Is Japan gaga for Donald Trump? That was the impression created by a spellbinding YouTube video that went viral last week.
Featuring a blue-haired woman in a babydoll dress cooing over posters of the Republican presidential candidate, “Japan Supports Donald Trump for World President 2016” is set to an infectious synth-pop track and puts Trump’s disembodied head into a cutesy cartoon world of cherry blossoms and rainbows. Then it turns him into a giant robot that builds a wall topped with razor wire, flies into space and destroys the earth with a mega-laser blast.
As it turns out, the video — which has been viewed over 4 million times on YouTube and shared 15 million times on Facebook — was a parody created by L.A.-based special effects artist Mike Dahlquist. While the sendup has won aesthetic admirers even in Tokyo, perhaps no U.S. ally is as anxious and befuddled about the prospect of a President Trump as Japan.
The democracy of 127 million depends on American forces for its defense (it hosts some 54,000 U.S. troops), relies on America as the top buyer of its exports and sends more of its outbound foreign investment to the U.S. than any other country.
With China increasingly asserting itself economically and militarily, and North Korea testing nuclear devices and missiles with growing frequency, leaders in Washington and Tokyo have pushed for even closer cooperation.
They’ve ramped up defense coordination and spent the last few years hammering out terms of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal that would unite the U.S. and Japanese economies (#1 and #3 in the world) with 10 other nations — but notably exclude China (#2).
Trump has taken a sledgehammer to the long-assumed pillars of the U.S.-Japan relationship.
He’s called on Tokyo to “pick up all the expense” of basing U.S. troops in Japan, even though Tokyo already pays about $1.7 billion a year and American forces here are tasked not only with defending Japan but have been deployed on missions as far afield as Iraq and Afghanistan.
He’s suggested that Japan might need to develop its own nuclear weapons, a notion antithetical to the pacifist constitution imposed by the U.S. after World War II. And he’s blasted TPP as a “horrible deal” that “will send America’s remaining auto jobs to Japan.”
There is an “unspoken but unanimous consensus among serious Japanese people in business, bureaucracy and politics that Trump is a disaster,” said Tsuyoshi Sunohara, a well-connected writer and secretary-general of the U.S.-Japan Project at the Japan Center for Economic Research. “Including Prime Minister Abe — though he’s never said it publicly, officially, he’s very much concerned.”
Toshihiro Nakayama, a high-profile political commentator and scholar of American politics at Keio University in Tokyo, agreed.
“People are worried, very interested, and as a result of the noise we are hearing from the U.S., I think the public image of the U.S. is being very damaged,” said Nakayama, who said he is frequently stopped on the street by people asking him to explain Trump.
“President Obama turned the U.S. image to a positive direction. His visit to Hiroshima was welcomed by 98% of the Japanese public,” added Nakayama. “It’s very ironic that the same America is in the process of maybe choosing the most outrageous [candidate].”
For Japan, the uncertainty about America’s reliability adds to a pile of worries about its future place in a rapidly changing Asia.
With a low birthrate and little immigration, Japan is expected to lose 30 million people in the next 40 years. Its economic clout is all but certain to decrease. Meanwhile, China’s Communist leaders are using their nation’s financial might to forge deeper relationships in Southeast and Central Asia with initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
“The most important question for Japanese diplomacy is how to cope with China, so Japan can survive in the region,” said Hitoshi Tanaka, a former deputy foreign minister and chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute, a think tank.
Of particular concern, said Tanaka, is Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. nuclear umbrella could be retracted, leaving Japan exposed.
“We cannot defend ourselves alone. We see the United States as an ally. But I’m not entirely sure,” he said. “If Mr. Trump became president of United states, the whole political situation would change.”
While China might welcome less cozy relations between Tokyo and Washington, any decision by Japan — or South Korea — to deploy nuclear weapons would make Beijing deeply uncomfortable, said Rumi Aoyama, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at Waseda University. “That security environment wouldn’t be good for China,” she said.
Although Japan has dealt with economic stagnation for decades and has occasionally embraced entertainers as politicians — former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto is one such figure — the country has never produced a national-level maverick of Trump’s magnitude.
Still, a few Japanese on the far left and far right have welcomed the prospect of a President Trump.
Die-hard conservatives who want to see Japan ditch its pacifist constitution and re-arm itself have called the presumptive Republican nominee a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cut Japan’s apron strings with Washington and make Japan an “independent country.”
Those on the far left, meanwhile, say if America pulls back from Japan, the nation could finally rid itself of the hypocrisy of being a pacifist nation that hides behind the Pentagon’s nuclear arsenal.
But a huge swath of people in the middle — particularly backers of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party — are heavily invested in seeing Hillary Clinton prevail in November.
“Only Hillary Clinton can be our hope and continue the very important role of the U.S. being a key player for peace and development in this region,” said Keizo Takemi, a member of Abe’s party and a longtime member of parliament’s upper house.
Abe has forged ties with Clinton in the last several years, reaching out to her for support for his “womenomics” initiative to bring more women into the workforce, Sunohara noted.
After she responded positively, and even recorded a video message for the World Assembly of Women conference in Japan in 2014, Abe used Clinton’s commitment “to invigorate his popularity … especially among women,” said Sunohara. “From that point, I think Abe asked his people to … make preparations for an emerging Hillary administration in 2017.”
Even if Clinton prevails in November, though, Abe may find the campaign has shifted the landscape in uncomfortable ways.
The Japanese prime minister has expended significant political capital to push TPP despite opposition from farmers and fishermen. He has signaled that his party might bring it for a vote this fall; his administration says it could eventually add 800,000 jobs and boost GDP by 2.6%.
Although Clinton supported the trade pact while it was being negotiated, last year, as both Trump and Bernie Sanders voiced strident opposition, she reversed course.
“If the U.S. fails to ratify TPP, it will hurt American credibility … because it was sold not just as an economic framework, but also as the U.S. and Japan building a ‘very high-quality regional order,’” said Nakayama. “If the U.S. fails to do that, it sort of symbolizes U.S. retreat.”
It all adds up to a lot of unease.
“The U.S. was supposed to be the constant, the rock,” said Nakayama. “But that rock is shaking. It’s no longer a rock; it’s become a bubble.… It’s become a major geopolitical uncertainty.”