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In Japan, the Picture Isn't Quite So Bright

Tokyo successfully sold the usually antiwar Japanese public on its decision to send refueling tankers to the Indian Ocean in support of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and noncombat troops to work on reconstruction projects in Iraq by implying that those actions were vital to retaining U.S. protection from North Korea's increasingly capable missiles. So a Japanese sense of having been betrayed by Washington may be understandable. But it is disturbing that no senior politician, journalist or scholar in Japan has had the courage to say that it is in the country's interest to go along with the U.S.-backed six-party talks to put a halt to Pyongyang's nuclear program and integrate North Korea into the community of nations -- or that a "solution" to the abduction problem is likely to be found only in that context. But during my recent trip, I saw that this is such an emotional issue for the Japanese that it's almost impossible to have a rational discussion. Meeting with old friends or conversing over the dinner table with relatives, I was accused of being an apologist for U.S. policy and naive about Kim Jong Il's ruthlessness.

Two days before the U.S. elections, Japan's public television network, NHK, aired a documentary on Japanese diplomats in Washington. It showed them cultivating connections with Asia policy advisers to the Obama and McCain campaigns, trying to find out what the next U.S. president would expect from Japan and to preempt anticipated demands for fresh military and financial contributions from Tokyo. It showed them suggesting what Japan could offer instead as an essential partner in global affairs, such as economic assistance in reducing poverty and help in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Only by making these efforts, the diplomats believed, could Japan avoid becoming irrelevant to U.S. foreign policy in an Asia increasingly dominated by China.

The reaction from viewers was stunning. The overwhelming majority of the many comments NHK received criticized both the diplomats' actions and their objectives, the program's producer said. "Why do we have to cuddle up to Washington so much?" they asked. Or, "Why can't we just be happy with ourselves and stop caring about what the U.S. thinks of us?"

So while the rest of the world may be cheering the Obama presidency, Japan is decidedly ambivalent about yet another change in Washington. Japanese leaders will, of course, do all they can to get along with the new Democratic president and Congress. But they'll be facing an increasingly introverted public at home, whose opinions of America are about as high as George W. Bush's approval ratings.

Ayako Doi is a freelance journalist in Washington and a contributing fellow with the Asia Society.

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