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Japan must stand tall

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In Brief

"Japan, don't lose your confidence."

That, in a nutshell, is the message outgoing U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer had for Japan during my exclusive interview with him on Tuesday.

As Japan's main ally, the United States is concerned about recent trends in this country, including its tendency to turn inward--perhaps due to a loss of confidence--while apparently forgetting that it is still a "major player" in the world. There is also the question of its failure to clearly define its role in the world and to exercise that role more fully.

Such concerns can be discerned from the comments made by the U.S. ambassador.


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Japan’s tendency to turn inward perhaps is best exemplified by what may be seen as its departure from such activities as providing assistance to stabilize Afghanistan or to combat terrorism.

A feeling bordering on nostalgia for the “Golden Era” of Japan-U.S. ties between U.S. President George W. Bush and then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is shared by other American officials besides Schieffer.

At the same time, we should not view that Golden Era as the ideal state for our alliance. The Koizumi administration slighted Asian diplomacy and tried to spread the illusion that Asian diplomacy would be smoother as long as relations with the United States were strengthened.

The results of such a self-righteous stance have been dismay among government and ruling coalition officials at any sign of progress in discussions between the United States and North Korea and between Washington and Beijing with no input from Japan, feelings of isolation among the Japanese public as well as a spreading negative sentiment against the United States.

Schieffer said that during his term he worked hardest to prevent any entanglement of emotions and policy stances between Japan and the United States in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons issue.

There are some in Japan who are concerned about signs of subtle differences between Tokyo and Washington in the perception of possible threats over a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, maritime defense of the East China Sea and the emergence of China as a leading economic power.

The U.S. position on the abduction issue is emerging as a symbol of the Japanese psyche in forming perceptions as to whether the United States will “abandon” its ally Japan.

In October 2007, Schieffer personally sent a special cable to Bush cautioning him about possible damage to Japan-U.S. relations from a delisting by the U.S. government of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.

A year after that cable, the U.S. government went ahead and delisted Pyongyang.

Schieffer has urged Japanese officials to remain cool-headed and is asking that they deal strategically with issues concerning nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and national security.

Another point stressed by Schieffer is the importance of forging a multilateral framework for the Asia-Pacific region. He said the region needs a framework that includes China, rather than simply a series of bilateral relationships centered on the United States.

That proposal includes policy discussions among not just Japan, the United States and South Korea and among Japan, the United States and Australia, but also among Japan, the United States and China.

At the same time, while Schieffer recognizes the need for a policy dialogue among Japan, the United States and China, he pictures that relationship as a seesaw rather than a triangle.

Under his view of the dynamics of regional politics, a relationship among the three nations can be stabilized with Japan and the United States sitting on one side of the seesaw and China on the other.

The ambassador was confident that the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance would not change under incoming U.S. President Barack Obama.

At the same time, Schieffer has talked to friends here in the past about changes in U.S. administrations and the effect this has had on Japan.

He said that Japan has gone through a history in which the importance of the alliance has been repeatedly rediscovered with every new administration that has gone to Washington.

At the same time, he warned that left unattended there was a possibility that the next administration may end up not rediscovering that importance. That could come about, in Schieffer’s view, because of the danger that the United States could be swallowed up by China, with Japan marginalized.

Having served as U.S. ambassador to both Japan and Australia, Schieffer views political parties in Japan as using foreign affairs as nothing more than a “political football.”

At first, Schieffer had difficulty in even arranging a meeting with Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the main opposition Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan).

In Australia, it is by no means unusual for either the U.S. president or the U.S. ambassador to meet separately with opposition leaders.

Schieffer was unable to do that in Japan.

Japan’s political parties must demonstrate more maturity so that diplomatic and national security issues are not used as weapons of political battles.

(IHT/Asahi: January 9,2009)

One response to “Japan must stand tall”

  1. Interesting article, but I found the comment about meeting “arranging a meeting with Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the main opposition Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan)” to have a different nuance compared with articles written in 2007 when the DPJ achieved a majority in the upper house. Not to sound like Emily Post — but did Schieffer ever attempt to meet Ozawa before the 2007 election?

    Schieffer did invite Ozawa for a first meeting at the American Embassy after the 2007 election, Ozawa countered (media reports) with a suggestion to meet at the DPJ headquarters. The resulting photo op shows an oversize smiling Ozawa (campaign posters) behind the real Ozawa and Schieffer. The photos were in stark contrast to the typical US-Foreign Office PR shot showing Schieffer’s obvious leadership mien. Sample above.

    I don’t read Japanese and only have access to the Internet versions of the Japanese media. If anyone else has insight on the relationship between Schieffer and Ozawa, please comment.

    Maybe now both the United States and Japan can work together and use a little “Smart Power” to update the alliance for this century.

    Reference source for Schieffer / Ozawa meeting:

    Japanese poll stokes US security fears
    By David Pilling in Tokyo
    Published: July 31 2007 19:57 | Last updated: July 31 2007 19:57

    “Mr Schieffer said he had never met Mr Ozawa, an indication of how thin relations are between Washington and a party that has never seriously vied for power before. The ambassador said he thought the importance of the alliance went far deeper than individual relationships, but he conceded that the defeat of the LDP had changed the situation.”

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