Kanrin Maru, the ship that brought the first Japanese embassy to the U.S. Japan Society photo.

Monday, May 10th, 2010 I attended the Japan Society of Northern California’s Kanrin Maru Symposium: The Future of the U.S.-Japan Relationship. The event was at the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco. I attended as a private party, not as press, although I was given the opportunity to do so. I paid my own way.

(For background on the Kanrin Maru, click here.)

The conference began with lunch in a conference room on the 25th floor. I arrived early and sat at a table in the far back, wanting a maximum view of the audience while taking in a nice view of Russian Hill from the 25th Floor. As people filed in and took their seats, I began to worry that I was going to sit by myself. (I didn’t know anyone else attending.) Fortunately, I was soon joined by Kozo, a Japan Society member who had come to the U.S. 35 years before to start his own shipping business. I was also joined by Stephen, who had spent twelve years in Japan and was very keyed in to Japanese politics.

One of the first speakers was Joseph Donovan, Principal Deputy Secretary of State, Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs, from the U.S. State Department. He discussed the U.S. – Japan alliance in general, in particular the current Futenma base situation. He seemed like a nice sort, but as someone involved in the Futenma negotiations couldn’t really say much, except that he would be shot if he said too much. (He was joking, in case there are any North Korean readers out there.)

Next up was Consul General Yasumasa Nagamine from the Japanese Consulate. He talked about the strength of the U.S.-Japanese alliance. He seemed like a very nice man.

After him was Ambassador Michael Armacost. I had a lot of notes from his talk. Armacost said that he had only taken a short time to prepare his address, but Stephen was skeptical that he had spent as little time as he had claimed. Armacost put a lot of meat on the table. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Armacost no longer works in government.)

Armacost said that the U.S.-Japan alliance was an alliance of Cold War necessity, a “bargain”, but with two asymmetric qualities: the United States would defend Japan, but Japan would not be obliged to defend the United States. (Contrast this with Article 5 of NATO.) The United States could also use bases in Japan to execute policies in Asia that Japan may not necessarily agree with.

Out of this security agreement Japan received a great deal. Japan got low-cost security, and the ability to pursue economic development as its top priority. Furthermore, Japan not rearming kicked regional friction held over from the Second World War farther down the road. Armacost said of the alliance: “The alliance is an insurance policy, and the premiums are quite modest.”

Armacost said that both Japan and the United States bore responsibility for the Futenma crisis. For its part, the U.S.misjudged the importance of the Futenma issue after the 2009 Japanese elections, and the power shift that brought the DPJ to power. On the Japanese side, the DPJ had never governed before, and had never really sorted out political rhetoric from executable policy. And when the Hatoyama government found itself in trouble over the issue, it did not stop digging the deep hole it found itself in.

The ambassador stated that the alliance was never more valuable to the U.S. and Japan than it was today. The U.S., tied down with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a nuclear-armed North Korea and a rising China, needed Japan more than ever before. For its part, standing budgetary commitments meant that Japan had no more money for defense.

The ambassador said there were three vital questions for the future of the alliance:

1. What are the threats?
2. How do the U.S. and Japan synchronize vis a vis China?
3. how do the governments of both countries rationalize the continued existence of the alliance with their constituency?

The ambassador concluded his remarks by said that in his opinion the U.S. footprint in Japan should shrink, for the good of the alliance. I have nothing in my notes that says he was specifically thinking of Futenma, but the implication was obvious.

Next up was Hitoshi Tanaka, former LDP Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Japanese government.

Tanaka’s speech was a bit more sobering. Tanaka started off by noting that power was shifting from West to East, as Asia becomes the center of the economic world. India and China are both notable for consistent, strong economic growth, while the U.S. and Japan were declining powers–in the relative sense. “East Asia will be the engine of the World,” Tanaka declared.

Tanaka noted that Japan was becoming more insular, with fewer Japanese traveling abroad. Tanaka noted that even among college graduates hoping to go on to the Japanese foreign service, most expressed a desire to stay in Japan and not be assigned a diplomatic posting abroad. Tanaka said that for Japan to thrive, this trend towards insularity had to be reversed.

The most interesting speaker at the conference was Taro Kono, a LDP member of Japan’s House of Representatives. Kono started off his talk commenting that he was glad to be away from Tokyo and “the mess at home”, an allusion to the Futenma situation.

Kono began by saying that increasingly, Japanese are wondering if the United States and Japan share the same values. The two countries are beginning to split on some very important issues to the Japanese people (Kono mentioned the Kyoto Protocol as an example) that makes them wonder if the United States and Japan still share a common vision.

Kono discussed nuclear weapons, and said that the United States and Japan needed to lead an effort toward the abolition of nuclear arms worldwide, and noted that both countries are uniquely qualified to do so. Kono also said that if are to talk about Iran and  North Korea and the spread of nuclear proliferation, we should also talk about the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal, as well as Israel’s open secret of having nuclear weapons.

Regarding China, Kono felt that the U.S. – Japan alliance needed to engage China. Kono said that China, although a trading partner and neighbor “doesn’t play by the rules”, and that a U.S. – Japan alliance needs to last at least until China is democratized.

Finally, Kono felt that Japan should become a bigger player in the Middle East. According to Kono, Japan is a very neutral party, with no history of involvement in the region on any side. Kono said that Japan could play “good cop” to the United States’ “bad cop.”

Another speaker was Glen Fukushima, fellow Japanese American and current CEO of Airbus Japan. As far as Futenma went, Fukushima too said that both sides were to blame. Hatoyama and the DPJ’s ruling coalition expected that the new Obama Administration would be more flexible on the basing issue. On the other side, Fukushima said that he considered the DPJ victory in the Fall 2009 to be the single largest political change in Japan’s entire postwar era, and that fact was not truly appreciated by the U.S. government. Fukushima said that U.S. – Japanese relations had been hijacked by the Futenma issue.

Fukushima also touched on Japan’s growing insularity from the rest of the world. There are fewer Japanese students studying at American colleges, particularly Harvard. He mentioned two key challenges facing Japan: soaring fiscal spending and an aging population. He felt that Japan would, as a result, grow more risk averse, and lamented that, in a time of critical importance, the two great powers of the U.S. and Japan were in relative decline.

Another speaker, Steven K. Vogel from Stanford, was even more pessimistic. In 2001, he predicted, the security side of the U.S. – Japan relationship would be more contentious, but the economic relationship less contentious. That has come to pass. Vogel also said one of the current dilemmas of the alliance was how to bind China into a multilateral framework. Vogel said that he was pessimistic in the short term about the alliance because it had been derailed by Futenma and other distractions. Finally, one intriguing thing that Vogel said that I had never heard before was that Japan’s government considered it their role to keep the public debate about the alliance away from the Japanese people.

The event was quite interesting and well worth the afternoon. Thanks to Yuriko Tada and Reide Baxter at the Japan Society for allowing me to register late.

GD Star Rating

Related posts:

A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 596 post(s) on Japan Security Watch