The Foreign Policy Initiative That Bush Needs to Make : Tense relations with Tokyo could be made better with clearer policy

The Bush Administration’s foreign policy initiatives have been grand and ambitious around the world, with the notable exception of Japan.

It’s true that the President resorts to periodic chats with his pal, Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, during stressful times in U.S.-Japan relations. They talk and pose for photos, but what’s produced lacks substance and staying power.

The truth is that U.S-Japanese relations are close to a crisis point.

Americans and Japanese of goodwill feel increasingly frustrated that relations between the two nations appear to be getting worse. The U.S.-Japan partnership seems directionless, burdened by unresolved trade differences and calls for protectionism here.


The President needs to set forth a strong, thoughtful policy statement on U.S.-Japan relations. He will have such an opportunity during his visit to Japan in November.

A clear enunciation of a tough but open-minded U.S. policy toward Japan is particularly important as the two countries approach a watershed event: the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It would help defuse fears that the event, as well as continuing trade friction, will touch off yet another cycle of unproductive Japan-bashing.

RESENTMENT: The U.S.-Japanese partnership is overtly friendly but fraught with many of the same tensions that have dogged the relationship over the last few years. A recent opinion poll showed that a majority of Americans are beginning to tire of what they perceive as Japan’s continually unfair trade practices. They still buy Japanese cars, VCRs and video cameras, but they harbor suspicions of some hidden economic agenda held by Tokyo and resent Japanese investment in the United States. Japan, they feel, is an inequitable trading partner--a kind of sophisticated economic bully--and a power not measuring up to its world obligations.

Tokyo feels unfairly singled out, and rightly so. It has made progress by opening up its market--significantly so from Tokyo’s perspective, though not enough from the American viewpoint. But other obstacles to entering the Japanese market remain. This economic obstacle course is particularly hard to take as the deficit-ridden United States struggles to get a firm footing in its effort to escape the recession. The United States generously embraced Japan after World War II but now sees Tokyo as its most formidable economic competitor.

BITTERNESS: Such insecurities exacerbate old war wounds. The coming 50th anniversary of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor is unleashing bitter memories. The State Department made the necessary decision to have only Americans participate in the official commemoration in Honolulu Dec. 7. The Japanese may have wanted to pay their respects, but no foreign guests will be invited. Even so, the State Department pointedly and appropriately noted that this “will not be an anti-Japan event.”

The event should be a private moment of reflection for survivors of Pearl Harbor whose lives were forever changed. But Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi has asked the President in a letter to urge the Japanese government to apologize for the Pearl Harbor attack and to attend the ceremony. This has sparked debate in Honolulu and, unfortunately, Japan-bashing in the Islands.

Tokyo should make its own decision on how to approach the event. It has come of age economically. Now it must exercise its own judgment on this and other foreign policy matters. Tokyo recently expressed a carefully calibrated measure of regret about the war to its Asian neighbors.

Meanwhile, President Bush could help mark a new beginning in U.S.-Japan relations. He should encourage Tokyo to carve out an appropriate place for itself in the so-called new world order. He should make clear that Japan will not be a scapegoat for every U.S. problem. He must set a policy course that is clear, consistent and progressive. That would be a beginning to an ambitious but much needed new Asia-Pacific foreign policy initiative.