April 8, 1996
Through the last decade U.S.-Japan summit meetings have followed a predictable script. First the Americans discomfit their partners with complaints about this or that trading problem, as President Bush did when bringing U.S. car makers to Tokyo in 1992. But then the meetings move to a higher and more harmonious plane--and typically end with the president and prime minister reassuring each other that all that really matters is the diplomatic and military bond that has linked the countries since World War II.
The complaining phase of President Clinton's meeting with Prime Minister Hashimoto is likely to be milder than usual, not because disputes are settled but because the impending U.S. election makes it an awkward time for a trade fight. But the closing hands-across-the-sea session will likely be strained, because the fundamentals of the military relationship are undergoing profound historic change.
The most intriguing event in the buildup to this meeting is a speech given last month, in Seattle, by a former Japanese prime minister. The speaker was Morihiro Hosokawa, who took office about the time Bill Clinton did, on a promise to clean up Japan's political corruption. The Hosokawa reforms generally failed and within a year he was gone, but he retains great personal popularity. And in blunt tones rarely used by Japanese politicians, he argued that the time to reexamine first principles had arrived for Japan and the United States.
Their military alliance, Mr. Hosokawa said, was created to contain the Soviet Union and also to keep Japan from building its own army and frightening its neighbors--the so called "cap on the bottle" strategy. Even though the Soviets were gone Japan still needed a relationship with America, he said, but it had to be on different terms. The practical threats for the future might come from a superpower China with new "imperial" ambitions, or from the ever-unpredictable North Korean regime. But as a matter of military reality, he claimed, Americans could deter these threats just as well with soldiers based in Hawaii or Guam as with the 40,000 U.S. troops now crammed onto the Japanese island of Okinawa, where their presence is becoming a major irritant to the local populace. As the U.S. closed these bases, Mr. Hosokawa added, Japan could take on more military burdens, making itself a real ally and not the passive dependent it had been for 50 years. With such changes, he concluded, the alliance could continue--and without them it probably could not.
The communiqués from Tokyo next week, saying that the alliance is just fine, will be on the evening news; Mr. Hosokawa's speech last month received barely any press. But years from now his will seem the more prophetic statement.
Copyright & copy; 1996, by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.