FIFTY years after Pearl Harbor, relations between the United
States and Japan have reached another critical turning point.
Since the end of World War II, the Pacific giants have been
close allies bound by a common enemy and a vast network of trade
ties. But with the end of the cold war, strains have developed that
have put the relationship to a test.
Adapting to new times need not be disruptive. As one State
Department official notes, the US and Japan "share fundamental
interests and values on most issues," and have far more to lose
than gain if relations are allowed to deteriorate.
But adapting the relationship will require major adjustments,
both psychological and structural. If the transition is not managed
skillfully and if growing antagonism over trade issues is not
contained, relations could take a huge retrograde step.
In the worst case, trade tensions could lead to a "yen-dominated
free-trade bloc in Asia which would have a wall up around it toward
the outside," says Edson Spencer, chairman of the Commission on
US-Japanese Relations for the Twenty-First Century. "That would be
a different kind of Pearl Harbor leading to a series of events that
could lead to a breakdown of US-Japan relations."
"It remains to be seen whether the US-Japan 'problem' is a
prologue to estrangement or marks a shaking out period for a
transformed alliance which enjoys the confidence of our respective
publics," concludes a commission report issued last month.
At both ends of the alliance, the collapse of the Soviet threat
has prompted a rethinking of foreign policy priorities that could
impinge on US-Japanese ties.
In Washington, policymakers advocate more selective engagement
abroad and closer attention to problems at home. One manifestation
is the gradual drawdown of forward-based military positions in the
Pacific, including the Philippines and South Korea.
In Tokyo, meanwhile, policymakers debate how to play a more
assertive role abroad without engendering political divisions in a
country already distracted by financial scandals and discontent
with soaring prices.
"The question for Japan is, how can Japan play a more
responsible role in the world ... and still continue to be Japan,"
says Stephen Bosworth, president of the US-Japan Foundation.
"Decisions are now being made in the US and Japan that will
shape the relationship for the next decade, if not the next 50
years," comments Philip Brenner, a professor of international
relations at American University.
President Bush has rescheduled a trip to Japan and three other
Asian nations which was canceled earlier last month because of
pressure to devote more attention to domestic affairs.
Though official reaction to the cancellation was muted in Japan,
Japanese leaders were clearly disappointed that the symbolic
reaffirmation of close US-Japan ties will not take place before the
Dec. 7 anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Mr. Bush will arrive in Japan
for a three-day visit on Jan. 7. On Dec. 7 he will participate in
ceremonies at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
On the eve of the anniversary, 84 percent of Americans hold a
friendly view of Japan, according to a Roper poll conducted for the
American Enterprise Institute. Seventy-five percent believe that
Pearl Harbor is "all in the past" and should not have bearing on
But beneath the veneer of general support is widespread anger in
the US, especially among American workers, over Japanese trade
practices that have contributed to the US's $40 billion annual
trade deficit with Japan. If the deficit is not reduced, the
temptation for politicians to look for scapegoats could prove
"Now that the Soviet Union is no longer out there as a threat,
politicians are likely to look for new people to blame for things
that aren't going right," says Mr. Edson, speaking at a Johns
Hopkins University forum on US-Japanese relations. …