Abe’s Groundbreaking US Visit


While many pundits have pronounced Prime Minister Abe’s recent visit to the United States a qualified success, Nakayama Toshihiro argues that it broke new ground—not through the kind of personal rapport prized by previous Japanese prime ministers in their dealings with US presidents but through a shared commitment to the kind of frameworks needed to build a new global partnership.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s recent state visit to the United States was a resounding success, in my estimation.

Few would argue with the proposition that the visit succeeded as a public-relations event. President Barack Obama’s reception of Prime Minister Abe on this occasion amounted to a “full embrace.” And while the concrete results of the summit may not have met every expectation, it seems to me that Abe accomplished all he could given the constraints that he was under.

According to the latest opinion polls, Japan’s international image is on the upswing again, reversing a brief decline that had many here deeply concerned, given the growing uncertainties surrounding East Asian affairs. In his confident and winning performance, Abe seemed the very personification of this new and welcome trend.

On his previous visit to the United States, Abe appeared to focus on winning over the policy community with his theme of “Japan is back.” It seems that on this latest occasion, he was trying to reach a wider audience and his overarching goal that of portraying Japan as a trustworthy partner.

Circumstances beyond Abe’s control threatened to diminish the impact of his visit, as violent protests in nearby Baltimore captured the nation’s attention. In the event, Obama’s first serious public comments on the rioting in Baltimore came during his joint White House press conference with Abe on April 28, with the result that at least a small portion of that press conference received front-page treatment in the national media.

Symbol and Substance

Abe’s weeklong visit seemed to fly by, perhaps because it was so fertile in both symbol and substance.

In the realm of style and symbol, Abe’s interaction with Obama put to rest concerns about the lack of personal chemistry between the two leaders. Abe also left a strong positive impression with his speech to Congress, which he delivered in English.

Outside of Washington, Abe vigorously met the demands of an itinerary emblematic of the multifaceted depth of the Japan-US relationship.

The visit yielded substantive progress as well. A “two plus two” meeting between the foreign and defense ministers of both nations produced an agreement on updated guidelines for bilateral defense cooperation. The two governments also reaffirmed their commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and are set to step up negotiations with a view to reaching a final accord on the ambitious regional free trade agreement before time runs out.

A Trusted Partner in Troubled Times

The truth is that few Japanese leaders in recent memory have left such a deep impression on Americans. Perhaps the two earlier prime ministers who made the greatest impact (leaving aside Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio, who left an impression of a very different kind) were Nakasone Yasuhiro (prime minister 1982–87) and Koizumi Jun’ichirō (2001–6). Both leveraged their personal rapport with the men occupying the White House at the time—Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, respectively—to advance the bilateral relationship. But Abe’s accomplishment was of a more substantive nature. On this latest visit, he succeeded in raising American awareness of Japan’s importance as a partner through concrete reminders of how indispensable the two nations are to one another.

The distinction is obvious when we compare the media highlights associated with the three leaders’ Japan-US summit diplomacy. In Nakasone’s case, it was Hinode Sansō, the Japanese-style mountain retreat where the prime minister cemented his friendship with Reagan. In Koizumi’s, it was the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, and Graceland (the monument to Elvis Presley that he toured in Bush’s company). But the keynotes of Abe’s US diplomacy have been his bid to “upgrade the bilateral alliance” (through pending defense legislation and the revision of the Japan-US defense guidelines) and to “build a pioneering, open economic framework centered on Japan and the United States” (the TPP), along with the first-ever address by a Japanese prime minister to a joint meeting of Congress.

To a large degree, this evolution reflects the changing needs of both governments in a world beset by challenges to the international order and uncertainties regarding China’s rapid rise. The focus of Abe’s visit, accordingly, was what Japan and the United States can do together to address these problems. As a result, his was the first US visit by a Japanese prime minister that was driven by the assumption of a genuine Japan-US partnership—a concept that emerged naturally during a week of discussions and speeches—instead of Japan’s obsessive postwar pursuit of equality with the United States. This new tenor in Japan-US relations owes much to Prime Minister Abe’s own initiative, but it is also the product of years of assiduous effort, on the part of both Tokyo and Washington, to adapt the bilateral relationship to a changing situation in the Asia-Pacific region and throughout the world.

