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Rapprochement and Interdependence between Former Enemies – The Case of Japan and the United States

Masahiro Kashima


Japan and the United States, the product of very different cultures, clashed bitterly in the past, but their eventual rapprochement and interdependence – which could be described as a process of ‘tuning in’ with each other – may be relevant to the current clash between Muslim and Christian cultures.

Readers of this article may know a fair amount about the US, but a brief explanation of Japanese culture may be in order. The Japanese speak a unique language which does not belong to either the Chinese or Korean language groups. Our religious situation is also unique in that we combine Buddhism and Shintoism, the original and rather primitive religion of Japan, in a pragmatic way, and we have also accepted some Confucian philosophical influence. Christians make up less than one per cent of the population. Most Japanese get married following Shinto rituals and are buried at Buddhist temples. Even from these few examples it can be seen that the Japanese are indeed very different from the Americans, whose predominant culture remains Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, or at least Christian.


Traditionally isolationist, Japan was eventually opened up to the world by the Americans between 1853 and 1854. Until then, Japan had refused to have any contact with foreigners except for Dutch and Chinese merchants, and that contact was restricted to a ‘closed’ quarter of Nagasaki, a situation which had lasted for two and a half centuries. However in the mid-nineteenth century American whaling boats wanted to get fresh water and food supplies at Japanese ports, and when they were repeatedly refused, the Americans sent in a flotilla of warships in 1853 and forced the Japanese to conclude treaties in the following years, which deprived them of the right to arrest and try American citizens in a court of law or to set tariffs unilaterally. These treaties became the model for the other great world powers of the time and Japan was forced to trade with these countries, a situation which not only damaged national honor but also caused considerable economic disorder. This ‘disgrace’ triggered a revolutionary movement which eventually overthrew the feudal regime of the Samurai and brought about a centralised, modernising government with an emperor as its nominal head.


The new government tried to learn from the Western Europeans and Americans in order to make Japan an industrial military state similar to them. It more or less succeeded, but Japan also began to behave like those imperialist powers of the West, and this led to the Sino–Japanese and Russo–Japanese wars around the turn of the twentieth century. Japan even sent troops to Beijing, along with the US and other powers, on the occasion of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.


The Russo–Japanese War in 1904-1905 was brought to an end through the mediation of the then American president, Theodore Roosevelt. The next president of the US, Taft, and the Japanese prime minister, Katsura, subsequently agreed on Japanese interests and concessions in some parts of China. The ‘unequal trading treaties’ with the Western powers had been corrected by this time.


Japan’s rising influence over the Far East appeared to threaten American interests in the Pacific region, and in 1906 the US Congress passed legislation barring Japanese immigration. At the same time, the city of San Francisco acted to segregate Japanese students from whites in its schools. These restrictions were also discriminatory against Chinese, so racism was almost certainly involved to some extent, but American misgivings about the Japanese were evident.


The Americans were again irritated when Japan sent troops to Siberia, with US and European forces, to interfere in the Russian Revolution, because Japan sent the largest number of troops who remained until the last, and in so doing revealed Japanese territorial ambitions. As a result, the US organized the Washington Conference in 1921 to limit the tonnage of Japanese capitalships at a ratio of 3 Japanese to 5 American and British tonnages. The Japanese navy was extremely frustrated by their the government’s acceptance of these limits, and tried to build a strong fleet of cruisers, which were not covered by the terms of the Washington Treaty. Then, in 1930, the US and Britain imposed the Treaty of London on Japan, which limited the tonnage of Japanese cruisers at a ratio of 7 Japanese to 10 US. The Japanese government managed to contain the anger of the military on this occasion, but because of economic hardships caused by the world-wide economic crisis of the period, young officers resorted to a series of failed coups d’√©tat, which did eventually succeed in intimidating civilian politicians into handing over political power to the military.


Japan had adopted its first modern constitution in 1889, and had had more or less representative governments until the 1930s, when the military took control of government and suffocated democracy. At this time the government in Tokyo showed no will to restrain or reign in ultra-nationalist army officers, who provoked a series of wars in China. The Japanese military at first succeeded in establishing a protectorate in Manchuria, but then faced stronger resistance from the Chinese, which resulted in events such as the ‘Rape of Nanking’. This prolonged, deepening war in China inevitably drew increasingly severe criticism from the US, which unilaterally abrogated its treaty of commerce and navigation with Japan in protest in 1939. However, instead of submitting to American pressure, Japan chose to ally itself with Nazi Germany, which, in 1940, appeared to be triumphant.


