In Japan, the Picture Isn't Quite So Bright

By Ayako Doi
Sunday, November 16, 2008

Like millions of Americans, I watched the scene in Chicago's Grant Park on election night, as President-elect Barack Obama delivered his victory speech, with a real sense of hope that something fundamental was changing. A few hours later, I began receiving e-mail messages from friends in Europe who were overjoyed by the choice American voters had made.

And the next day, the world's excitement was visible in news stories, photos and television images broadcast from around the globe -- with one striking exception.

Surfing Japanese news Web sites for commentaries on the Obama victory from a key U.S. ally, I was taken aback by the skeptical, even negative, tone that prevailed. "Obama Likely to Stress Importance of China," read one headline in the mass-circulation daily Yomiuri Shimbun, implying that the new administration will relegate Japan to the foreign policy back seat. The economic daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun fretted about the likelihood that the Democratic president and Congress may concoct a massive rescue package for troubled U.S. automakers and about the potential fallout for the Japanese car industry. Everyone seemed to agree that Obama, who has talked about withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq to concentrate on Afghanistan, may well put pressure on Japan to send ground troops to the latter country -- something the nation's postwar pacifist leaders don't feel prepared to do.

The most astounding article appeared in Sentaku, a monthly magazine with a reputation for objectivity and solid analysis. Writing in anticipation of an Obama victory, the magazine raised most of the same charges the Republicans had leveled against the Democratic candidate, including Obama's associations with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, former Weather Underground leader William Ayers and "communist and socialist professors." It called him "the most dubious character in history to occupy the White House." Criticizing Obama's foreign policy statements as "abstract" and "strings of empty words such as 'consultation' and 'cooperation,' " the article concluded that under Obama, the United States would lose its position of global leadership and drag the world into "enormous chaos."

As the realization that Obama will soon be the most powerful man in the world has sunk in, Japanese opinion of him seems to be warming up. Newspaper editorials have begun expressing more hope that he'll do well in combating the global economic crisis. The first public opinion poll, released last week by the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun newspaper, showed that 79 percent of Japanese had favorable feelings about Obama himself. But even so, only 41 percent thought that his election would lead to an improvement in U.S.-Japanese relations.

Why are the Japanese feeling so much less positive about an Obama presidency than the rest of the world?

Japanese media seem concerned that officials there have few contacts with Obama or his advisers and that Obama doesn't seem to know much about Japan. As the world's second-largest economy and a close U.S. ally, Japan should have no problem communicating its wishes and concerns to Washington. But the Japanese strongly believe that only personal connections can affect U.S. policies.

The Japanese may also be anxious about Obama because of his party affiliation. The last time there was a Democrat in the White House, Japan's huge trade surpluses with the United States made it a favorite whipping boy for many U.S. politicians. The Clinton administration, which had made fixing the economy "Job One," demanded that Japan set numerical targets for importing U.S. products. And it tasked its abrasive trade representative, Mickey Kantor, with keeping up the pressure as Tokyo resisted what it perceived as a demand for managed trade. Tokyo's then-ambassador to Washington, Takakazu Kuriyama, said he had never seen so much distrust between officials of the two governments in his 30-plus years of diplomatic service.

China has replaced Japan as the main target of Washington's ire over trade in the past few years, and trade hasn't been a major point of contention between Tokyo and Washington for some time. But the latest financial crisis, which the Japanese media always refer to as "U.S.-originated," seems to be reviving memories of the Clinton-era "trade war."

The Japanese strongly associate Democrats with protectionism, which may make Obama seem problematic. "Concerns of Resurgent Protectionism," a Japanese Industrial Daily headline proclaimed as it reported his victory. Japanese manufacturers with plants in the United States also worry that American labor unions' clout may increase under the Democrats. Many Japanese managers of U.S. subsidiaries "have had a hard time because of their unions' anti-management attitudes," a Japanese business analyst in Washington told me. "It's natural that they think Republicans are easier to deal with."

Then there's the issue of anti-Americanism. On a recent trip to Japan, I was stunned by the critical views of U.S. policies that I heard in conversations with friends and on television talk shows. On any given day, there are dozens of commentators on Japanese TV talking about all sorts of American ills. One media industry insider told me that people who are perceived as pro-American just don't get invited on the air these days.

But the main cause of the current round of America-bashing is no doubt the Bush administration's opening to North Korea. When Washington dropped its policy of not negotiating with Pyongyang and began actively seeking a deal on nuclear weapons development last fall, the Japanese went crazy. Many feared that if the United States struck a deal without addressing the issue of the abductees -- at least 17 Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and '80s -- Pyongyang would never give a credible account of what has happened to them. Japanese blogs called for the dismissal of Christopher Hill, the U.S. negotiator with North Korea; some have even taken to referring to him derisively as "Chris Jong Hill."

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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