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.

President Obama arrived in Tokyo today, exactly one year to the day of his first official trip to Japan as commander-in-chief. He is here to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Yokohama, but his itinerary includes a brief “personal” excursion to the Great Buddha, a 44-foot tall bronze statue in Kamakura, which Mr. Obama first visited as a boy with his mother. While it is safe to say that the seven-and-a-half centuries old Buddha has changed very little since last November, or even since Mr. Obama’s childhood encounter, the state of his host nation has shifted significantly.

Last year, the Japan that greeted Obama was star-struck by the man, less so by the nation he had been elected to represent. Domestic voters had only a few months earlier managed to unseat the Liberal Democratic Party, whose nearly unbroken 50-year plus dominance of Japanese politics was largely characterized by policies friendly to American business and the US military. Its successor, the Democratic Party of Japan, won on a platform that was both more socialistic economically, and more Asia-friendly politically.

A different vision last year

Incoming Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama wrote a provocative essay, published in translation in major US newspapers, advocating a new spirit of “fraternity” with Japan’s long-neglected Asian neighbors, citing the imminent end of America’s global leadership and implying that a decreasing reliance upon the US would be in his nation’s best interest.

IN PICTURES: Obama's Asia trip

Mr. Hatoyama’s essay caused predictable alarm in Washington. Its impact was compounded by conflict over the relocation of an American military base in Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost islands, which have hosted the bulk of US troops since the end of World War II.

The Japan that welcomed Mr. Obama just one year ago was celebratory but wary, and the president seemed alert to the schism, regaling his Tokyo audience with soft power stories about his boyhood Buddha visit and his love of green-tea ice cream while reminding them of the persistent military threats posed by North Korea and China.

What a difference a bad year makes.

Japan has a new prime minister, Naoto Kan, whose approval ratings have tanked in recent months owing to a variety of desultory happenings. His predecessor’s increasingly indecisive behavior ultimately led to another “caving in” to US military demands: Hatoyama, it turns out, had no negotiating points for the Okinawan air base conflict, and simply gave up in May. Mr. Kan was elected in June to save a party and political system that was beginning to look farcical.


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.

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.

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US,” and a guest scholar at the University of Tokyo. He divides his time between New York and Tokyo.

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