Brave new alliance?

Korea’s Chosun Ilbo reports that the US government — both Congress and the White House — are not pleased by the ad published in the Washington Post signed by Japanese legislators that lays out “the facts” of the comfort women issue (previously discussed here). While the Chosun Ilbo relies on an unnamed source in Washington for this story, which means that it could be a leak designed to embarrass both the US and the Japanese governments, if there is truth to this story, it is a significant example of where the US-Japan alliance stands in the final years of the Bush administration.

Namely, the Japan handlers are gone. There is no one left in the administration to coddle Japan, to protect it from critics; if Japanese legislators want to argue with Congress in the pages of America’s newspapers, they will not be shielded from their detractors by the White House. If anything, it seems that with the departure of members of the chinichi-ha (the “know Japan faction”) the Bush administration simply has lost patience with the foot-dragging, excuse-making Japanese government, particularly concerning provocative statements by prominent Japanese figures (both public and private) on history issues, which complicate Washington’s efforts to maintain stability in the region.

As Robert Dujarric argues in an op-ed in today’s Asahi, the end of dependence on Washington Japan handlers can only be a good thing. For Japan, becoming a “normal” country ought to mean not being shielded from the consequences of its words and deeds — but it should also mean that public disagreements are normal, part of the ebb and flow of alliance relations and not a sign that the end of the alliance is nigh. (And it should also mean a Japan less wedded to the Republican Party.)

If the White House is actually unhappy with the ad in the Washington Post, this might be a good test for the new, post-chinichi ha alliance, the beginning of a period of benign neglect in which Japan is treated like — and acts like — other major US allies. As Dujarric writes, “Japan should recognize its own importance for the US, and not worry over every change in personnel. Can anyone imagine the British Foreign Office worrying about a change of deputy secretary of state or National Security Council staffer?”

In other words, not a divorce, just a new sense of maturity in the alliance. Every dispute need not be a crisis, every disagreement need not cause alarm over a growing rift in the Pacific. The US seems ready (or readier) for this kind of relationship; for all the talk about independence, is Japan ready?

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