An Australian intelligence agent in Tokyo was once asked what was his nation’s essential interest in Japan.
Without hesitation, he said: “To keep Japan onside.”
He explained that his country did not want Japan to return to the disastrous aggression of the 1930s and 1940s.
A senior US military officer in Japan more recently said that “US-Japan relations are built on a solid alliance.”
But he added: “This is a really high maintenance alliance,” meaning that Americans had to nurture relations with Japan daily to prevent Tokyo from sliding back into the passive mode that has marked much of the postwar era.
Few today fear that Japan will again send its armies through China and Southeast Asia to the gates of India.
But there is concern that Japan’s alliance with the US is eroding because the US, notably the administration of US President George W. Bush, has not engaged in the required “high maintenance” to keep Japan “onside” in the political and security game in Asia.
In a study released last week, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs said many Japanese commentators “have worried that the United States is losing interest in Japan.”
“Japanese anxiety about the American commitment to the alliance has grown out of the Bush administration’s active [and to many Japanese, unconditional] engagement of North Korea since 2007,” the council said.
“This new dynamic has evoked memories of ‘Japan passing,’ a phrase coined during [former US] president Bill Clinton’s nine-day visit to China in 1998,” bypassing Japan, the council said.
Actually, “Japan passing” has even earlier roots, such as when former US president Richard Nixon pursued normalization of relations with China in 1971 without informing the Japanese.
This long simmering anxiety in Tokyo appears to have spurred Japan to cultivate its own relations with China.
Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso said in Beijing 10 days ago: “It is difficult to name other countries as important to Japan as China is.”
Japanese leaders have been uncharacteristically candid in expressing dismay over US concessions to North Korea in taking Pyongyang off a list of sponsors of terror.
Tokyo has particularly criticized the failure of the US to consult with it. And many have asserted that the US has not supported them in demanding that North Korea come clean on the abductions of Japanese.
Japanese political leaders, strategic thinkers and commentators have repeatedly contended that the US preoccupation with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus what Bush officials call the global war on terror, has left them little time to pay attention to relations with Japan.
Another concern, that the US might not defend Japan against attack, has also reappeared, even if behind closed doors. Japanese leaders have asked US officers whether Japan can count on the US to maintain a nuclear umbrella over Japan.
Moreover, Japan sees little to choose from US presidential candidates. Neither has said much about Japan during the campaign.
The campaign literature for both has been routine boilerplate.
Senator Barack Obama says: “The alliance demands, and is deserving of, close political cooperation and coordination at every level, reflecting the key role Japan plays as anchor of US economic and security interests in the region and across the globe.”
Similarly, Senator John McCain says: “The US-Japan alliance has been the indispensable anchor of peace, prosperity and freedom in the Asia-Pacific for more than 60 years, and its importance will only grow.”
Thoughtful Japanese views can be found in a series of essays published in English by the Japan Institute of International Affairs, a think tank headed by Yukio Satoh, Tokyo’s former ambassador to the UN.
The removal of North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terror, said Koji Murata, a political scientist at Doshisha University in Kyoto, and the last minute notification of Japan of that action left Japanese with a “sense of abandonment” on one hand and a fear of being “entrapped” in US strategy on the other.
“This is certainly a crisis for the Japan-US alliance,” Murata wrote.
A strategic analyst, Yukio Okamoto, was pessimistic about the immediate future.
“It would be a mistake for Japan to lapse into complacency regarding the expectations a new US administration may have for the security relationship,” Okamoto said.
“A jolt of new activity, if you will, will be necessary to get the relationship off to a good start,” he said.
Richard Halloran is a writer based in Hawaii.