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Before Sunrise

Will Obama seize a rare opportunity for change in U.S.-Japan relations?

When President Obama arrives in Tokyo on Friday, he will confront a country that seeks to be an ally of the United States. For Japan has never been an American ally. It was first a rival, then an enemy, and finally, after it lost the war it foolishly started with the U.S., it became a protectorate, not an ally.  

The distinction matters. An alliance is an institution negotiated between two sovereign governments in which each agrees to a series of reciprocal obligations that have the force of law. A protectorate arrangement, by contrast, sees the protectorate retaining a degree of control of its internal affairs, but surrendering authority to manage external relations--most crucially, in the area of military decision-making. In return for the protectorate's ceding of this key aspect of sovereignty, the dominant partner in the arrangement agrees to provide for the defense of the protectorate. 

By these lights, Japan has been a protectorate of the United States since 1951. As a condition for ending the Occupation that year, the United States essentially required Japan to agree to the terms that have governed relations between the two countries ever since. Japan's security would be seen to by the United States; the U.S. would enjoy unrestricted access to a network of military bases throughout the Japanese archipelago. Japan would pay lip service to American foreign policy goals without being expected to do anything substantive outside Japan to support them; inside Japan, leftists were to be kept away from the levers of power and no one could interfere with American military operations. Japan was no longer to be the beneficiary of direct American aid and was not to be permitted to trade with China, its historically most important external market; to compensate, Japan was to receive unrestricted access to the American market at an undervalued exchange rate, and it was allowed to develop its own economy in whatever ways it saw fit--trade with China excepted--including the construction of barriers to foreign goods and capital. 

These arrangements were bitterly opposed by both the left and the right in Japan. The left felt betrayed by a United States that had started the Occupation with talk of genuine economic and political democracy, only to end up handing control of Japan's key governing institutions back to the men who had run the war economy. Meanwhile, many on the right believed the legacy of the Occupation and the terms on which it had ended had emasculated their country in both a cultural and a political sense. 

Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, who had negotiated the 1951 Peace Treaty, pleaded that he had gotten the best deal for Japan that he could, and he was probably right--it had become obvious that the U.S. was simply unwilling to end the Occupation on any other terms and Japan had no way to force it to do so.  

But as Japan set about rebuilding its economy, the intense domestic opposition to Japan's status as a dependent protectorate began to dissolve. For without being fully conscious of what they were doing, the leaders of Japan's corporations and economic bureaucracies found that they had constructed a model for economic growth that over time delivered both global supremacy in key industrial segments and higher economic growth rates than had ever been enjoyed to that point in human history. True, the model depended on circumstances that were likely to prove temporary--an undervalued currency, access to a limitless external market for export of goods and capital without a quid-pro-quo, and relief from both the financial and political burdens of maintaining a large military establishment. But that did not lessen the model's effectiveness in providing both rapidly rising living standards and a renewed sense of national purpose and pride.  

Nominally overseeing the system that grew out of the postwar arrangements was an entity known from its formation in 1955 as the Liberal Democratic Party(“LDP”). To paraphrase Voltaire, this loose confederation of interest groups was neither liberal, nor democratic, nor a political party in the sense of the French Socialists or the UK Conservatives. Essentially power brokers, they adjudicated conflicts among the various semi-autonomous fiefdoms that constitute Japan's political economy. And they managed the relationship with the United States. The LDP did what was necessary to soothe Washington's periodic spasms of irritation when Japan's economic methods caused political problems for the White House, or when Tokyo was found insufficiently ardent in cheering on America's latest obsession, whether that be falling dominoes in Southeast Asia or tin-pot dictators in the Middle East. Indeed, no country save Israel devoted more zealous attention to cultivating America's good opinion than Japan. And the mark of the really effective Japanese politician was his ability to mollify the United States and whatever domestic interest groups had to be made to swallow the concession of the moment necessary to keep the Americans from grumbling too much. 

But this proverbial wheel-greasing did not constitute genuine governance in the sense of leaders' carefully weighing the totality of Japan's national interest and changing direction when appropriate. Instead, Japan's power brokers reacted to new circumstances and unforeseen problems by attempting to recreate the old certainties. When the fixed exchange rate broke down in 1971, they set about taking steps to keep the yen undervalued. When the export-led growth model began to run out of steam, they blew up asset bubbles to keep growth going. When their principal customer--the United States--started running trade deficits, they provided the credit that would cover the deficits so Americans would keep buying Japanese cars, machine tools, and electronics. When their largest external security threat--the Soviet Union--literally disappeared in 1991, they hyped up a new one in the form of an impoverished, bankrupt North Korea.

Not every one of these new circumstances was unfavorable for Tokyo. In particular, China's decision in the late 1970s to abandon economic autarky gave Japan an important new market for its goods and capital; the moment Washington signaled it would no longer oppose relations between Japan and China, Japan's business and political leaders were crossing the Yellow Sea to do deals. 

