In 1827, the German economist Friedrich List warned Americans that if they did not protect their manufacturing industries more effectively, in one hundred years they would end up facing China from a weak position. Reading that admonition in the late 1980s, one was struck by what seemed his glaring error: List had missed Japan--the real Asian threat. Yet, with another quarter-century behind us, he seems more than prescient in seeing Beijing as Washington's preeminent competitor; we were in fact the ones who erred by focusing on the wrong country. In now shifting our attention to the Asian mainland, however, we risk making yet another mistake by consigning Japan to the status of a relatively unimportant, even irrelevant, ally. The strategic realities underlying the U.S.-Japan relationship have in fact not changed dramatically--certainly not as much as the rapidly oscillating perceptions of the alliance on both sides of the Pacific would suggest.
Washington and Tokyo long ago affirmed their shared interest in preventing a hostile actor from gaining control of the Asian mainland. On Japan's part, persistent strategic anxieties about power dynamics on the continent gave Tokyo an incentive to seek outside support. From the U.S. perspective, an alliance was needed to consolidate its position in the Western Pacific. Thus began our tight-knit relationship. Whether directed at the Soviet Union and China between 1948 and the early 1970s, at the USSR alone for the next two decades or (sotto voce) at a rising Beijing today, the geopolitics of the alliance remained remarkably constant. The same is true of Tokyo and Washington's shared interest in preserving stability, open markets and security in Northeast Asia.
Economically, Japan has long been a prodigious force. First in the region to industrialize, it was a model of modernization without either colonization or excessive Westernization. A resolution to build a "rich nation and strong army" fortified by its doctrine of "Western learning with Japanese spirit" led Japan to excel in education, science and technology, and economic modernization. As a consequence, Japan was for many decades the largest East Asian economy and is only now being displaced by China.
In addition to these strategic and economic complementarities, the "fit" between Japanese and Western political and social values has grown considerably tighter. After the end of World War II, Japan's U.S.-imposed constitution, a popular determination to avoid full-scale rearmament and Tokyo's respect for human rights converged to provide a resilient political basis for the alliance with the United States. Contrary to popular opinion, Japan is not a great power in terminal decline. The U.S. position in Asia will in fact only be strengthened by revitalizing what has for over a half-century been a deeply interdependent and mutually beneficial partnership with Japan as a healthy "middle power." The recent election of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's rhetoric of distancing Japan from the United States should not be interpreted as a sign that the Tokyo-Washington partnership no longer serves the same key purpose of protecting American interests in Asia as it always has.
Yet the United States has a long history of misperceiving Japanese preferences. A series of false narratives continues to weigh on, and strain, the relationship. Prominent among these are Japan as lapdog, as rival, as ready for geopolitical prime time and, finally and most dangerously, as strategic disappointment. The first image exaggerated Tokyo's weakness and docility; the second, its strength and aggressive intent; the third, its willingness to lead; and the last, its inability to contribute internationally. These misperceptions have created tensions in the alliance that are more serious than at any time in the past.
In the wake of World War II, the occupation authorities moved quickly to craft a peaceful and liberal-democratic …