Unlike the US’s alliance with its western European allies, America’s alliance with Japan has never been tested in a world war — or really, any war that has posed a direct threat to US territory. I think this makes Japan the US’s most important ally, and certainly the one worth the most effort across the board.
At the beginning of this year, I published an interview op-ed entitled “Don’t neglect Japan-U.S. friendship ‘garden’” in The Asahi Shimbun, the Japanese daily newspaper for which I work. In this article, I discussed the way both countries take the relationship for granted with Ryan Shaffer, president of the Japan-America Society of Washington D.C.
Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s visit to the US last week only reinforced my beliefs that the US should be doing more than it is for the alliance. The Biden administration granted Kishida only one short morning of engagement — a breakfast at Kamala Harris’s house at the US Naval Observatory, a short meeting and joint press conference with the President in the Oval Office, and finally, a Biden-Kishida ‘working lunch’ — before Biden hopped on Marine One to fly back home to Delaware for the weekend.
The last and only other time President Biden has welcomed a Japanese leader was in April 2021, when he granted PM Suga a bizarre 20-minute burger meal seated at opposite ends of a long table. Sure, the COVID pandemic was peaking at the time, and on some level it makes sense that the two leaders stuck to a brief, distanced, mask-on meeting.
But the story is more complicated than that. At the annual US-Japan Capital Gala in September 2022 (which I attended for Asahi), NSC East Asia specialist Dr. Kurt Campbell and Japanese Ambassador Tomita Koji gave remarks on the extreme lengths to which they had to go to get Biden to sit down with Suga at all. Dozens of desperate last-minute calls, reschedulings, and insistences from the President’s aides that Biden was simply too busy to accommodate the Prime Minister, finally gave way to this meager 20-minute ‘working lunch’ in which neither leader even ate their meal.
I do not doubt that the President is a busy man, and yes, the US has dozens of allies. But how many treaty alliances does it have anywhere within operational range of East Asia? Five: Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and Thailand. The ROK’s army is currently larger than Japan’s, but the country has barely 1/3 of Japan’s population and a similarly proportionate GDP. No other country on that very short list compares in operational ability. Meanwhile, the US National Defense Strategy, as released in October 2022, names China as America’s greatest threat by far — and much ink has been spilled on the “New Cold War” emerging between the US and the PRC (whether you agree with this denomination is a different question — Biden, and many others, don’t see it this way).
How does this relate to history? Grand strategy is always rooted in the past. The US has tested its other major alliances — Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and Australia — in global wars for well over a century. Americans share a deep and common sociocultural and philosophical background with those allies.
The same cannot be said for Japan. As recently as the 1980s, the US fought a trade war with Japan that political scientists compare to the US-China trade war of the 2020s. The US and Japan have substantive ideological differences and a variety of overtly uncomfortable tension points in the relationship, paramount among which is the massive US military presence leftover in Japan. The Okinawa base is most infamous, and rightly so for the egregious crime of three US service members raping a 12-year-old Japanese girl. Other locations also contribute their share of disgrace: the Yokosuka US naval base, for example, pollutes the surrounding waters with catastrophic amounts of toxic “forever chemicals.” Regarding the latter issue: I have been working on an extended, multipart project on PFAS/PFOS (the offending “forever chemicals” at Yokosuka) contamination with my foreign correspondents since I started as a reporter at The Asahi Shimbun in early 2022. These issues loom large in the Japanese collective conscience.
And let us not forget the acts that began and ended the US-Japan war in the 1940s. Pearl Harbor remains one of the most talked-about points of US national trauma in the nation’s history, as do the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima for Japan. Nearly 80 years later, those bombs remain the only nuclear weapons ever used in combat. The implications of this are profound. Sociologist Gi-Wook Shin illustrates the lasting discomfort:
“In contrast to the moral clarity and nobility of purpose associated with the war in Europe and the defeat of Nazi Germany, the path to war with Japan and its conclusion is far less clear and many Americans still feel uncomfortable talking about the use of atomic weapons – even if it was militarily necessary but morally questionable. Also, it was during the war that about 120,000 people in the U.S. of Japanese ancestry (62 percent being U.S. citizens) were incarcerated in concentration camps.”
Both countries continue to practice a “sweep it under the rug” approach, more fragile than harmonious — rather than forcing a deeper reconciliation with these difficult histories.
It was barely over a century ago when Japan joined the Euro-American-centric League of Nations (yes, the US did not formally join the League, but President Wilson and his administration helped create it) as one of the Big Five great powers. Even this apparent triumph came with its own humiliation. In the time since then, Japan’s relationship with the US and Atlantic allies has been, in short, tumultuous.
And yet, in 2023, Japan has the third-largest GDP in the world, and the second largest among democratic nations. Japan is an American friend and ally in culture, trade, politics, and — theoretically – in war. It would behoove the US not just to fulfill its obligations in the partnership, but to go out of its way to cultivate the friendship. Maybe President Biden can start by inviting Prime Minister Kishida over for dinner.
Featured image credit: Fumio Kishida and Joe Biden, May 2022.
Date Taken on 23 May 2022