When President Barack Obama visits Japan on November 12-13, he will be accompanied by a brigade of assistants with many years of experience dealing with Japanese officials, academics, business executives and journalists. The president will likely review briefing papers that explain with clarity and without bias Japan’s current political and economic situation. He may even skim through a book or two, seeking further insight into a frustrating and fascinating ally.
All of which will likely leave President Obama still unable to answer a simple question: just what exactly is he supposed to do while he is in Japan?
He could, of course, try to just sleepwalk through the visit, restricing himself to a self-limited and self-limiting series of mannered gestures:
- pay tribute to the Japan-U.S. security alliance
- thank Japan for its civilian contributions to global peace and security
- promote Japan's and America's common vision for trade and economic development in the Asia-Pacific region.
Facts on the ground, however, are inconvenient things, and not supportive of a business-as-usual approach. The new, Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)-led government has serious reservations about many agreements underpinning the Japan-U.S. security alliance, including the long-standing agreement to close the Futenma Marine Air Station. Japan's contributions to global peace and security, while substantial, have been shrinking, with the world's second largest economy and longtime #1 official development assistance (ODA) donor now only fifth in the world in terms of the aid it gives other countries. As for a common vision, Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio has pursued multilateral trade initiatives and international economic frameworks that exclude the United States (at least for now) whilst leaving hanging in the air some rather flowery rhetoric about Japan needing to distance itself from the United States.
Departing from the script and confronting the new reality in Japan would be the preferable course for President Obama to follow. Doing so would require Mr. Obama would need to know what the new reality is – and what status, if any, he holds within it.
The answers to those questions are not likely please U.S. government ears.
He is a distraction – Mr. Obama arrives in Japan as the DPJ-led government enters its second month in existence and just days after the opening of the first non-Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-dominated House of Representatives session in over a half-century. There is too much in flux everywhere – in the Diet, in the ministries, in the prefectures, in the parties – for anyone to put aside what he or she is doing to play host to a VIP. All of the different parts of Japan's systems of governance are renegotiating their positions and responsibilities vis-à-vis one another. In this charged and uncertain atmosphere, the arrival of even such a historical, important and charismatic figure as President Obama becomes an unwelcome complication. This is especially true for the official host of the visit, Prime Minister Hatoyama, who is trying to bring up to speed an untested and revolutionary form of government whilst keeping the political freelancing of his allies Ozawa Ichiro and Kamei Shizuka to a minimum, all the while avoiding being drummed from office by whatever accounting shenanigans prosecutors and the LDP might find in his political fundraising records.
This is nothing, however, compared to...
A deal is not necessarily a deal – Prior even to the fraught visit of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Japan, when the differences in the views between the governments of Japan and the U.S. on the validity of certain agreements became manifest, U.S. government officials were promoting the concept that bilateral agreements signed prior to the August 30 elections were commitments between national governments and thus not open to renegotiation.
This assertion betrays an ignorance, willful or innocent, of Japan's political history, and a contempt for the Japanese people's judgment. From 1955, the year the LDP was founded, until the August 30th election, the LDP had held a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives Except for a brief 10 month period in 1993-94, when a fragile anti-LDP coalition government held sway, the LDP was the party of government over that time. So institutionalized was the LDP's hold on power that Japan was described as being ruled by "the 1955 system." And it was a system, with the LDP in charge of everything from the Cabinet, to the prefectural governments, to the neighborhood assemblies of the tiniest mountain hamlets.
All ruling parties have natural advantages over challengers. By virtue of their control of government they control budgets and regulations. They also control the political agenda, thereby putting the initiatives of their supporters front and center.
What was miraculous about LDP was its ability to persevere despite overwhelming evidence of its failure to properly manage the country or even itself. No embarrassment -- the exposure of massive, corruption permeating the party; the twenty-year long collapse and stagnation of Japan's economy; a series of uninspiring, short-term leaders (including, it its final, desperate years, a trio of prime ministers who failed to complete even a year in office) – could topple its from its perch.
The cause of LDP's magical invincibility was not all that mysterious: the Japanese electoral system was crippled. The Constitution of Japan lacked a mechanism for reapportionment of electoral districts. Japan's Supreme Court lacked the intestinal fortitude to create robust alternative mechanisms on its own, or to enforce fairness in political campaigns. Thus as an 80% rural agrarian society transformed itself into an 80% urban society the number of Representatives from rural constituencies remained fixed and peculiar 1950s era electoral rules metastasized (every election is followed by the arrest of dozens of candidates and election workers for what in most countries are normal political activities) to the advantage of incumbents.
Under the frozen system, elections increasingly became vote auctions, where small numbers of super-empowered marginal voters were bought off with regulatory protection, budget outlays and government contracts. The LDP thrived by exploiting and encouraging the proliferation of structural iniquities, shamelessly and openly, for decades.
Even after some basic electoral reforms were enacted in the early 1990s, the LDP kept its grip on power, though it had to employ increasingly opportunistic methods in order to do so. First it formed a chimeric coalition government with its arch-enemies, the Socialists. Then it selected a president (the long-serving Koizumi Jun'ichiro ) whose main campaign pledge was a promise to smash his own party. The LDP hung on though the last three years and three prime ministers in the most pathetic manner of all: by refusing to call an election.
Now in international law there is the concept of "odious debt" – of national debts incurred by an oppressive regime that a successor regime has the right to refuse to pay. It is a rarely invoked concept – international bankers, not surprisingly, do not think highly of it – but it rests upon a sound principle: that the people, once the yoke of an oppressor has been thrown off, should not be forced to make good on debts incurred by the oppressive regime.
Given the decades the LDP clung to power and the manner by which it managed to do so, it is not difficult to understand that many in the present coalition government consider a whole host of the Japanese government's obligations to be "odious" ones – obligations that they should be allowed to examine to ascertain whether or not they really are in the national interest, and if they determine that they are not, should be able to repudiate.
The agreement to transfer Marine Corps elements from the Futenma Airbase to Henoko is seen, along with the Yamba Dam project, to be the ultimate expression of an odious obligation. It was an LDP solution to an LDP problem: keep American bases off the main islands (even though the amphibious ready unit, the ships the Marines are supposed to ride on, are homeported in Sasebo and the Marine fighter jets are housed at Iwakuni); keep the Okinawans down and quiet; and keep visiting Americans alternately enchanted and frustrated by disingenuous reports of progress toward the goal, which somehow had to along the way destroy vital dugong habitat. As the Prime Minister and others in the DPJ point out, not even 12 years of LDP governments could bring the Futenma transfer to fruition. That he and his party should be condemned for not imposing an arrangement they oppose on a population that does not want it baffles them. That the United States government continues to insist that they do so exasperates them.
So what is President Obama going to do? Does he simulate understanding for the new government's positions, and in so doing infuriate American defense planners who want Japan to get moving on Futenma and doing more in Afghanistan? Does he lecture from the mountaintop, telling the Japanese he meets what is in their best interest, as if they cannot figure it out themselves? Does he look thoughtful and say nothing, even as the press is yelping, and wish silently he were already in China?