The Case of Japan

Japan has never been so closely attached to the United States as it is today. The military alliance has reached an apogee different from Japan’s hands-off approach to US ventures, which are not centered on the immediate defense of Japan. Prime Minister Abe’s attempts to address the historical gap in their relationship—evident from his speech before a 2015 joint session of Congress and 2016 joint visits with President Obama first to Hiroshima and then to Pearl Harbor—have showcased shared values, as in his frequent references to the universal values long-championed by the United States. The fracas over his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in late 2013 seems long-forgotten, especially at a time when President Donald Trump eschews values in his foreign policy narrative. Even if differences over trade are resurfacing as the US-Japan consensus on TPP has ended, it does not seem at all likely that there will be a reversion to the mutual suspicions of the 1980s-90s when trade disputes were just the tip of the iceberg. Not only realism, but values are perceived as solidifying today’s increasingly trusting relationship.

There is every reason to expect that Japan-US relations will remain close for many years ahead. China’s increasing military power draws the two together, as does the economic leverage China fragrantly uses, as it is doing now against South Korea. Despite challenges to the US-led international community, Tokyo is unlikely to express its dissent, when the alternative is a community hostile to its interests and identity. The foundation of Japan-US relations is strong, regardless of uneasiness on Japan’s part. Indeed, the mainstream of realists in Japan, including Abe’s national security advisor Yachi Shotaro, have long-insisted on strengthening the alliance, using it as the foundation of Japan’s regional policy.1 He often appeals for comprehensive alliance cooperation, including forging a regional economic framework and a shared strategic culture.2

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the era of Japanese revisionism—in opposition to the prevailing US interpretation of WWII and its antecedents—has become bygone history. Japan-US policy differences may have been most conspicuous in economics since the 1970s and occasionally troublesome in security since the end of the Cold War, but the fact that they have been rooted in Japanese misgivings about US national identity and its impact on bilateral relations should not be overlooked. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the shadow of “Asian values” hung over relations. Subsequently, the shadow of “revisionism” has proven difficult to shake away. While the ideal of the “East Asian Community” may be dead, the quest for “normal Japan” blames the US role in the past.

Leading diplomats in Japan have argued for the country’s revival on terms at odds with boosting the US-led international community. They call for an independent state with self-respect and a self-confident people. This means replacing the world history outlook imposed by the US occupation of Japan, the impact of which lingers still: recalling the reality of anti-Japan racism in the West; recognizing the self-defensive nature of Japan’s war behavior; replacing a masochistic outlook on Japan’s history; setting aside US illusions about the righteousness of its own history; intensifying the attack on Japan’s mass media; and awakening up to the reality that Japan is an isolated country.3 Just below the surface, such reservations keep resonating in Japan today.

Why should the Japanese blame the United States? There are four easily understandable reasons. First, the progressive movement long-guided by pacifist ideology has kept decrying the military thinking in Washington, including the Japan-US security treaty or aspects thereof. It has sustained, albeit less so since the decline of the left in the mid-1990s, a critique from the left. Second, the revisionist conservative forces have split with Washington in thinking about history, gaining more clout since the 1990s, notwithstanding a growing appreciation of the Japan-US alliance. Third, there have been times when US policy or official statements have offended many in Japan, especially during the Vietnam War but also during the intensification of trade disputes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Finally, there may be deeper sources of national identity gaps, shared by progressives and conservatives and prone to further fragmentation by developments in either Japan or the United States. All of these possible causes are explored in this article. Emphasis is placed on how the conservative quest for a resurgent Japanese civilization identity is keeping afloat old suspicions.

Why should deep-seated Japanese critiques of the United States be regarded as worthy of close attention, given the high level of approval of today’s alliance? One reason is that those critiques could be aggravated by the unpredictable policies of Donald Trump, whose campaign and early months as president have raised uncertainty to an unprecedented level with US allies around the world. A second reason is that serious challenges are just beyond the horizon, for which Japan-US consensus may not be easy to sustain—for instance, a North Korean crisis in which Washington is tempted to resort to preemption. Managing the challenge of China’s pursuit of regional hegemony in Asia poses another persistent challenge. At present, few many be focused on signs of Japanese discomfort with their indispensable ally, but these are uncertain times.

