The myth of pro-Japan Republicans

The article was originally posted on The Japan News on February 21, 2014

  • Yuki TATSUMI
  • Senior Research Fellow
    Yuki TATSUMI
  • [Expertise]
    Foreign Affairs and National Security

On February 12, the White House announced that President Obama will visit Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines in late April. The announcement prompted Japanese media to question what the decision to add Seoul to Obama's tour means for Japan.

Some link the move with U.S. concerns over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's view of history aggravating Japan's relations with its neighbors. Others regard the development as a diplomatic victory on the part of Seoul, having successfully made the case for Obama's visit to Seoul following his stop at Tokyo. Either way, these arguments reflect the reality that Abe's Yasukuni Shrine visit on December 26 last year continues to cast a shadow over Tokyo's relations with Washington.

In fact, ties between the two countries remain frayed in the weeks following Abe's controversial visit. The U.S. Embassy issued a statement on behalf of the government shortly afterwards, expressing disappointment which was received with a great deal of negative reaction in Japan.

Such an outpouring of anger is understandable, given how the Yasukuni issue is considered a part of Japan's internal affairs. Political leaders and senior government officials in Tokyo reacted with similar frustrated sentiments, believing the statement furthers anti-Japanese stances in South Korea and China.

Resentment seems to be growing in Japan over the United States appearing increasingly more sympathetic with South Korea. From the establishment of comfort women memorials in the United States to a recent law passed in Virginia State Assembly that obligates school textbook to publish both "Sea of Japan" and "East Sea" (the South Korean term), such actions are being reported in the context of the United States leaning toward South Korea at the risk of alienating Japan.

There is also the media speculation in late January to consider, regarding Abe's telephone conversation with Vice President Joe Biden in mid-December. An article alleged that Biden called Abe to inform him he told South Korea President Park Geun-hye that he did not believe Abe would visit Yasukuni Shrine, strongly urging him not, only for Abe to respond he would be making his own decision.

Such reports reflect the mood in Japan today that Washington supports South Korea and China on "history issues" at the expense of weakening Japan's diplomatic ties with these countries. Much of the frustration seems to be built upon the notion that the so-called unsympathetic U.S. views, particularly those following Abe's Yasukuni visit, are a result of the United States currently being under Democratic administration: that is, the United States would have reacted more sympathetically toward Japan if it were under Republican administration.

Regarding U.S.-Asia foreign policy, a majority of Japanese policymakers seem to share the view that Republican administrations are more pro-Japan, whereas Democratic administrations, while rhetorically paying lip service to U.S.-Japan relations, lean toward pro-China (or anti-Japan) stances.

Proponents of this view are quick to point out that political experts such as Richard Armitage and Michael Green, both known to be long-standing "Japan hands" that served in Republican administrations, are simply absent in Democratic administrations. Others note how U.S.-Japan trade relations plummeted during the Clinton administration, adding the president did not stop by Japan during his week-long visit to China. Theories are also abound that Japanese policymakers prefer Republican administrations because the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a conservative political party that ruled Japan for much of its postwar history, tend to feel closer to Republicans as fellow conservatives.

Such a perception is completely inaccurate. It was Ambassador Mike Mansfield, appointed by Democratic president Jimmy Carter after serving as Senate's longest-serving majority leader, who became known as a strong advocate for U.S.-Japan relations as "the most important bilateral relationship bar none." Furthermore, post-Cold War efforts to reaffirm the U.S.-Japan alliance went under during the Clinton era, another Democratic administration. Kurt Campbell, as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs during the Obama administration's first year, leveraged his close personal relationship with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to make a strong push for a U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific region where a robust U.S.-Japan alliance is a critical component. Finally, as demonstrated by ongoing bilateral efforts to revise the Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation, the United States has embarked with Japan to elevate U.S.-Japan alliance cooperation to an unprecedented level of breadth and depth. There is therefore no shortage of evidence to demonstrate Democratic administrations' strong support for the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Recent criticism towards the Obama administration is misplaced, given how much of the grievances were aggravated by disapproval over Abe's Yasukuni visit. The belief that the United States should have shown more sympathy overlooks the reality that the Yasukuni Shrine--a justification of Japan's behavior under militarist governments--is a bipartisan issue in the United States.

Consider Republican Congressman Ed Royce, the chairman of House Committee on Foreign Affairs, who was among the vocal critics against Abe's visit in U.S. Congress. Or Richard Armitage, Michael Green and Victor Cha, another former Bush administration official, all of whom openly advocated Obama's visit to Seoul in April because not doing so would be "an embarrassment for South Korean President Park Geun-hye, given how prickly relations are between Tokyo and Seoul."

Finally, it is unfair of Japan, particularly its political leaders, to claim that the Republicans are pro-Japan without seriously trying to reach out to the Democrats.Whenever delegations of Japanese Diet members visit Washington, they always seek meetings with the same group of individuals, most of whom are Republicans. Rarely do they make serious attempts to cultivate new relationships, whether Republican or Democrat. By only meeting with those they are familiar with, their relationships are quickly becoming outdated. Since the Republicans dominated by Tea Party-based extremists have by and large alienated most of the U.S. population, it will take some time for the Republican candidates to win future presidential elections. It is high time, therefore, for Japanese leaders to make serious attempts to build relationships with the Democrats.

Appreciation should be given to powerful advocates for U.S.-Japan relations. But for Japanese political leaders to continue doting on established relationships without cultivating new ones, however, is simply irresponsible.

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