Japan-US Relations: The Need for Commitment and Restraint


Abe Shinzō’s new administration has made a promising start in its dealings with the United States, including an inaugural summit with President Barack Obama that laid the groundwork for Japan’s participation in negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. The bilateral relationship faces numerous issues, though, whose outcome remains to be seen. We asked former ambassador to the United States Fujisaki Ichirō to share his thoughts.

Fujisaki Ichirō

Born in 1947. Joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1969. Served as director-general for North American affairs, deputy minister for foreign affairs in charge of economic matters, and Japanese ambassador to the international organizations in Geneva. Ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2012. Distinguished visiting professor at Sophia University since January 2013.

Behind the Successful Summit Meeting

HARANO JŌJI What’s your assessment of the February 23 summit meeting in Washington between Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and US President Barack Obama?

FUJISAKI ICHIRŌ I think it was a great success, in three important ways. First, it clearly confirmed Japan’s participation in the TPP, or Trans-Pacific Partnership, negotiations. Second, there was a thorough discussion of global, regional, and bilateral issues. And third, Japan’s minister for foreign affairs accompanied the prime minister to Washington and held discussions with the US secretary of state.

The TPP discussions didn’t cover any new ground but they did result in a definite commitment. There’s considerable concern about the TPP in Japan, so Prime Minister Abe went in with the intention of clarifying Japan’s concerns at the highest level, and President Obama complied.

The Obama administration is facing challenges both at home and abroad. These include the compulsory imposition of large-scale spending cuts, shuffling of personnel amid the launch of a second term, instability in the European Union, and problems in the Middle East and with China.

Under the circumstances, the Obama administration has a strong desire for a stable partner. US officials have surely regarded annual changes of leadership in Japan as undesirable. Therefore, when an old partner who holds the United States in high esteem came to call, bearing the message that Japan is back, the American reaction was to welcome him with open arms.

The fact that the initial focus of the talks was on global issues is also important. In the past it probably seemed to the American side that Japan was only interested in talking about the Asia-Pacific region, but this time the talks began with a discussion of issues like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Middle East, which helped foster an image of Japan as a global partner. With regard to regional affairs, the prime minister has handled various issues in the Asia-Pacific region with maturity and restraint. In these discussions he expressed the intent to move forward together with the United States, which is notable.

Prime Minister Abe also broached the topic of outstanding issues in the bilateral relationship, stating that Japan intends to bolster its defensive capabilities, revise the Japan-US Defense Cooperation Guidelines, and take decisive action to resolve the issue of military bases in Okinawa. The fact that he asserted these without waiting to be asked is also notable.

HARANO What’s your analysis of the American position on the TPP? The US auto industry has taken a negative attitude toward Japan’s participation.

FUJISAKI The Obama administration has set forth a policy aimed at doubling exports over a five-year period concluding at the end of 2014. Reinvigorating American manufacturing and industry is a major theme for the administration in relation to future economic expansion. I think the TPP is regarded not as an objective in itself but as a tool that’s consistent with America’s larger goals.

Free trade agreements can’t be expected to be free from exceptions. In fact, the exceptions are what the negotiations are all about. The general expectation in the United States is that Japan is going to take a fairly strong protectionist position toward agricultural products. Even so, the joint statement that followed the summit made reference to the sensitivity of agricultural products, and I think this language was included because the Americans knew that Prime Minister Abe wanted it.

Obama’s Policy Focus on the Asia-Pacific

HARANO The Obama administration has stated that it’s placing emphasis on Asia. There’s some concern, though, that over the longer term the United States will shift to a position of “leading from behind” in the Asia-Pacific region.

FUJISAKI The Obama administration’s diplomatic policies are highly rational, comprehensible, and predictable. The Asia-Pacific is both a hub of economic growth and a region beset by destabilizing factors. Therefore, I think it’s only natural for the Obama administration to make an emphasis on the Asia-Pacific a national policy and a focal point for the administration’s efforts.

It would not be appropriate, however, for us to expect the United States to focus all its diplomatic efforts on the Asia-Pacific. To a substantial degree, attention will continue to have to be devoted to problems in the Middle East, including the instability in Syria and the development of nuclear technology by Iran. Nevertheless, from the standpoint of its foremost economic interests, America’s future course will have an emphasis on Asia, and I don’t think these two efforts present any conflicting demands.

HARANO People in the United States have taken a harsh view of the Abe administration’s interest in revising perceptions of Japan’s history.

FUJISAKI One of the good things about this past meeting was that Prime Minister Abe took his message to the American people in various ways. In addition to the summit talks, he was interviewed by the Washington Post, gave a talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and spoke with various experts. In these wide-ranging exchanges, he made the point that his administration maintains a fundamentally conservative attitude and follows a neutral path. He successfully conveyed the impression that Japan hasn’t suddenly turned nationalistic, and I think this was important.

There are people in the American media who simply like to write about what Japan’s going to do next. Despite this, Prime Minister Abe’s statement that Japan should exercise self-restraint has evoked a sense of reassurance in the United States, and the fact that Japan has acted with restraint in its recent words and actions toward China in relation to the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands has also provided some reassurance.