Following the example of Germany, which had concluded a mutual non-aggression treaty with the Soviet Union in 1939, Japan also concluded a neutrality pact with the Soviets in 1941 in preparation for a possible war with the US. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union soon after, Japan thought of attacking it from the east, but chose to go south first to obtain natural resources in South-East Asia. When Japan occupied Vietnam in 1941, Washington reacted strongly and froze all Japanese assets in the US, effectively prohibiting the purchase of anything American, including oil. Since Japan was largely dependent on the US for its imports of oil, iron, etc., not only did Japanese industries but also its military forces now face a bitter choice between submission and striking out against the US. In negotiations with the US, Japan offered ?compromise proposal, but the US rigidly upheld its demand for total Japanese withdrawal from the Chinese mainland. It was then that the Japanese embarked on a suicidal war with the US and carried out a surprise attack on the US fleet at Pearl Harbor.


The attack woke the Americans up and they were mobilised into war, not only against Japan but also against its allies, Germany and Italy. The then British premier, Churchill, upon hearing the news of Pearl Harbor was reported to have said, ‘Now we win!’ He was right, but the victory required nearly four more years of deadly fighting and the dropping of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US. The ill-informed Japanese rulers of the time attempted to seek mediation for peace with the US through the Soviet Union, but Stalin had secretly agreed with the US and Britain to intervene on their side in violation of the neutrality pact with Japan in order to grab territories from Japan. Inevitably, fanatical Japanese soldiers wanted to fight to the bitter end, but with the atomic bombs and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, Emperor Showa at last ordered the military to cease fighting, ending the war in 1945.


The forces occupying Japan at the end of World War II were mostly comprised of Americans, headed by General MacArthur. Having lived in the Philippines for many years, MacArthur had some understanding of the mentality of Asian people and maintained a paternalistic attitude towards them. Aided by Japan specialists in the US State Department, he protected Emperor Showa from indictment as a supreme war criminal, and chose to reform Japan in the Emperor’s name. The initial aim of the reform was to make Japan powerless, so that it would never again threaten its neighbours or the US. Therefore, the military was dissolved; the landed and financial oligarchs were disbanded through a programme of confiscation of large land ownership and stock holdings and peasants, workers, women, communists, etc. were given equal rights so that they could counteract any revival of the warmongers.


With the demobilisation of massive numbers of troops and the return of a large number of colonialists from Japan’s former territories, the population was suddenly inflated and a serious famine was feared, but the disaster was averted when the US provided food aid.


The occupation forces under MacArthur gave the Japanese peace, food, civil rights and democracy, which were codified into the new constitution of 1947. The constitution forbade Japan, with its famous ‘peace article’, from having a military and from waging war. Having been betrayed by the military, the Japanese people welcomed this so-called ‘MacArthur Constitution’(although it was formally proposed to the parliament as the government's draft), as they were tired of war and very distrustful of their rulers. When Japan gained independence, as a result of the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951, it also concluded a security treaty with the US and felt secure from any external threat, communist or otherwise.


In reality, the original security treaty did not oblige the US to protect Japan – it simply allowed the US to use its military bases in Japan freely, in order to conduct its war in Korea and contain Soviet and Chinese communism in the Far East.


The Chinese communist revolution turned out to be a blessing for the Japanese. At the end of World War II, the US regarded China as its ally in Asia and hoped together to contain Japan. But with Mao Ze-Dong victorious in China, the US found a new ally in Japan and together they sought to contain China. With the outbreak of war in Korea, the Americans demanded that Japan rearm itself to help the US cause, but the Japanese, now very much pacifist and intent on economic recovery, refused to comply, drawing on the ‘peace constitution’ and agreeing only to form a small ‘self-defence force’, using generous American military aid at that.


Most of the war reparations Japan had been expected to pay upon surrender were cancelled or greatly reduced, as the US now protected Japan. This meant that it could make a rapid economic recovery and also reduce America’s financial burden in the area by providing financial support. Most South-East Asian countries received post-war reparations from Japan which were less than they had demanded, but China, which was represented by Taiwan in its dealings with Japan in 1952, renounced its right to claim any war reparations from Japan. Beijing eventually restored relations with Japan in 1972 after a visit by President Nixon, and followed in the steps of Taiwan to form a de facto alliance with the US and Japan against the Soviet Union. Since then, however, China has been receiving massive amounts of economic aid from Japan.


