In his first public address in the US, new Japanese Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae invited Americans to give him “frank advice on how we can manage our relations.”
“If friends can’t tell each other the truth,” he told an audience in Washington, “how can we expect others to do the same?”
Well, Mr Ambassador, in the spirit of candor that you suggested, here are several thoughts on what Japan could do to improve relations with the US. Your timing is excellent, because Japan will elect a new government on Sunday, giving those who take office a chance to make a fresh start on some long-standing issues.
Futenma: The issue of the US air base on Okinawa has become an open, festering sore. After about 15 years of negotiations with the US, your government agreed to move it out of a congested town to a far less populated area, then reneged on the deal. You might urge Tokyo to settle this corrosive dispute by the end of next year.
Whining I: Many Japanese whine about the “burden” of having US bases in Japan. In reality, the “burden” is on US taxpayers, who spend close to 5 percent of their national wealth on military forces, while Japanese taxpayers spend barely 1 percent. Your government might redress that imbalance, at least partly.
Whining II: Many Japanese whine about the “burden” of US soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen being posted in Japan. In reality, the “burden” is on that 20-year-old rifleman who is serving in a strange land far from home prepared to lay down his life for your country. A quiet word of appreciation would be welcome.
Collective Defense: The US is obliged to come to the defense of Japan when threatened, but Japan is under no obligation to aid in the defense of the US. This is a legal, not a constitutional issue, so a parliamentary act could correct this shortcoming.
Engage I: For too long, Japan has been reluctant to exert diplomatic leadership in Asia. A valuable contribution to Japan-US mutual security could come from more imaginative Japanese engagement with other Asians.
Engage II: From a US point of view, the weakest link in the US security posture in Asia is South Korea’s hatred of Japan and Japanese disdain for South Korea, which precludes collaboration between the two US allies. While South Korea is as responsible as Japan for the bitter feelings, Japan could take the lead in resolving the question.
World War II: Most Japanese believe that their nation has atoned for its transgressions before and during World War II. Unfortunately, some of Japan’s neighbors, notably the Koreas and China, plus some Americans and Europeans, disagree. You might suggest that the government find a way, once and for all, to put this issue to rest.
There may well be other issues that ought to be considered, but this modest agenda should keep the government occupied for some time.
Two points in your initial address are particularly noteworthy. You suggested that more US congressional members visit Japan to learn first-hand the issues it is confronting. Good idea, so long as the candid discussions you recommend are substantive and not merely ritual greetings as so often has been the case in the past.
You said that a priority would be “to enhance relations between Japan and the Japanese-American community.” However, it should be based on an understanding that Japanese-Americans in World War II fought by the thousands and died by the hundreds to earn first-class citizenship for themselves and their children. While some Japanese Americans may feel a cultural kinship with the land of their ancestors, it should be understood that in the depths of their spirits, they are Americans first, Americans last, Americans always.
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.