Obama in Japan: what a difference a bad year makes
Since the US president met with his Japanese counterpart last year, Obama has been belittled by voters, and Japan has been humiliated by his neighbors. Today, Japan and America need each other badly, and maybe more than ever.
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And then “Japanification” hit. Commentators in the US and elsewhere began to write about Japan’s sluggish economy as a warning to the rest of the developed world. Conservative fiscal policy combined with scant consumer spending would result in a deflationary spiral (see Japan!), and Japan soon became the favorite “whipping boy” of the global chattering classes. When China superseded Japan as the world’s second-largest economy in August, commentators across the globe nodded: We told you so.Skip to next paragraph
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But most of my Japanese colleagues and friends shrugged off the news of China’s ascent – and why not? China is home to 1.3 billion people. If they don’t have bigger GDP figures than Japan, they said, there’s something wrong with them, not us.
More important here have been recent territorial disputes and diplomatic affronts to Japan’s sense of self-respect.
China’s attempts to claim what Japan calls the Senkaku islands via aggressive tactics in September were revealed just last week via YouTube: A video leaked by a Japanese Coast Guard member shows a Chinese fishing vessel deliberately slamming into Japanese Coast Guard ships. Japan arrested the Chinese captain; China demanded his release, then promptly cut off shipments of so-called rare earth minerals, which are crucial to many Japanese, American, and European electronics manufacturers.
“Economic warfare,” groused many Japanese headlines. But no one lifted a finger to help Japan – or to hound the Chinese.
Humiliated by neighbors
At the beginning of this month, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited what Japan calls the “Northern Territories,” and Russia terms the “Kuril Islands” – the first-ever such move by a Russian head of state in a bold claim of sovereignty. The visit was unannounced and provocative, but the rest of the global community barely noticed. Prime Minister Kan merely said that Medvedev’s actions were “regrettable,” a feeble call for justice.
The result of all this disrespect – combined with the assault on Japanese exports resulting from the rising yen and the increasing dominance of Chinese, Indian, South Korean, and Southeast Asian manufacturers – is a Japan welcoming Mr. Obama tomorrow for completely different reasons than it did just 12 months ago. Japan’s meager attempts at “fraternity” with its Asian and Caucasian neighbors have resulted in kicks in the face, and its arguments over Okinawa seem like so much ado about nothing in the face of global economic collapse.
Both Japan and America, host and Mr. Obama, are in entirely new straits as they reconvene this weekend. The former has been humiliated by its neighbors, and is rushing back to the arms of its post-war ally. The latter has been belittled by his dubious midterm American electorate, and hopes Japan will restore faith in American power, soft and hard.
In short: They need each other badly, and maybe more than ever.