In this era of continuous conflict, it is easy to forget that not every Washington, D.C., meeting of policymakers is combative, and not every foreign-policy relationship is contentious. I’m thinking especially of Japan, with which the U.S. has had warm relations for decades.
My many meetings with prominent Japanese politicians and policymakers, over a period of several decades, were consistently cordial and productive. The food and entertainment kept coming for hours. Disagreements were rare and typically not long lasting. Compliments and expressions of mutual admiration were common. I scarcely remember a major split over policy.
Our relationship with Japan – which famously began when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Harbor in 1853 — has been and remains remarkable. Deep down, nothing in the relationship seems to change. Japan has been an economic and political success story, thanks in part to U.S.-Japanese cooperation. And the relationship has been a cornerstone of our security efforts in Asia.
Japan is slightly smaller in area than California, but its population, about 126 million, is over three times California’s. One-third of the people are concentrated in the densely populated Tokyo area. It is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world: 98 percent of residents are Japanese.
Japan is not rich in natural resources, but it possesses extraordinary beauty. One of the most thrilling and unforgettable views anywhere in the world is the sight of the perfectly shaped cone of Mount Fuji.
Japan is home to over 100 active volcanoes. It annually records the most earthquakes in the world and is often threatened by typhoons and tsunamis. When Japan makes the international news, it is frequently because of natural disasters.
The Japanese people are legendary for their courtesy, capacity for friendship, and work ethic. Friends from those meetings I mentioned earlier remain for lifetimes.
The Japanese economy, the third largest in the world, is built on a system called keiretsu, which includes interlocking sectors of manufacturing, supply and distribution. Many Japanese workers are guaranteed life-long employment with large firms, a factor that creates company loyalty and has been credited with promoting economic stability.
Japan’s government is a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy, an unusual combination. Shinzo Abe will become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in November. Over and over again I have been struck by the affection of the Japanese people for the emperor, and their allegiance to him. His birthday is a national holiday.
Abe and other leaders have proposed revising the constitution, which dates from the U.S. occupation after World War II. But the Japanese people seem only mildly engaged. The constitution disavows war, and Japan spends less than 1% of GDP on defense, which has helped it develop an advanced economy.
The United States and Japan share vital interests and values. In addition to maintaining stability in the Pacific region, we work together to promote freedom, democratic institutions and human rights, and, of course, to extend prosperity. We have multiple agreements with Japan. Japan provides bases and financial support for tens of thousands of deployed U.S. armed forces, which have played a key role in maintaining regional security.
We cooperate on development aid, global health, environmental protection, technology, the empowerment of women and other issues. We explore space and stem the spread of infectious diseases together, and our ties in science and education are close.
Japan is a key partner in our relationships with South Korea, Australia, India and other nations. It is the second or third largest contributor to the United Nations budget, and we unite to restrain nuclear proliferation. We belong to scores of the same international organizations, including the G-7 and the G-20.
Trade and security are the two pillars of our U.S.-Japan relationship. Japan surpassed China this year as the largest holder of U.S. debt. And Japanese leaders are skillful at maintaining ties with the U.S. Abe was the first foreign leader to visit Donald Trump after he was elected president. He visited the White House in April 2019, and Trump met with him in Japan the next month.
Given the importance and success of the U.S.-Japan relationship, it’s surprising that Japan is only occasionally in the American news media.
We should improve on that. We can learn a lot from Japan and our relationship. Certainly, the world is a more prosperous and peaceful place than it would be if our two countries were at odds.
By Lee H. Hamilton