Obama goes stag to Asia, and Japanese don't like it

Obama travels to Japan without the first lady, and Japanese tongues are wagging about what that says about Japan's place on the US priority list. After all, Michelle Obama and daughters recently went to (gasp!) China.

Andy Wong/AP/File
First lady Michelle Obama walks with her daughters Malia (l.) and Sasha (r.) as they visit the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China in Beijing, March 23, 2014. Michelle Obama and the girls won’t join President Barack Obama when he heads to Asia next week, and her absence is likely to sting, especially in Japan. It’s the first of four countries on Obama’s travel schedule and the only one welcoming him on an official state visit.

When Japan scored Caroline Kennedy as the new US ambassador to Tokyo last year, Japanese officials and media were ecstatic. That President Obama had named such a globally recognized figure and the daughter of a widely beloved and glamorous president to represent the United States in Japan was seen as a sign of the country’s enduring importance to Washington.

But that was then. Now on the eve of Mr. Obama’s state visit to Tokyo this week, Japan is back to openly fretting about its place on America’s priority list – particularly in comparison to rising rival China.

The reason? When Obama arrives Wednesday evening, he’ll disembark Air Force One solo – without first lady Michelle Obama. Obama will be the first US president to come to Japan on a state visit in 18 years, but never mind: Michelle’s absence has thrown Tokyo into a tizzy.

Media commentators, social media discussions, academics, even some officials, named and unnamed, are wringing their hands over Mrs. Obama’s decision to sit out not just Japan but her husband’s entire eight-day Asia trip, which will also take in South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

At least one miffed member of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, has gone so far as to become snarky – so not like Japan – and intimate that the president’s solo travel must say something about the state of the Obama marriage.

But for most of those doing the chattering, Mrs. Obama’s absence is a woeful sign of Japan’s retreat from the top tier of America’s allies.

No doubt the first lady's no-show would have disappointed and prompted speculation under just about any circumstances. But what has really thrown the Japanese for a loop is that her failure to grace Japan with her presence comes within a month of Mrs. Obama’s widely covered trip with daughters, Sasha and Malia, to (shudder at the thought) China.

To the Japanese, the sight of Michelle jumping rope with Chinese kids, feeding pandas, trying out tai-chi, and meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, was more than insult added to injury. It was proof of China’s ascendency to the top rung of America’s strategic priorities and Japan’s fall to second class.

White House officials say it’s nothing of the sort, of course. Obama doesn’t accept just any foreign trip he makes to take on the stature of a state visit, they note. The fact his Japan stop rises to that level and will include an audience with Emperor Akihito says a lot about Japan’s importance to the US, they add.

Aides to Mrs. Obama note that their boss has limited her time away from her daughters over the course of the Obama presidency – a reason cited for the relatively few overseas trips the first lady takes with her husband. The last lengthy trip Mrs. Obama made with the president was last summer to Africa – a trip that also included the Obama daughters. And don’t forget that the Obama women’s China trip occurred while the daughters were on spring break, the aides add.

Of course all the analyzing and speculation – that Obama is suggesting his lack of connection with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by coming stag, or that Michelle is hinting at her disapproval of this or that Japanese policy or reality (perhaps whaling? or maybe the relative subjugation of Japanese women?) by staying home – may melt away once Obama lands in Tokyo and takes advantage of every occasion to laud what he’ll call the strong and enduring US-Japan partnership.

The real test may come next fall, when Obama is expected to visit China. If Mrs. Obama accompanies the president on that trip, the Japanese may very well hark back to the first lady’s no-show and start up the hand-wringing all over again.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.