An Urban's Rural View

Imagining the Unimaginable in Japan

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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As I prepare for a trip to Japan in a couple weeks, I've been mulling what farmers and ranchers would be asking if they were going with me. Perhaps they're wondering: What kind of new trade terms for agriculture products can the U.S. negotiate? Or, more specifically: Having pulled out of the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership, is the Trump team right in thinking it can win better export opportunities from Japan in a bilateral deal?

Alas, I don't have interviews with government officials scheduled; this isn't primarily a reporting trip. Still, after two weeks in Nara and Tokyo talking to a variety of Japanese and expatriate foreigners, I will have a better sense of the national mood, in particular how people are feeling about the U.S.-Japan relationship. Does President Trump's America First foreign policy worry them?

The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty gives the U.S. military bases in Japan while obligating the U.S. to defend Japan. When the treaty was signed in 1960 the threat was the Soviet Union; today it's a rising China and an increasingly bellicose North Korea. I have a hard time imagining the U.S. won't live up to its treaty obligations to Japan if it's attacked, but I can easily imagine why a Japanese might imagine it.

In the aftermath of Japan's disastrous defeat in World War II, the country adopted a constitution renouncing war as a sovereign right and vowing not to maintain a military. The ink was hardly dry on this document when the U.S. began pressing Japan to do more to defend itself. Over time the Japan Self-Defense Forces -- a military in fact though not in name -- have become increasingly proficient. The Maritime Self-Defense Force (read: Navy) is especially impressive.

With neighbors like China, Russia and now North Korea having nuclear weapons, and with no nuclear retaliatory capacity of their own, the Japanese have to hope the U.S. will feel treaty-bound to maintain its nuclear umbrella. Even during the years I lived and worked in Japan (1980-83 and 1988-92), I knew Japanese who doubted we'd be there for them. President Trump has given them even more reason for doubt.

During the presidential campaign, he attacked Japan as a "free rider" on defense (in fact, it ponies up billions in support of the U.S. bases). Since his inauguration, he has pulled the U.S. out of TPP and the Paris Accord, both of which Japan strongly favors. During his European trip he left European leaders like Angela Merkel wondering about his commitment to the NATO alliance.

Japan's Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has gone out of his way to develop a personal rapport with Trump. They've even golfed together at Mar-a-Lago (…).

This Shinzo-Donald relationship will reassure some Japanese. But I won't be surprised to hear doubts and fears. Though Japan having its own nuclear weapons is a taboo topic publicly -- the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is still painful -- I've heard pro-nuke comments over a few cups of sake in the past. There may be more this time.

Does the national mood have a bearing on trade talks? Not directly, no. Inevitably, though, trade and security issues between the two countries are intertwined. Consciously or unconsciously, trade negotiators tend to deal with a military ally differently than they would with a non-aligned country. Decades of U.S.-Japan trade talks bear this out.

As I prepare for the trip, I've been paying more attention to the Japanese newspapers online. As usual, they've brought me up to date on U.S.-Japan issues I hadn't been aware of. The Mainichi carried an AP story on a Boston Red Sox broadcaster's pronouncement that Japanese pitchers in the U.S. major leagues, like the New York Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka, shouldn't be allowed to have interpreters accompany coaches' and managers' visits to the mound.

Instead, the broadcaster said, "They should learn baseball language." Japan being a country where a lot of people are always studying English while few are able to learn it, the public mood on that will definitely be sympathy for the pitcher.

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