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Japan Diary

January 13, 2019

What should Japan do as an ally of the "inward-looking United States"?

(This article has been published in the site of the English-Speaking Union of Japan

Recently I stayed for one week in an Airbnb accommodation in the suburbs of Boston and had the chance to see at first hand how the ordinary people lived. The MBTA subway, the oldest in the U.S., has become even more obsolete because of lack of funding by the city authorities, and you can see practically all the ethnic groups in the world sitting on the inhospitable-looking bare plastic seats. The Immigration and Nationalization Act was amended in 1965 to accept masses of non-white non-European immigrants. In the 50 years since then, the United States, at least in urban areas, has become a fully multi-racial country as expected. So much so that, on city streets, you come across people of white European origin only occasionally. Given the poor maintenance of the urban infrastructure and the shabby living conditions of low-income groups, you might have the delusion that you were in a developing country.

That said, old people's homes for the high-income groups are towering like castles amidst the suburban forests. There, it is an overwhelmingly white community. There is a dichotomy of the society between those at the top and those at the bottom. The latter eke out a living with low wages of about 10 dollars per hour and typically share motel rooms with their co-workers. Little tangible presence is felt of the middle class who should fill the gap in between. In the American society of today where 10% of the high-income groups accounts for 47% of GDP(1), the living condition of the middle class is inevitably declining.

Since the 1970s, U.S. manufacturing industries have ceaselessly relocated abroad. This has brought the decline of the white middle class mainly in the industrial regions of the Midwest. That is probably why the American society today gives the impression of somehow being hollowed out.

The white workers of the Midwest turned their back on the Democratic Party, which they had traditionally supported, and elected Trump as President. Trump's inward-looking slogan of "America First" touched a chord with them. Trump announced the US withdrawal from several international agreements including the TPP and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and substantially revised NAFTA. He further stated his intention to withdraw US troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

With a number of his questionable activities being probed, Trump finds himself in a shaky position. However, whatever his fortune may be, as long as the Rust Belt states of the Midwest continue to have the casting vote in the presidential elections, the United States will keep on looking inward. The defense budget, which has seen a dramatic increase this fiscal year, shows signs of being decreased next fiscal year. As they observe U.S. troops withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan, the US allies will come to take far more in earnest Trump's admonition that the allies should pay more for their own defense.

What should Japan do under these circumstances? China's economy might start collapsing under the weight of confrontation with the US. This could lessen the threat of China's military power. Even then, Japan should provide for its own defense in preparation for the gradual drawdown of the US military presence. 

The Medium Term Defense Program 2019-2024, decided by the Japanese government at the end of December 2018, is conceived along these lines. The Program posits, among others, the build-up of what would in effect be Japan's own aircraft carrier (remodeling the existing helicopter carrier to enable the deployment of U.S. made F35-B fighter aircraft), and the deployment of long-range, supersonic cruise missiles. This would mean a markedly bolder defense posture for Japan than before. It would be difficult to revise Article 9 of the Constitution that stipulates "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained", but the capabilities for self-defense will be built up steadily.

However, with respect to the nuclear deterrent, we will have to rely on the United States. At the same time, we will need to engage in political efforts to make up for the drawdown of U.S. forces. One idea may be to conceive an East Asian version of the United Nations embracing the U.S., Australia and other nations.

On the economic front, Japan would need to make its own efforts to rectify its overreliance on exports to the U.S.. Japan's trade surplus with the U.S. in 2017 amounted to more than 7 billion yen, far exceeding Japan's overall trade surplus of 2.9072 billion yen for that year. This means that the huge surplus with the U.S. helps sustain the trade deficits with other countries. Japanese businesses should step up their production in the U.S. even more, thereby decreasing the excessive trade surplus and helping the revitalization of the U.S. economy.

For Japan to extricate itself from overdependence on the United States does not mean that Japan would go back to its prewar ultra nationalism.
In fact, there was little tradition of absolutism or despotism in Japan's history, and concentration of power was the exception rather than the rule. In the rural villages of the Edo period, consensus building in village meetings of owner farmers was prevalent rather than fiats coming from the vertical landowner-tenant relationship.

It was on the basis of such egalitarianism and tradition of grass-roots democracy that Japan managed to realize its advanced society with relatively few disparities. This has more in common with the Unites States and Western Europe than with China or Russia.

Thus freedom, democracy and market economy are deeply rooted in Japan. It is in Japan's interest to help the revitalization of the United States that has staunchly upheld these similar values.

(1) "How to Save Globalization" in the November 2018 edition of Foreign Affairs

January 10, 2019
Akio Kawato
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

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