Japanese concerns about the United States can be encapsulated in three concepts: 1) abandonment—selfishly, unilaterally ignoring a vital ally; 2) entrapment—pressing its ally to disregard its own interests; and 3) aggrandizement—insisting that Japan has no identity worthy of respect but must accept US national identity. These can be found in diverse Japanese publications. Only brief mention will be given here to the progressive critiques of the United States throughout the Cold War era and the rise of an assertive conservative critique during the heyday of the “bubble economy” and the early post-Cold War years. Instead, the emphasis will be placed on writings in the mid-2010s on anti-Americanism, civilizational distinctiveness, and foreign policy autonomy.

Historical Revisionism

Japanese identity is steeped in history. This was true in the 1950s, when progressive voices insisted that Japan had gone astray in the Meiji period (if not the Tokugawa era) despite efforts to set it right in the 1880s, and conservatives began the lengthy trek to rehabilitate Japan’s image in 1945. As the progressive side lost the bulk of the historical argument, it doubled down on the identity of postwar Japan as accounting for its uniqueness, while the conservatives grew more forthright in their defense of the war period itself. Ironically, those who praise the constitution and its accompanying reforms under the US occupation were most critical of sticking close to Washington, while many eager to overturn the US legacy accepted the alliance. In spite of welcoming strategic ties, their rhetoric often conveyed less acquiescence to US interpretations of history or to the pull of the international community on Japan.

Conservative thinking about US views of the past makes the following criticisms.
US narratives about Japan fail to appreciate the positive contributions it made to liberate Asia from Western imperialism. In contrast to US interpretations that it was US anti-imperialism and victory against Japan that made the region stable, free, and prosperous after 1945, Japan insists on taking credit for national liberation, a foundation for modernization, and regional integration. A persistent theme is that Japan was left no option but to enter the war with the United States in 1941 for defensive reasons.4 The magnetic impact of these and similar ideas endures for restoring Japanese pride and blaming US arrogance.

As Japanese gained confidence in the 1980s, saw new regional opportunities in the 1990s, and paid the price for headlong development that had turned to near stagnation by the 2000s, they showed concern for what had been lost. Some losses, such as communion with nature, were not treated as caused by the US role. Loss of identity, however, was often seen in this light. Togo Kazuhiko writes of a spiritual vacuum, including education that is missing engagement with moral, modern, and contemporary historical issues.5 While he does not dwell on what many perceive as a damaging tradeoff between becoming more internationalized under US tutelage and sustaining Japan’s unique civilization, he seeks a distinctive vision that simultaneously does not lose sight of Japan’s place in the world. His call for Japan to rethink its approach to sensitive historical issues does not only concern its impact on bilateral relations, but also how this could lead to a new vision of Japan.6 Togo accepts US-led internationalism, but the staunch revisionists often do not.

The left is more concerned about entrapment, while the right has greater fear of abandonment. During the Cold War, neither side had much to fear: US opposition to the Soviet Union was generally viewed as unyielding, although in 1987-91, Reagan’s dealings with Gorbachev when Japanese leaders were concentrating on the recovery of the four disputed islands, to little effect, raised the specter of abandonment. More common over this period were the left’s warnings about entrapment, as during the Vietnam War.

The assumption that US policies toward Japan are zero-sum, obliging Japan to pay a heavy price, has persisted to this day. For instance, literature in opposition to TPP became widespread, as if it doomed Japan, adding to the damage from earlier openings of the nation under pressure or force.7 Although such critiques of FTAs are common around the world, Japan has a long history of associating them with resentment of being pressured (gaiatsu) by another country—the United States. Public opinion in opposition to collective self-defense sought by the United States as well as Abe, is another example in the mid-2010s of fear of entrapment by US policies.

The “bubble economy” brought a surge in claims of uniqueness and superiority in Japan. In what is called Nihonjinron or Nihon bunkaron, the rejection of universal qualities and Japan’s close ties to the international society was unmistakable. This came at a time of intensifying criticisms against US culture, which warned that it endangered Japanese society, causing various social pathologies—crime, disorder, and lack of harmony—against which Japan had to be more vigilant. While such charges had receded well before the mid-2010s, they continue to linger today.

