in commemoration of this anniversary was held in Yokohama on 3 April 2004, attended by Japan’s prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and US ambassador Howard Baker. The ceremony was followed by an international symposium devoted to evaluating the significance of this 150 years’ history, and assessing the need to uphold the alliance between the two countries when looking towards the coming century and a half.

For the Japanese participants, this commemoration provided a unique opportunity to reflect upon our relations with the United States. We are most happy to observe the current conditions of broad cooperation between our two countries as allies. And yet, we should not take matters for granted. Both sides need to exercise constant care to maintain and develop ever–closer ties.

In this connection, I consider that one of the most unfortunate experiences we suffered in our postwar relations were the two “Nixon shocks”. The first was Henry Kissinger’s surprise visit to the People’s Republic of China in July 1971 to pave the way for President Nixon’s China visit the following year. At that time, Japan was unprepared to see the US establish normal diplomatic relations with China by severing its ties with the Republic of China, Taiwan.

The second shock was President Nixon’s announcement of a new economic policy in August 1971, when he terminated the convertibility of the US dollar. The new policy measures seriously affected the Bretton Woods system that had governed the post–1945 global economy, and propelled the world into uncharted economic waters.

In reflecting on the severe sufferings caused by these unexpected policy changes, I believe that in managing a healthy relationship between our two countries, the United States and Japan should make every possible effort to avoid causing surprise and shock to each other. For this reason, our two governments should engage in incessant consultations on every major policy issue that is a matter of significance and concern to the other side, thus helping deepen understanding and develop mutual trust.

Today, the wave of globalisation has led Asian countries to move dynamically and brought diverse players onto the international stage amidst a long–term policy orientation of regional integration. In this circumstance, it is incumbent upon Japan to become more positively involved in the growing momentum towards the building of an East Asian community.

Here, we must admit that in terms of geography the US cannot be associated with the Asian regional integration process. Yet strategically structured engagements by the US in Asia remain crucial to the peace and stability of the region. Under these conditions, the partnership of allies between Japan and the US will continue to be the core factor in coping with the evolving Asian situation.

It is my strong hope that through deeper understanding and mutual trust, the bonds of friendship between our two countries will be further strengthened, particularly through the efforts of younger generations who should learn the precious lessons from history.

Yours Sincerely,

yoshio_okawara.jpg

Dear Ambassador Okawara,

Thank you for sharing your thoughtful reflections on relations between the United States and Japan. We are certainly in agreement that the friendship between our countries is something to be treasured. And, as a long–time teacher, I strongly second your closing observation that, to accomplish this, it is essential that we pass on “lessons from history” to younger generations.

My own initial contact with Japan took place in 1958, some seven years after you visited the United States as an exchange student, and the circumstances of our first encounters were obviously worlds apart. I had no personal recollection of the second world war (I was 7 years old when the war ended in 1945), and no knowledge of the postwar US occupation that followed Japan’s defeat and was still going on when you came to America in 1951.

Indeed, I really had no knowledge of Japan at all, apart from the fact that it was about as far from home as one could go without being on the way back. That, coupled with the exoticism of an unknown “non–western” culture, was the great attraction. I was between junior and senior year in college then, majoring in American Studies and primarily attracted to literature. I spent the summer in Japan with a small group of American students, enjoying a home stay in Kanazawa and travelling quite widely with Japanese hosts of our own age.

One of the reasons Kanazawa was among the first places chosen to host Americans in the 1950s was that it was a “traditional” city that – of greatest importance – had escaped the devastating US air raids that decimated most major Japanese cities in the final year of the war. It was felt there would be less chance of lingering ill will there.

As it turned out, we encountered nothing but hospitality everywhere we went in Japan. And, with but a few exceptions, we saw few physical manifestations of the terrible wartime devastation you refer to in your letter and would have known so intimately. One such exception was the occasional appearance of disabled veterans wearing distinctive white clothing and soliciting alms in the bigger cities.

Our most sobering encounter with the recent war was in Hiroshima, where formal memorialisation of the atomic–bomb experience had been initiated just a few years earlier, most notably in the new “peace museum”. This was my first encounter with what your generation and mine have always known as the “ground zero” of the nuclear age. For most Americans today, however, that terrible term simply describes the World Trade Center destroyed on 11 September 2001. Here is certainly one of the lessons from history that, at least in my own country, is in danger of being distorted if not entirely forgotten.

I now appreciate, much more than I did then, what a remarkable transformation had taken place in Japan and US–Japan relations in the wake of the 1941–45 war. The “economic miracle” euphoria still lay a decade or two in the future, but Japan already was becoming a comfortable place materially for most of its populace –something we could experience in our largely middle–class home stays.

