DESPITE some sharp references during the recent United States elections, Japan has not been the target of major criticism since the new trade act was approved by Congress. This period of relative calm may be only temporary, however. The continuing US trade deficit with Japan could well trigger new measures in Congress aimed at further opening Japanese markets to American imports and at greater sharing by Japan of our Pacific defense burden.
While most Americans view Japan favorably, few recognize how crucial Japan already has become to our prosperity and security (and we to theirs). Not many would instinctively list Japan as our most important world partner. Yet consider the benefits:
Two-way trade of $112 billion.
Our largest market outside North America, buying 20 percent of all US agricultural exports and 15 percent of our aircraft.
Bases in Japan for 60,000 Americans in uniform (with Japan now paying about 40 percent of these annual expenditures of $6.2 billion - more than any other host ally pays).
A close ally that deploys more tactical aircraft than the US has in Asia, and twice as many destroyers as in our Pacific fleet.
Over $25 billion of direct investment in the US, creating close to 200,000 jobs; and overall Japanese investments financing the equivalent of about one-third of our national deficit.
More generally, the US enjoys rapidly expanding cultural ties with Japan: 195 of our cities have sister cities in Japan; 34 states have offices there; 500,000 Americans visit Japan annually, while over 2 million Japanese tour the US; Japanese students in our universities number 20,000, while about 1,800 Americans study in theirs. Japanese is now taught in 210 American high schools to 10,000 students - and the number is rapidly rising.
Despite these mutual benefits, frustration and resentment are strong below the pleasant surface. The complaints from each shore of the Pacific are not new: Japan's markets and business practices still hinder foreign competition; the US scapegoats Japan for its own domestic weaknesses; Americans are trying to change Japanese culture; Japan is not shouldering enough defense and economic aid burdens; Japan (the US) overlooks the domestic political constraints of the US (Japan); Japan depends on American pressure for trade liberalization, allowing Japanese politicians to shift blame to the US; US decisionmaking is erratic, while Japan's is invisible. And so forth.
There is some truth in these perceptions. But behind most of them is a more basic truth we are not facing up to: The era of American stewardship of Japan has long since ended, but neither country has fully recognized what this means. Japan's 40-year dependent status, in which it received support and protection and usually responded dutifully to American requests, is over. An astonishingly successful and economically powerful Japan is now groping for a new role in the world.
At the same time, we Americans, traditionally independent and accustomed to ``calling the shots,'' are having to get used to international interdependence, especially with Japan, to feeling less in control of our future.
Further complicating the relationship is a Japanese impression that America is in decline, just as Japan begins to savor its own phenomenal success.
Japan has felt secure and quite comfortable in our shadow; it has historically been most at ease when allied with a major power. Even today, while enjoying peace and undreamed-of prosperity, the Japanese want America to stay strong, eliminate its trade and budget deficits, and overcome its social problems. They would like (once more) to respect us, but increasingly they do not. Previously eager to adopt and adapt from the US, Japanese are now looking elsewhere for ``something new and better.''
These symptoms suggest that all is not well between us. Yet many trade issues have been successfully negotiated; more realistic exchange rates (and greater Japanese domestic spending) are reducing Japanese exports and increasing imports; defense cooperation is closer than ever, as Japan becomes the world's second-largest nonnuclear military power (after Germany); a promising agreement to share technical research has been signed; and Japan's economic aid is about to overtake our own.
What should concern us is that despite all these accomplishments, the boiling point on the US-Japan thermometer is too low, and the prospects for rapid change - in our twin deficits and share of Japan's market - too slim. More tension and rising tempers lie ahead of us, as Americans smart over Japanese successes in contrast to our own economic worries and trade woes. The challenge for both countries over the next several years will be to manage public and private relations more sensitively and closely than ever before.
There are measures which could contribute to this goal in the short run; and others which, for the longer pull, should also be pursued. The new administration should establish an inter-agency cabinet council on Japan, to give this all-important relationship the high level - and continued - attention it deserves. Such a council would help ensure that we approach Japan in a coordinated fashion, with our objectives in priority order. Once our own objectives are in focus government-wide, we could then seek a similar, more specific definition of Japanese policy goals and priorities.
We should strongly support initial Japanese steps toward a greater role in world affairs, sharing - and urging other nations to share - world leadership with them (we should again seek United Nations Security Council membership for Japan).
Improving communication with Japan needs special and constant attention, at the government level and by the private sector. Japanese businesses carefully prepare their representatives to understand the country they will be dealing with. Why don't we? We need to organize cross-cultural training programs in the US and Japan; some Congress-Diet exchanges have been successful, but a concerted effort is needed to create a larger group of experts on each side; our respective foreign correspondents should report more about the domestic scene in each country, especially how local politics influences foreign affairs.
For the longer pull, language and area studies are still inadequate and insufficiently funded.
New research opportunities are needed in Japan for US academics who are not Japanologists; and a much larger investment must be made to translate what Japanese specialists are saying about social and economic change in their country.
Tokyo and the new administration in Washington, as well as private groups on both sides, should take a hard look at how we manage this all-important relationship. Japan cannot be considered just one of a number of important countries with whom Americans negotiate when necessary.
As retiring ambassador Mike Mansfield stressed on every occasion, the US and Japan have the most important bilateral relationship - for both countries.
Americans face a choice: We can either recognize how important Japan is to our national and personal welfare and turn our full energies to making this complex relationship work; or we will surely pave the way for a colder climate between us, a sharper rivalry and, in time, divergent paths to a most uncertain future.