Collaborating on a New World Order

Japan pours more time and resources into diplomatic relations with the United States than with any other country in the world. Within Japan, assessments of the government’s US policy are inevitably linked not only to the state of the bilateral relationship but to the overall direction of foreign policy under a particular cabinet. That being the case, one can scarcely expect Abe or any other prime minister to win the Japanese people’s unanimous approval for any given bilateral initiative. Domestic assessments of Abe’s recent trip have run the gamut because they are conditioned by the individual observer’s views on such contentious matters as the security bills now before the Diet, Abe’s views on history, Japan’s relations with China and South Korea, and the US military presence in Okinawa—hence the wide spectrum of views expressed in the media. In the following, I would like to offer my own assessment regarding the key achievements of that visit.

From a policy standpoint, the two focal points of the recent visit were unquestionably the revision of the Japan-US defense guidelines and the TPP. Although these two initiatives fall under different policy domains (security and trade, respectively), they both represent an important effort by Japan and the United States to develop a twenty-first-century order in the Asia-Pacific region. Through the revised guidelines and the TPP, the two countries are striving to build a forward-looking political and economic framework to support an international order predicated on playing by the rules, while preparing to act in concert should the existing order and norms come under threat. Both initiatives, moreover, are global in scope. This is as it should be, given that most of the major challenges facing the world today—unlike the threats of the past—transcend geographical boundaries. This is why the new defense guidelines widen the scope of strategic cooperation.

The agreement by Abe and Obama to accelerate bilateral negotiations for the TPP also has global implications at a time when mega-FTAs are being eyed as the future of international trade. From a strategic standpoint, the TPP is more important than ever today, as the China-driven Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank gears up for its imminent launch. A breakdown in the TPP negotiations would be regarded as a diplomatic defeat for Japan and the United States. It would also turn the Obama administration’s “rebalancing” toward Asia into an empty promise.

In this context, the outcome of Abe’s visit to Washington was highly meaningful in that it underscored the two governments’ commitment to collaborating in the creation of a strong international order.

Deferring the History Issue

But what of the issue of historical reconciliation, which some observers were warning could derail Abe’s hopes for a fruitful summit?

In the West, criticism and skepticism surrounding Prime Minister Abe have tended to center on his presumed beliefs regarding imperial Japan’s policies and actions in East Asia, particularly from the 1930s on. Some American experts in East Asian affairs have suggested that Abe’s security initiatives, while cloaked in a veneer of pragmatism, are actually driven by a deep-rooted nationalism.

Yet Abe’s comments on the subject this time around appear to have been wholly acceptable, at least by American standards. Abe seems to have prepared carefully, sensitive to the way in which Washington has been drawn into the escalating controversy over historical reconciliation. Although the prime minister’s desire to avoid controversy was at times painfully obvious, I think he said what needed to be said in the context of maintaining a constructive relationship with the United States. This is not to suggest that Abe has completely dispelled the aforementioned clouds of suspicion. The real test, from the standpoint of American skeptics, will be the prime minister’s remarks commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, scheduled for this August.

The open letter signed by 187 Japan scholars and released on May 5, the week after Abe’s visit, underscores the suspicions harbored by Western academics with regard to Abe’s alleged “rightwing” perspective on Japanese history. (An additional list of names released on May 19 brought the number of signers to more than 450.) While maintaining a fundamentally positive tone, the letter is clearly predicated on this deep-seated skepticism. Without overreacting, Abe and his supporters need to acknowledge the significance of a statement signed by this many scholars from such a variety of backgrounds.

That said, the Japan-US relationship has evolved not just on one or two but on multiple levels. While these different dimensions inevitably intersect, they do not precisely overlap. The relationship that has evolved in the academic realm is not the same as the bilateral political or security relationship.

We must also realize that American views of Japan encompass a wide spectrum, just as Japanese views of the United States vary greatly. Of the original signatories to the open letter, very few are specialists in international relations or security affairs. Furthermore, many of the Japan specialists associated with major American think tanks chose not to sign. While the number of signers certainly deserves consideration, so does the number who refused to sign. A balanced perspective is essential to any meaningful assessment of the historical issue and its significance for Abe’s foreign policy.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on May 21, 2015. Banner photo: Prime Minister Abe Shinzō exchanges pleasantries with US President Barack Obama on April 27, following his arrival in Washington, DC. Official White House Photo.)

Abe Shinzō alliance Nakasone Yasuhiro Koizumi Jun'ichirō Trans-Pacific Partnership Barack Obama foreign relations defense guidelines Japan-US relations