Another self-criticism depicts Japan as rendered bereft of self-confidence and passive in the shadow of the United States—even to the point of masochistic thinking about its history, which calls for a backlash in defense of Japan’s honor. In the late 2000s, this threatened a two-sided history war against China and the United States.8 The latter so overshadowed Japan that it was deemed incapable of an active foreign policy and a clear historical stance. Only by breaking loose from this dependency would Japan be emboldened to clarify its own identity and role in Asian affairs, many had decided by this time, but only in the mid-2010s did Abe raise hopes this could occur. Even as Abe drew closer to the United States, he raised the specter of real autonomy.

The Japanese cling to notions of state-society harmony and community that many see as threatened by the US model of capitalism. Pressure to change economic policies is perceived as a threat to the domestic social order, and by conservatives, to rebuilding the kokutai, or a strong state. Notions of a unique social organization fuel belief in a singular outlook on history, Asia, and other identity themes, serving as fertile soil for blaming an ally. Japanese are struggling to assert their distinctive civilization in contrast to that of the United States.

US notions of freedom—free markets, freedom of expression, individual choice—are treated with some caution in Japan despite little overt opposition. For conservatives, the state is weakened by liberally interpreting these ideals. For progressives, the US model is obscured by distrust—for example, of the security state. To the extent that conservatives idolize the kokutai, the US model is disavowed and even blamed for damaging the essence of Japan’s own national identity, which must be reasserted.

In 2006-07, doubts in Japan about the United States centered on: loss of interest in Japan as Sino-US diplomacy intensified; distrust of US policy toward North Korea, which overlooked Japan’s priority on abductions and its views in the Six-Party Talks; a sense that the US focus had shifted to the Middle East and East Asia was no longer the priority; concern that since the Cold War ended, there has been no strong glue to keep Washington and Tokyo close.9 These views argued that United States was in decline, it had failed in Iraq and was reluctant to be assertive again, the world had fallen into a clash of civilizations, China was rising, and Japan would be isolated.10 Even before the global financial crisis, this dour mood was spreading. The Japanese would become even more alarmed as US economy and model were rocked by a self-induced crisis and China emerged from it stronger and increasingly more assertive.

The Abe Effect

The past decade has witnessed three waves of discomfort with the United States against the background of three lingering concerns. These were: misgivings about the war against Iraq, generally buried in the context of Koizumi’s embrace of Bush; a feeling of comeuppance over the US-caused global financial crash, following more than a decade of US condescension over Japan’s inability to extricate itself from economic stagnation; and, more recently, disbelief over the election of Donald Trump, despite Abe’s quick attempts to establish rapport with him. These concerns have been downplayed in comparison to the international reaction, but they have made it easier to voice other criticisms about US policies.

In the first wave of discomfort in the years following Koizumi, criticisms targeted policies that were perceived as marginalizing or abandoning Japan, such as the 2007 agreement of the Six-Party Talks for resolving the North Korean issue. A second wave arose in 2009-10, as DPJ progressive goals clashed with US policies amid concerns that the United States did not have answers for rising Asian tensions. The third wave was directed at the Obama administration, peaking in 2014 but still present until 2016, doubting not only the US commitment as an Asian power but also its adherence to realist principles in policies toward Beijing, Seoul, and Moscow.

Abe is walking a tightrope by simultaneously strengthening ties with the United States and distancing Japan from US identity. This can be seen in the potential contradiction between his “proactive pursuit of peace” as Japan shifts away from passivity and closer security ties with or overreliance on the United States. This dilemma could be resolved through a constitutional revision, separating Japan from a hallmark of the “postwar regime” and even from the US-led postwar world order, argues Kakizaki Aiji. In pursuit of this duality, even collective self-defense is portrayed as making Japan an equal partner with its ally rather than leaving it dependent on the United States.11

A 2015 book on the true face of “anti-Americanism” in Japan claimed that on both the right and the left, the Japanese remained anti-American, drawing on deep-rooted qualms since the postwar period. It showcased fear of abandonment by Obama.12 Despite US TPP leadership and the “pivot to Asia,” there was still substantial doubt in Japan of US staying power. This is linked to the notion that Washington pursues narrow self-interest. Of course, the “America first” doctrine of Donald Trump added new anxiety.