But overall, there was no hiding from Japanese citizens the reality that things were not going well. The public could sense that the implicit guarantees of economic security with which Japan's business elite had defanged organized labor and the political left back in the late 1950s had been hollowed out. College graduates were finding it harder to get jobs, while major corporations and banks were no longer able to carry all their weaker dependents. It was obvious to practically everyone that the country's heretofore vast hoard of savings had been largely thrown away on the construction of roads to nowhere, environmentally ruinous dams and seawalls, and airports that would never generate the traffic to justify their cost; indeed, the sole economic rationale for all these white elephants seemed to be to provide retired bureaucrats with cushy jobs.  

Of course, the saber-rattling of the George W. Bush administration excited some on the right with dreams of re-militarizing Japan and carving out a Japanese sphere of influence in a new American empire. But many more Japanese were dismayed that their country was tied so inextricably to a U.S. that had seemingly lost the ability to discern its own national interest, much less that of anyone else. And the coup de graçe for the old order was the financial crisis that began in September 2008. At least until then, no matter what else might happen, American orders for Japanese goods had kept the factories running. Now even that was no longer the case. 

It was against the background of these circumstances that the Democratic Party of Japan (“DPJ”) achieved its historic election victory on August 30. The architects of the DPJ's triumph had succeeded once before in wresting a parliamentary majority from the LDP. But back in 1993, they had not been prepared for the sabotage from entrenched circles, while the wider public was not yet really behind them. They lasted just shy of a year. In the intervening 16 years, however, they thought long and hard about what had to be done to grasp and keep the reins of power. They have made it clear to a Japanese public now receptive to their arguments that they see themselves as a real political party complete with an articulate set of goals and a plan for implementing them. They are looking to restructure the economy around sources of growth beyond exports and asset bubbles. They are attempting to bridle Japan's powerful bureaucracies in the service of national rather than factional interests. And they will be seeking to make their own decisions about foreign relations and security questions.

What does this mean for Obama? Washington has become so used to an accommodating, malleable Japan that there are going to be some inconveniences. The DPJ is allowing the yen to appreciate and Japan may no longer be willing and able in the next dollar crisis to bail out the American currency, as it has done regularly since the late 1970s. Any Japanese government genuinely concerned with the country's long-term interest will need to prepare for the inevitable return to the situation that prevailed for the 1800 years before 1941--China as Japan's central external preoccupation. The DPJ may start to look critically at the heretofore sacrosanct security arrangements between the U.S. and Japan, beginning with alleviation of the overweening American military presence in Okinawa that the inhabitants of that small island prefecture have endured now for 64 years.

The Pentagon is throwing a predictable tantrum at the hiatus imposed by the DPJ on the relocation of an airfield there, claiming that arrangements had already been worked out with the LDP. The new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, had made it clear he would put the matter on hold until he has had the chance to discuss it with President Obama. The way the president handles the issue will help indicate whether he grasps the magnitude of what has happened in Japan.

To be sure, the DPJ faces formidable obstacles. The usual tactics used to bring down ambitious politicians are already in evidence; the quality press is, for example, hinting that the public prosecutor may investigate minor financial irregularities involving underreporting of Prime Minister Hatoyama's rent for his private office. To seasoned observers of Japanese politics, this kind of kabuki play is depressingly familiar. But it is nonetheless wishful thinking to imagine that a DPJ failure will lead to the return of the old order--it has been smashed too thoroughly.

President Obama needs to understand that he has a rare opportunity, one that he must not sacrifice for short-term Pentagon convenience. Because a real alliance between the U.S. and Japan--one founded on mutual respect and self-interest--would be of great benefit to the two nations. It doesn't take an advanced degree in international relations theory to understand that Japan will want to see a counterbalance to the emerging Chinese superpower. And a politically and economically sophisticated ally in East Asia is of incalculable benefit to the United States. But securing that ally means seeing Japan as more than just a convenient pit stop for refueling planes or a pliable underling who can be relied to come through with cash in a pinch. It means treating Japan's new leaders with respect for what they have accomplished and for what they are trying to do, and appreciating the domestic pressures to which they are subject.

It may help that President Obama's own election was a source of inspiration both to the DPJ leaders and the people who voted for them. Japan's established elite circles have long favored the Republicans and have cultivated a dense network of ties with the GOP. But ordinary Japanese responded with great enthusiasm to Obama's messages of hope and change, while his electoral tactics were closely studied and emulated by the DPJ. His visit here will provide a test of whether he too is prepared to act on the broader national American interest by seizing the opportunity to start building an alliance with some of the most thoughtful, far-seeing democrats to emerge on the global stage in recent years.

R. Taggart Murphy is professor in the MBA Program in International Business at Japan's Tsukuba University. He is a former senior non-resident visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of The Weight of the Yen and, with Akio Mikuni, of Japan's Policy Trap.