Most stunning of all in retrospect, however, was how easily we seemed to find common interests with Japanese at many different levels of society. Years later, when I did research for a book on the war years, I was staggered to discover the breadth and depth of hatred that had existed on both the Allied and Japanese sides. As almost every American war correspondent in the Pacific theatre observed, this tapped a strain of visceral racial animosity that had no counterpart in the American war against the Germans or Italians. That such violent hatred could be dissipated so quickly once the killing ended is perhaps the real “miracle” of the postwar period.

You wrote of the “warm–heartedness of American people” you experienced a mere six years after the war, and I had much the same heartening experience in Japan seven years later. This seems to tell us something about international relations – and about human nature as well – that I find deeply moving and encouraging, particularly in these dark days when the world seems to have plunged once again into irreconcilable conflict.

At the same time, there is a cautionary side to this lesson, for – as you also point out – the postwar relationship between our countries has never been problem–free. The institutional and interpersonal ties that bind us together at every level, both official and unofficial, are now quite extraordinary. There is no comparison to the prewar years, and it seems inconceivable that Japan and America could ever become outright enemies again. Yet the tensions in the relationship merit close attention.

A good deal of this friction obviously reflects the competition and conflict inevitable between two great economic powers. Beyond this, however, I would argue that much of this tension is inherent in the peculiar strategic and psychological nature of the postwar United States–Japan relationship. Here I have in mind the unequal nature of the bilateral relationship that has persisted ever since Japan’s defeat and occupation, in which Tokyo has almost invariably felt compelled to adhere very closely to Washington’s global policies and dictates.

Indeed, I would develop this point further and suggest that some disagreements between our two nations can be healthy and should be encouraged. No one can doubt America’s enormous preponderance of military and economic power ever since the Pacific war. We can, however, certainly question the wisdom of many of Washington’s specific policies – culminating in the arrogant unilateralism, myopic fixation on military solutions, extreme “privatisation” ideology, and utter indifference to global environmental concerns of the current administration. In my view, a more stable, prosperous and equitable world order will be one in which nations like Japan can combine cooperation with America with frank and open opposition to policies deemed unwise.

I fully understand this is easier said than done. Domestic politics places constraints on what the Japanese government can say or do. The peculiar structure of the US–Japan relationship – particularly militarily – poses formidable obstacles to Japanese initiatives apart from the incremental militarisation we see, most recently, in the dispatch of Self–Defense Forces to Iraq in support of a truly ill–conceived US policy.

Security concerns in Asia (presently focusing on the delicate situation in North Korea) compound the problem. And rising Asian nationalisms make the situation even more complex, particularly in China and South Korea where (as in Japan itself) the “memory” of pre–1945 Japanese aggression and colonisation has become highly politicised. Still, Japan can take pride in admirable postwar achievements – including not only the creation of impressive and reasonably equitable economic growth, but also a genuine spirit of anti–militarism grounded in recollection of wartime horrors. Japan certainly has the potential to formulate and articulate creative, alternative visions to what Washington dictates. It may already be doing this behind the scenes; that is something I cannot speak to. I, for one, in any case, would applaud this being stepped up to the public level.

In the concluding paragraphs of your letter, you suggest one of the major directions this potential may take – notably, greater regional integration in Asia. I agree. One of the peculiarities of Japan’s postwar international orientation is that, until fairly recently, it has been fixated on the bilateral relationship with the United States to an exceptional degree. We do not see this in postwar Europe, for example, where Japan’s former wartime ally Germany was able to move more quickly and autonomously in restoring relations with former enemies, and where Nato embodied a multinationalism quite different from the bilateral nexus of the US–Japan security relationship.

Asia is obviously not Europe; and China’s rapid emergence as a major player clearly poses great challenges as well as opportunities. Still, the creation of an “East Asian community” that might in certain respects become a counterpart to the European Union – and a potentially creative and constructive counterpoint to US unilateralism and hegemony – is indeed a vision worth pursuing.

Sincerely,

john_dower.jpg

Last week in the series: Sabine Herold of the libertarian group ‘Liberté Chérie’ wrote to Kenneth Timmerman, author of ‘The French Betrayal of America’.

logo_175x75.jpg

The Letters to Americans project will run until the US presidential elections on 2 November 2004. Projects like this are challenging to organise and expensive to deliver, but we think it is worth it to bring America into dialogue with the world. If you agree, please support us.

Copyright and Contact All Letters to Americans exchanges are copyright of openDemocracy. For syndication, republishing and other enquiries please e-mail Julian. [email protected]

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Comments

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData