The Road Not Taken


One cold winter day over half a century ago, minutes before John F. Kennedy rose to speak in January 1961, Robert Frost became the first person to read poetry at a US Presidential inauguration. Frost, a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner, has long been one of America’s most beloved poets for his immortal poem: “The Road Not Taken.” Its beginning and ending lines are ones that many Americans, who are not generally poetry lovers, can nevertheless recite by heart: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . . I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Americans are a creative, individualistic people, and that is a quality that they value in themselves deeply. That sentiment no doubt inclines them to love Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Americans also respect individualism, so long as it is consistent with values they hold dear in the behavior of other peoples. Yet they rarely expect it to come from Japan.

An Undiscovered Abe

The broad majority of Americans, virtually all opinion polls show, respect Japan—and consider it a loyal ally. They give high marks to its ability to organize, to sacrifice, and to persevere. Yet they generally do not expect to hear anything new or fresh from Japan—least of all from Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, whose previous pronouncements suggest to them that he is a prisoner of the past.

Few Americans know of the distinctive and at times eloquent themes that Prime Minister Abe has presented at other times and places. They have not heard of his speech, which coined the concept of the Indo-Pacific world, before the Indian parliament in 2007.  Nor are they conscious of how he sensitively addressed complex memories of the Pacific War before Australian legislators in Canberra last year.

As Prime Minister Abe stands before a joint meeting of the American Senate and House of Representatives on April 29 he will confront an enormous challenge—and opportunity—that by definition represents “the road not taken.” He will, after all, be the first Japanese leader to ever address such a gathering—a distinction that neither his grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, nor Koizumi Jun’ichirō, both known as strong supporters of the US-Japan alliance, ever attained. And Abe will be making his unprecedented remarks in the historic seventieth anniversary year since the conclusion of World War II.

The speech before Congress will, no doubt, be Abe’s primary chance to address the historical questions that have clouded his relations with Northeast Asia, and to some degree with Washington, across the past decade of his top-level involvement with trans-Pacific relations. Through his symbolically important, and highly public, visits to Israel and Australia, as well as quieter conversations in Tokyo with prominent Americans, Abe has recently allayed many fears of his revisionist stance on historical questions. The mainstream of the American public is not, I feel, expecting him to make detailed apologies on historical questions that remain fiercely debated. They do, however, expect that he will show respect for the values of human rights and individual dignity that they hold dear, and that he will not seek to redefine the parameters of historical understanding to which his predecessors have subscribed. Given Abe’s historically sensitive remarks to the Australian parliament last year, and the added importance of this forthcoming occasion in Washington, I expect that Abe will make even greater efforts than previously to address American sensitivities in concrete ways, as he clearly should.

A Chance for Deeper, Broader Ties

Apart from Prime Minister Abe’s Congressional speech, the forthcoming US visit gives Japan three more distinct opportunities to pursue “the road not taken.” Each will be a unique chance to accent new ways of deepening Japan-US relations, with a distinctive theme in each case. First of all, in the security realm, even before the prime minister’s arrival, there will be the “two plus two” (foreign ministers plus defense ministers) meetings in New York City on April 27. It is there that the new US-Japan defense guidelines will be unveiled, which could “globalize” the alliance and open new avenues for trans-Pacific cooperation in such areas as sea-lane and missile defense. With the United States winding down its ground-force combat commitments in the Middle East and Central Asia, it seems very unlikely that Washington would use an expected bilateral agreement on the importance of collective self-defense to press for Japanese ground-force involvement in those regions.

The summit discussions between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Abe will be held the next day, on April 28. Those seem likely to accent broader, less defense-oriented themes. No doubt the Middle East, relations with China, and cyber-security will be topics for consideration, but the Trans-Pacific Partnership—on which significant recent progress has been made—will be central. US-Japan cooperation on global issues like disaster relief, global warming, and counter-terrorism—all of them relatively new topics for discussion—will also be important.

Prime Minister Abe’s travels across America beyond Washington will provide another opportunity to take “the road not taken,” by developing “people-to-people” themes in new ways. Most past Japanese leaders, after all, have focused narrowly on Washington itself. In the Boston area the prime minister can address American students and scholars. In Los Angeles, he will likely reach out to Japanese Americans, which Japanese leaders have rarely done, with a visit to the Japanese American National Museum. In Silicon Valley, Abe will reportedly meet with entrepreneurs, stressing technological innovation, whose critical importance to the long-term health of trans-Pacific relations is all too rarely recognized.

Prime Minister Abe’s US visit thus offers prospect of fresh approaches in several ways: Japan’s approach to history, to the alliance, to global partnership, and to grassroots relations with the United States. The question then is whether America will understand and respond positively to any fresh ideas that Abe presents. As I stressed in my Asia in Washington volume published last year, an important priority for Japan must be to foster deeper local linkages within the United States itself, through such mechanisms as an increase in Japanese representation, both private and public, in our national capital. Keidanren (the Japan Business Federation) and some Japanese prefectural governments have already begun to take such innovative steps in the past few weeks. With an enhanced public-diplomacy effort—by NGOs and private firms as well as government—Japan is beginning to take steps, spurred by the Abe visit, that can meaningfully strengthen the linkages between Tokyo and Washington so vital to security, prosperity, and peace in the broader world. Together, they mark a major step toward a creative new “road not taken” in US-Japan relations.

(Originally written in English on April 20, 2015.)

diplomacy Abe Shinzō alliance Japan-US Kishi Nobusuke Kent Calder