The original security treaty with the US of 1951 was very one sided, with no obligation for the US, and no rights for Japan. Indeed the Japanese did not even have the right to arrest and try American soldiers who committed crimes against Japanese citizens. At the time of the treaty, Japan had nothing to offer except military bases, so we could not have expected more. Later however, a number of crimes by American servicemen began fuelling Japanese nationalism and, with some progress on Japan’s rearmament, the Japanese government eventually demanded a revision of the treaty in order to make it more equal, or mutually beneficial.


The Japanese left wing opposed this attempt to modify the treaty because they saw it as increasing the risk that Japan would become involved in wars provoked by ‘US imperialism’ and liberals were angry with the undemocratic way the Conservative government pushed ratification of the revised treaty through parliament. This discontent triggered a series of unprecedentedly huge anti-government demonstrations, but the treaty was successfully modified in 1960. However, Japan does not have complete equality yet. According to the peace constitution in force to this day, Japan is allowed to join American efforts to protect only Japan and its vicinity. With a rather elastic interpretation of the treaty and the constitution, Japan is now helping US warships in the Persian Gulf in the US campaign against the Taliban and Al-Qaida, by providing gasoline. Also, Japan sent several hundred troops to Iraq after the war was over to help in the reconstruction programme, as a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the US.


Japan still keeps its self-imposed principle of limiting its military budget to under one per cent of its GNP, and promises to the world at large that it will never again be a military power. Yet, with the second largest GNP in the world, even that one per cent makes Japan’s military budget one of the largest after that of the US. Given the geo-strategic value of American bases in Japan, Japan’s alliance with the US is very valuable for the Americans too, especially as most of the costs of American bases in Japan are now paid for by the Japanese government, except, of course, for the salaries of American military personnel.


Incidentally, because of their strategic value, the southernmost islands of Japan, the Okinawa Islands, were kept under American military administration even after Japan regained independence. But the discontent of the Okinawan people grew, along with Japan’s negotiating power, until finally in 1971, Japan obtained America’s agreement to return the islands, following a secret accord between President Nixon and Prime Minister Sato that, in return, Japan would limit its textile exports to the US. This agreement reflected Japan’s growing economic power, which was beginning to threaten American producers. The Japanese economic ‘menace’ continued to grow, moving from textiles to TV sets, steel, cars, semi-conductors, etc., causing trading friction between the two countries. However, this trend also indicates a deepening economic interdependence between the US and Japan. In fact when combined, US and Japanese production capabilities amount to almost half the entire world’s GDP; the relationship between the US and Japan is rightly said to be the world’s most important bilateral relationship. Despite occasional tensions, the relationship is still secure and on good terms. An opinion poll conducted in both countries in November 2004 indicated that 53% of Americans and 49% of Japanese viewed the US-Japanese relationship as ‘good’ or ‘very good’.


How has it happened that these two countries, with such very different cultures and who fought a truly deadly war only sixty years ago, have been able to attain rapprochement and forge not only a military alliance but also a friendly relationship based on politico–economic interdependence? Without doubt the most obvious answer lies in the success of America’s occupation policy.
It was not altruism but calculation of national interest, which formed the principles of the US policy, but it proved to be tolerant and beneficial to the Japanese. The Japanese for their part defended the peace, democracy and economic freedom given to them by the Americans against the quasi-totalitarianism and repressive economic policies of their war-time governments.


Perhaps the pragmatic Japanese mind was well suited to embracing radical changes imposed by foreigners. The Americans were also pragmatic in employing Emperor Showa and an indirect form of occupation administration, which made the Japanese quite pliant. Once the Japanese agreed to become political as well as military allies of the US, the Americans were generous and helpful. Even after Japan regained its independence, this alliance was beneficial to the Japanese, allowing them to concentrate on economic growth without spending much on defense, and providing them with a crucial means of economic growth in the form of a large, free, and secure US market.


And so, the Japanese have accepted with resignation the massacre of civilians not only at Hiroshima and Nagasaki but also at major cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Kobe from Allied bombardment. After all, it was not simply a clash of cultures which took place between Japan and the US, but rather a clash of great powers, rivals for supremacy in the Asia–Pacific region. After its defeat, Japan accepted its status as junior partner to the US as America embarked upon a new rivalry for global hegemony with communist regimes across the world.
The Americans imposed and promoted liberal democracy and the market economy in Japan, but not the English language or Christianity. Historically, relations between liberal democracies tend to be peaceful, and trade between market economies tends to be mutually beneficial.
Therefore, the Japanese embraced these politico-economic systems willingly and the ‘tuning-in’ with the US has proved to be mutually advantageous. With all this however, Japan has maintained its unique cultural status, as the only Japanese-speaking, Buddhist–Shintoist nation in the world.