Siding with South Korea and sometimes China against Japanese leaders on historical memory issues, US leaders were seen as neither even-handed nor respectful of basic thinking by the Japanese conservatives. The Japanese progressives are blamed for the “masochistic” outlook on Japan’s history, but so too are American liberal media as well as much of its academic community, who are seen as gullible to this same thinking. Lately, those around Abe have been infuriated by The New York Times coverage of Japan.

American conservatives are seen to be hostile to Japanese state-centered rightist thought, perceiving “Abenomics” as more of the same. Yet, on security matters, the US conservatives are treated as natural partners. In contrast, American liberals are viewed with suspicion by Japan’s conservatives because their historical critique of Japan is stronger and attitude toward security, more suspect. Japanese progressives, meanwhile, under the dual influence of pacifism and socialism, have hesitated to embrace US liberals. Thus, closeness in bilateral ties has been largely nurtured by the security communities on both sides.  This limits the sort of value overlap seen in US-European academic and civil society ties, for instance in attitudes toward women’s rights and civil society. Japanese on the left and the right recognize a value gap on ideals.

Despite latent anti-Americanism on some issues, the pro-American tradition stays in the forefront—nurtured by Japan’s three longest-serving prime ministers since the 1980s—Nakasone Yasuhiro, Koizumi Junichiro, and Abe Shinzo. Each has kept in check misgivings about the United States, while forging close ties to the US president in security and in support of universal values, however vaguely articulated. This requires some balancing, since the domestic thrust of policies, especially under Abe, could be interpreted as tilting away from the United States over the long run.13   

The US-Japan relationship is strong, but it is not a bulwark of internationalism. Talk of shared commitment to universal values and democracy is genuine, but it tends to be narrowly focused on managing specific problems, such as how to respond to China’s rejection of the rule of law in the South China Sea. The problem may appear to be temporary—as Abe seeks to overcome Japan’s legacy of pacifism and struggles to boost realism in the face of his long-championed revisionism. Yet, that impression misjudges Abe and those around him, and overstates how much shared values are being voiced. Above all, it is not rooted in much examination of attitudes toward the United States being expressed in Japan.

Japanese concerns about the United States include the following: the unreliability of the United States as a leader in Asia; the divergence of its interests from those of Japan; the US desire to seek one-sided advantage over Japan; its application of pressure; and finally, a fundamental civilizational gap between Japan and its ally.14

Strong support of bilateral relations and persistent anti-Americanism appear to be incompatible, but they can be reconciled by reserving the latter to more indirect manifestations. Cultural intellectuals who harbored it were seen as marginal voices. Right-wing politicians who voiced it were long seen as on the fringe of the LDP. Fantasies about a breakthrough with the Soviet Union in the 1950s—allowing for a neutral Japan that could retain its own voice or forge a special relationship with China in the 1970s-90s in a way that is conducive to the revival of Asianism and greater autonomy from the United States—were soon dismissed as unsustainable. Yet, there continue to be new outlets. In 2013-16, aspirations for a breakthrough with Russia served as the newest outlet.

How have Japanese distanced themselves from the United States? At least six ways deserve stress: 1) insisting on cultural distinctiveness often tinged with superiority; 2) pursuing East Asian regionalism with an ambiguous US role; 3) blaming the United States for arrogance or hegemonic control in bilateral relations; 4) rejecting US ideals at face value for the international community; 5) resenting US intervention in Japan’s bilateral relationships as unbalanced; and 6) suspecting that the US objective in criticizing Japan is hostile to its autonomy and national identity.

There is a sense in Japan that its voice has been stifled due to unequal relations: it had to defer given the need for the US nuclear umbrella and US pursuit of the Vietnam War; it has not dared to raise the issues of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan and the Tokyo Tribunal; and it must remain guarded in expressing its own narratives about the origins of the Pacific War, which may be at odds with those of the United States. Resenting what are seen as hierarchical relations, the Japanese have been slow to embrace the logic of shared responsibility for regional and global order. The left is inclined to fear entrapment in pursuits that reflect US hegemonic ambitions, not shared interests. The right is more fearful of US ideals undercutting common realist interests. Both of these political forces are skeptical of the overall US historical worldview as a basis for internationalism, but it is the right’s obsession with history that matters most.