HARANO Has the United States also become wary of China?

FUJISAKI Japan and the United States have dealt with the Senkaku situation by maintaining very close communications. The Americans have made it clear that the issue of these islands does fall within the purview of the Japan-US Security Treaty, and they have clearly stated that it would be inappropriate to attempt to alter the situation through violence or the use of force. I think the position of the United States is very clear on this.

Disappointments, but an Unshaken Relationship

HARANO When you were Japan’s ambassador to the United States, the relationship of trust between the two allies underwent some difficulties under governments controlled by the Democratic Party of Japan. Do American people have a different perception of Japan now, or was that a temporary problem?

FUJISAKI From an impartial standpoint, the Americans had high hopes for the DPJ administrations from the time the party was formed, but ultimately those hopes turned to disappointment.

HARANO Were the expectations too high?

FUJISAKI When control of the government changed hands in Japan, the United States sought to form a new relationship with the DPJ, but then issues like the relocation of the Futenma base in Okinawa and the creation of an East Asian Community arose, and the feeling turned to one of disappointment. Within a year, however, Japan reverted to its original position on the Futenma relocation issue, so the disappointment didn’t last all that long.

There was another type of disappointment over the fact that Japan didn’t have a long-enduring government with robust leadership but a different prime minster elected every year, even though the same party was controlling the government. This type of disappointment was different from that felt after the establishment of the DPJ.

When it comes to our peoples in general, these days 82% of Japanese say they have positive feelings toward the United States, and 84% of Americans say they have positive feelings toward Japan. As a result of long-term cultural interaction at the level of ordinary citizens, various positive impressions of Japan have held up. Apart from the relationship of trust between political officials, I believe there is also mutual trust between ordinary citizens.

Affinity for the United States among Japanese People (2011)

Feel an affinity or a relative affinity 82.0%
Do not feel an affinity or a relative affinity 15.5%
Do not know 2.6%

Source: Cabinet Office,Public Opinion Survey on Diplomacy (Japanese only)

Japan’s Dependability as Perceived in the United States (2011)

Can depend on Japan 84%
Cannot depend on Japan 13%
No opinion 3%

Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs,Opinion Poll: 2011 US Image of Japan

Japan’s Strengths: Economic Potential, Global Contributions

HARANO Ever since you were ambassador you’ve spoken to many groups about Japan-US relations, drawing on a document you wrote, titled “Japan’s Challenges and Strengths.” What points have you focused on?

FUJISAKI One point is that the Japanese economy still has potential. Japan is second only to the United States in the number of international patent applications filed. Until 2008, Japan also had the second highest spending on research and development, after the United States. China is now second in that area, and Japan is third. Nevertheless, from an overall perspective, Japan still has a lot of growing industries.

The second point concerns Japan’s enormous contributions to the rest of the world. Japan is the second largest contributor to the United Nations and, when military support is factored out, the second largest economic contributor to Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, after the United States.

The third point is the feeling of mutual trust between Americans and the Japanese. I’ve been emphasizing these three points.

HARANO How does the United States view so-called Abenomics—the recent effort to curb deflation and devalue the yen?

FUJISAKI President Obama said he appreciated the fact that this effort is supported by the Japanese people. The currency manipulation effort does amount to a beggar-thy-neighbor policy, but the aim is to stimulate the economy, and I think Japan needs this. There wasn’t any criticism of this effort at the recent G-20 meeting.

HARANO Some American experts seem to feel that Japan and the United States should set aside the difficult Futenma issue and instead try to achieve progress on more global issues.

FUJISAKI I think that argument is misguided. To make that argument, based on the claim that Futenma is a “small” issue, is like arguing that, because the dispute over the Senkakus merely involves some small islands, we should ignore the Japan-US Security Treaty. If we did that, the treaty would have no validity. The security treaty must be recognized as a package deal.

Time to Build New Bridges

HARANO With the death of Yamamoto Tadashi, former president of the Japan Center for International Exchange, and US Senator Daniel Inouye, the human connections underlying the bilateral relationship have been diminished, and no new leadership has emerged from within the Japanese-American community. In Japan as well, there doesn’t appear to be any adequate effort to cultivate leaders to help guide relations between our countries.

FUJISAKI This is a big problem. Yamamoto Tadashi and Daniel Inouye played very important roles. They made truly major contributions, Mr. Yamamoto from around 1970 until 2000, and Senator Inoue from 2000 until about 2010. The question of how to fill the void is a major problem. But the Japan-US relationship is a big river that flows on and on, and I think the time has come when we have to build some new bridges.

HARANO Despite the success of the recent summit meeting, what are the areas of concern for the relationship between the two countries?

FUJISAKI It’s important for Prime Minister Abe to actually do what he has said he would do. Otherwise, the result will be another disappointment. One way or another, I think he needs to follow through.

(Based on a February 25, 2013, interview in Japanese. Interviewer Harano Jōji is representative director of the Nippon Communications Foundation. Interview photos by Hanai Tomoko.)

diplomacy United States China Democratic Party of Japan Liberal Democratic Party TPP DPJ LDP Okinawa Senkaku Islands Abe Shinzo Obama