It didn’t need to be this way, did it? As I wrote last week, the confluence of the North Korea nuclear question and the comfort women issue is largely a product of the blundering of the Japanese government, which has failed to appreciate how the mood in Washington has changed and act accordingly. Instead, at every juncture Shinzo has relied upon his buddy George’s promises, without asking what those promises are worth when Foggy Bottom is running North Korea policy and the Congress — riled by Japanese revisionism on comfort women — does not share the president’s sanguine views of Abe’s empathy (and I’m sure it doesn’t appreciate being called a tool of China).
The Abe government is right that the practical impact of this resolution will be limited; the foundation of the relationship is sound, and, as noted Tuesday, both the American public and American elites are content with the relationship. It’s nothing short of amazing that even with a report emanating from the Bank of International Settlements noting that the yen’s decline is “anomalous,” Congress is more concerned about comfort women, and on monetary matters has directed its ire at China.
The importance of this episode is, rather, in the intangible impact on thinking in Japan. Relations between states, like relations between people, is a learning process. States learn what to expect from others, especially allies, and begin to build upon these expectations. Japan has come to expect a US that will refrain from criticizing its most important partner “bar none.” It has relied upon a network of friends to ensure that this understanding remained in place, particularly after Japan was subject to all manner of American criticism in the early 1990s. (Robert Angel’s 1996 introduction to the Japan lobby remains especially useful in illustrating how this works.) But now, with Congress’s digging into Japan’s past and the administration bereft of friends, the old understanding seems to be under threat.
How will Japan respond? Defensively, with alarm that it is being betrayed and abandoned by its supposed “ally”? That is how Amaki Naoto views recent events in US-Japan relations. He connects the comfort women resolution, Christopher Hill’s recent statement about a peaceful framework among four countries, Japan excluded, and — citing a question asked by my boss in the Upper House foreign relations committee — Admiral Keating’s remarks about aircraft carriers while in China in May to suggest that the US is not Japan’s ally. He writes: “As the above-mentioned sequence of events makes clear, the US will never see Japan as an equal ally…Conservatives, nationalists, left-wing ideologues, and pacifists, as well as the people as a whole, are beginning to find further subordination to the US unfavorable. The problem is that after achieving autonomy and independence from the US, how will Japan ensure its security?”
The question is the extent to which this kind of thinking has taken hold among Japanese elites and the Japanese people — and the extent to which it could take hold in the midst of the aforementioned “betrayals.” I cannot answer that, but I suspect it is more prevalent than perhaps Washington realizes.
So here we are: because Japan is incapable of dealing with criticism, and because the US does not particularly care that Japan is incapable of dealing with criticism, the future of the US-Japan relationship is murky, and will only get murkier as Japanese elites begin to assume that the US is not especially concerned about Japan’s interests.