Under Obama, fears of abandonment rose markedly. Some warned of a US deal with Beijing, bypassing Tokyo. Others depicted a US-ROK consensus on pressuring Japan. Still others spread alarm about all three of them encircling Japan, while urging the Japanese to find relief in their distinctive civilization and a resurgence of nationalism.15 That Trump would go much further toward abandonment led Abe to rush to get reassurances—efforts which restrain revisionism and boost his pursuit of realism.

The crux of Japan’s problem with the United States is the quest to establish Japan as a civilization of its own—an increasingly urgent imperative as the showdown has deepened between China with its dismissive outlook on Japan’s civilization and the United States from which Japan struggles to separate its national identity. The progressives opted to pursue this quest to shape “postwar” Japan as the unique victim of atomic bombs and champion of pacifism. The conservatives chose instead to resuscitate prewar Japan, stressing continuity that has been wrongly interrupted by the abnormal postwar status imposed on Japan. For both, the Constitution looms as the test of Japan’s national identity, either by preserving it or fundamentally amending it. Focused on their civilizational quest, neither side could accept a narrow civilizational border with the United States. The success of the postwar order and US alliance makes their quest difficult to realize; so most resort to acknowledging a blend of old and new—Japan as a bridge between civilizations—which was easier in the hopeful days of the 1990s.16

After the Cold War, the conservative cause changed in Japan, drawing closer to the United States but distancing Japan more from what was seen as the US model. The old conservatism embedded in the 1955 system focused on developmentalism and keeping a low profile, as historical revisionists remained on the margins. In contrast, the new conservatives concentrated on boosting state authority. Many saw this orientation as leading back to prewar Japanese ideals at the expense of those that were installed through the US occupation and resultant constitution, undermining forces against statism (kokkashugi). On the surface, these changes are conducive to Japan-US relations, enabling the Japanese government to assume more responsibility as an ally in a troubled region.17 Yet, beneath the surface, the goals of Abe and those close to him pose a challenge to the extent that they complicate the values component of US leadership in the Asia-Pacific, especially in regards to South Korea, and of US-Japan trust based on a narrow national identity gap, particularly over history.

The Japanese are searching for a sense of national identity that makes them proud of their history, gives them confidence as an active contributor to the regional order, and allows them to equalize relations with the United States. Today, success in these aspects is not easy. Failing to find a satisfying consensus in historical memories of pre- and post-war eras, historical revisionists in Japan have concentrated on war and imperialism to the dismay of its neighbors and academic and media circles in the United States. The letdown from high expectations in the 1980s-90s about regional leadership—long seen as blocked by narrow US interests—has also complicated Japan’s objectives. Finally, growing dependence on the United States is difficult to accept, even as Japan’s leaders can recognize the increased need for US support in the face of China’s rising assertiveness. Accommodations have been made to Japan’s weakening position, and illusions have been fostered to obscure it—most recently that Japan can transform its leverage with China by achieving a breakthrough with Russia. Yet, the fundamental efforts to set aside the narrative of blaming the United States have barely begun. It is important to consider how that might be accomplished.

In the shadow of Trump’s chaotic handling of US foreign policy, we cannot expect a consensus to emerge between Japanese and Americans on sensitive identity issues. The first prerequisite for overcoming Japan’s blame game is to boost the US image on the basis of respected leadership attentive to Japan’s quest for identity clarity. A second step is for Japanese to get past their own “civil war” over history and the Constitution. If the left had won, there would have been no reconciliation with the United States. And even if the right were to emerge as winner, the troubling impact in the region and the United States would also limit real reconciliation. Thus, the realist conservatives must further restrain the revisionist conservatives. With joint acceptance of internationalism, historians, security experts, and those concerned with values and identities of Japan can seek a greater mutual, reducing the tendency to blame the United States.


Why are the Japanese standoffish toward the United States despite their strong support for the alliance? Four reasons can be cited. The most popular answer until the 1990s was the hold of pacifist idealism over the public and the progressive community. As this diminished, a second answer rose to the forefront: the power of historical revisionism in the conservative community. Yet, for those who find reason to doubt polarized views within a homogeneous society, a third answer may appear more acceptable: a dearth of internationalism, which weakened the force of centrist and globalized ideals. Finally, in searching for an explanation to abortive internationalism,18 one can turn to a fourth response: unease about Japan’s own national identity and its lack of trust in a shared identity with the one country of overriding importance.

