6 Japan observations


1. The history issue is not going away anytime soon. China has every reason to perpetuate it: Stoking the fires of the past provides Beijing with a ready tool in its strategic competition with Tokyo. As for South Korea, even if Japan did a "full Germany" in atoning for its past, it is not clear what would satisfy Seoul.

2. Tokyo has resigned itself to the above. It is engaging in clever diplomacy -- building up more trust and diplomatic space outside South Korea and China before pushing full throttle on the national security changes it needs to make. Its outreach to Southeast Asia, including substantial aid to the typhoon-hit Philippines has been eagerly welcomed. It will next turn to deep engagement with Europe.

3. Relations with the United States are uneven. Japan has much gratitude for U.S. statements that the Senkaku Islands fall under the mutual treaty alliance (accompanied by Hillary nostalgia), and the United States has been supportive of Japan's plans to form a National Security Council. But, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to the Chidorigafuchi cemetery for World War II dead was considered too clever by half by Japanese officials. The intent was to send a message to Japan to reckon with its past and stop visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. But as an important ally and friend, Japan would prefer that the United States express its desires privately. And, apparently, Japanese officials were not consulted about this move. China will have a propaganda field day with it.

4. Unlike Vegas, what happens in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East. As fellow Shadow Government blogger Mike Green wrote, there is deep concern that the United States warned Syria against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing when Bashar al-Assad used them. I speculate that a bad Iranian nuclear deal will do grave harm to U.S. credibility in Asia as well. Japan is completely dependent on the United States to protect it against weapons of mass destruction. Both North Korea and China have them and view Japan as a rival if not an enemy. It is simply not possible to cordon off one part of the globe and say that you are focusing on another. As Asian energy consumers more deeply engage the Middle East and weapons of mass destruction spread, what happen there matters to the United States' Pacific allies.

5. Abenomics, which makes all else possible, is in danger of petering out. Without serious corporate changes and restructuring, it will appear as though Tokyo simply primed the pump. For a variety of reasons, Japan needs more productivity. While exporters have benefited, the bad old ways of corporate cross-ownership and protection of majority shareholders remain. This will stifle attempts to inject vitality and dynamism into the economy.

6. The Japanese are excited to have Caroline Kennedy as the U.S. ambassador, as they should be. A new post-Cold War generation rules Washington, without the memories of what the U.S.-Japan alliance accomplished. Political leaders across the aisle need to educate themselves about how important the alliance is for this century's problems. Kennedy has a great opportunity to reintroduce Japan to a new generation of political leaders. And given the respect her family engenders across the United States, she can help inject new vitality into the U.S.-Japan relationship more broadly.


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