Under Koizumi and Abe, Japan has grown more realist in geopolitical outlook and more unabashedly committed to its alliance with the United States. This has been the natural outcome of increasing alarm about China and dependency on assurances from Washington. Abandonment became a far greater concern than entrapment. Thus, few reservations were expressed about Bush’s war in Iraq, and the main reservations shown toward Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was that it lacked substance.

Yet, rising signs of dependency on Washington were accompanied by Japan’s insistence on greater autonomy in national identity and pursuit of ideals for kokkashugi or statism, contrary to the US model of governance and requiring a far-reaching revision of the constitution imposed during the US occupation. This seemingly contradictory approach was facilitated by four conditions: 1) the fall in support for heiwashugi or pacifism as a determinant of Japanese national identity and Asianism as an alternative to the US alliance; 2) the inability of NGOs and other groups to find common cause with or link to international groups, a reflection of the narrow groupism of Japanese organizations; 3) the failure of the DPJ attempt to counter these trends, especially by Hatoyama in 2009-10 in targeting the relocation of the US base at Futenma and to idealize the notion of an “East Asian Community” at the least opportune time; and 4) the weakness of any liberal center to counter Abe’s revisionism while accepting Obama’s ideals of the international community.19 The conservatives overcame LDP factionalism, but the progressives failed to embrace realism, as Abe wrapped himself in that mantle.

There is a widespread assumption that anti-Americanism has faded from sight in Japan. Progressives lost their energy with the end of the Cold War. Conservatives are so spooked by China that they now cling to Japan’s one and indispensable ally. True, talk of animosity toward the United States is rare, but alienation can take different forms. On the progressive side, in 2009-10, the search for regionalism exclusive of the United States, hardline postures on moving a US base in Okinawa as well as the 2014-15 resistance to collective self-defense had some overtones of distrust of the United States. On the conservative side, Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in late 2013 was treated as a snub in Washington, and repeated remarks by him about history have stirred concern as well. There is no smoking gun suggesting direct hostility, but, given the high stakes in this vital alliance for both sides, we should not overlook deep-seated concerns that some day may pose a test.

1. Yachi Shotaro, Gaiko to senryaku to kokorozashi (Tokyo: Sankei Shimbun Shukan, 2009).

2. Yachi Shotaro, Nihon no gaiko: sogoteki anzen hosho, ed., (Tokyo: Wedge, 2011).

3. Murata Ryohei, Murata Ryohei kaisoroku (Tokyo: Minerva, 2008).

4. Togo Kazuhiko, Rekishi to gaiko (Tokyo: Kodansha, 2008), p. 10.

5. Togo Kazuhiko, Sengo Nihon ga ushita mono (Tokyo: Kadogawa, 2010).

6. Togo Kazuhiko, Rekishi ninshiki o toinaosu (Tokyo: Kadogawa, 2013).

7. Nakano Takeshi, TPP bokokuron (Tokyo: Shueisha Shincho, 2011).

8. Kazuhiko 2008, p. 15.

9. Morimoto Satoshi and Okamoto Yukio, Nichibei domei no kiki: Nihon wa koritsu o kaibidekiruka? (Tokyo: Bijinesusha, 2007)

10. Funabashi Yoichi, Nihon Koritsu (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2007)

11. Kakizaki Aiji, Kensho Abeism (Tokyo: Iwanami Shincho, 2015), pp. 201-02.

12. Reizei Akihiko, “Hanbei” Nihon no shotai (Tokyo: Bungei Shunju, 2015).

13. Ibid., pp. 51-53.

14. Togo Kazuhiko, Mori Tetsuro, and Nakatani Masanori, eds., Nihon hatsu no “sekai” shiso (Tokyo: Fujiwara shoten, 2017).

15. Bungei Shunju, Summer 2014, special issue.

16. Imizu Keihachiro, “Nihon no bunmei” no shinka (Tokyo: Shodensha, 1999).

17. Nakano Koichi, Yukeikasuru Nihon seiji (Tokyo: Iwanami Shincho, 2015).

18. Hosoya 2012.

19. Nakano 2015.