Do You Still Dislike America?
Is America in decline? The question has been debated for years. In the long run, the answer is probably yes; no great empire has ever avoided decline. However, with Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, we now realize America is still indispensable in this world. Where does the Japan-US alliance stand in this context?
Japanese people like America. According to the latest poll on Japan’s foreign policy released by the Cabinet Office in January 2022, 88.5 percent of the respondents said that they feel “affinity” towards the United States, and 91.3 percent said that they believe that the Japan-U.S. relations is “good.”
Post-war Japanese have generally been pro-American, but until relatively recently, there also existed deep-seated anti-American sentiments. In the same poll, the percentage of those who felt an affinity towards the U.S. dropped twice to the 60 percent level in the 1980s against the backdrop of trade and economic friction between Japan and the U.S.
In the early 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, anti-Americanism on the left was joined by anti-Americanism on the right. In the early 2000s, widespread opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq following the 9.11 terrorist attacks brought yet another wave of anti-Americanism in Japan. The same poll in 2004 showed that 71.8 percent of respondents said that they felt “affinity” with the U.S., the lowest figure since 1995 when it hit 71.2 percent.
Urged by an editor of a publisher who had read and liked my books and magazine articles, I published a collection of essays on Japan-US relations, Soredemo watashi wa shinbei wo tsuranuku (“Still, I Am Proudly Pro-American”: Keiso Shobo), in 2003. The title of the book reflected my desire to challenge the anti-American sentiment of the time.
In its preface, I wrote, “There is no doubt that an anti-American sentiment broadly exists in Japan today.” In one of its chapters, I also wrote that a magazine editor had once said to me, “Nowadays, you are probably the only person who would openly declare himself to be pro-American.” Where have all the anti-American sentiment of those days gone?
There are perhaps several reasons why the Japanese have turned more pro-American since then. China replaced Japan as the biggest economic and technological threat to the U.S., erasing the tensions between Japan and the U.S. A significant increase in direct investments in the U.S. by Japanese companies has deepened Japan’s relations with states like Texas, which were previously less familiar to the Japanese compared to New York or California. Assistance and relief operations by the U.S. armed forces at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 (Operation Tomodachi) gave birth to new friendships between the Japanese and American citizens.
In particular, an overwhelming majority of the Japanese public now seem to recognize that Japan has no choice but to continue working with the U.S. as its sole ally. They realize Japan can cope with the threats posed by the powerful and hegemonic China of today only through the alliance with the U.S. This recognition is likely a major, if not the biggest, reason for the pro-American shift shown by the poll results.
Incidentally, the latest results of a poll on the U.S. image of Japan released in 2021 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs showed that Americans’ view of Japan is also very favorable. A large majority of the respondents, 74 percent of the general population and 98 percent of the opinion leaders, said that Japan and the U.S. had a friendly relationship.
These figures give the impression that the current U.S.-Japan relationship is so stable that there is nothing to worry about. However, it may only reflect that the two countries happen to share interests in meeting the challenges posed by China. Will Japan-U.S. relations remain strong and friendly in the long term, beyond the current tension with China?
In that regard, my recent concern is the growing discourse in the U.S. and neighboring Canada about the deepening divide and confrontation among political groups. Some argue that there is a danger in the not-so-distant future a civil war may break out and lead to the demise of democracy in the U.S. Recent polls show that more than a few Americans think their respective states may secede from the union.
If so, would the U.S. be a reliable ally in times of security crisis? Some Japanese seriously worry. America’s decline was debated even before World War II but had never been proven to be real. Nevertheless, a similar nebulous fear of America in decline may be with us again.
Certainly, in the past few years, various political forces in the U.S. have been clashing with each other, sometimes violently. National opinion seems divided, and democracy often looks dysfunctional. President Trump was more the symbol than the cause of this phenomenon.
On January 6, 2021, those intending to prevent by force the inauguration of the newly elected President Biden attacked the U.S. Capitol, sending shock waves throughout the world. The Biden administration, which came to power shortly thereafter and promised domestic reconciliation and unity, has been struggling with resurgences of the COVID-19, rising inflation, and passing bills in Congress to implement his core policies. Social division and sharp conflicts remain tenacious and bleak.
I am aware that this phenomenon is a deeply rooted and serious problem for America today. However, I do not necessarily think that this will weaken the structure and ideals of this country and bring about its subsequent disunion.
First, America’s divisions and bitter rivalries between and among various political groups are nothing new. There were fierce conflicts and debates over the desirability of independence of the British colonies in North America, the establishment of the U.S. Constitution and the federal government, the abolition of slavery, the widening disparity between the haves and have-nots accompanying rapid industrialization, the dispatch of troops overseas, among others.
There have been quite a few attempts by states to secede from the Union, but the only instance in which several states did so was when these states concluded there was no alternative shortly before the Civil War broke out. Although some still desire secession or see it as an option today, the American people have since 1865, when the country was reunited after the war, avoided splitting their nation and managed to stay united.
Second, since the founding of the country, Americans have not necessarily viewed conflicts between factions negatively. The founders of the nation recognized that the concentration and entrenchment of power on specific individuals or factions would lead to oppression. Hence, sovereign power was divided between two distinct governments, federal and state, and the power of each government was allotted to three departments, legislative, executive, and judiciary, to restrain each other and prevent abuse of power.
James Madison said, “The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others.” He added that, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”*1
Third, each political group, though it continues to be diametrically at odds with each other, is aiming to realize the ideals of the founding of the country through their interpretations of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Many of the participants of the Capitol raid identified themselves with the militia, the colonial farmer-soldiers who took up arms against British troops.
They are not in despair with the shape the country took upon its founding, nor do they seek to destroy it. For one thing, they seem to calculate that it is easier and cost-effective to achieve their goals if they work within the existing political framework. Through each election, all parties try to send their candidates who represent their interests to the positions of the president, state governors, and federal as well as state legislators. They are all dreaming of America, but dreaming different dreams.
Conflicts and divisions in America will surely continue. There will always be demagogues. One-sided claims, conspiracy theories, and violence will be repeated. And yet, for the next 20, 30, or even 100 years, there will be a new president every four to eight years, and a change of legislators and high-ranking government officials, not without a lot of shouting and finger-pointing, but still following the rules the Constitution provides.
The structure of the country stipulated by the Constitution is amazingly stable. The Constitution did not guarantee that people with strong and thoughtful leadership qualities would always govern the country. However, it left a system that allows no leader elected by the people to remain in that position semi-permanently and to become a dictator.
Justice Stephen Breyer, who served as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice for 28 years, expressed optimistic views about America’s future when he announced his retirement at the White House on January 27, 2022.
“This is a complicated country. There are more than 330 million people…it’s every race, it’s every religion… and… it’s every point of view possible. And it’s a kind of miracle when you sit there and see all those people in front of you, people that are so different in what they think. And yet they’ve decided to help solve their major differences under law. And when the students get too cynical, I say, go look at what happens in countries that don’t do that.”
After I started writing this piece, Russia invaded Ukraine. As of the end of April, Ukraine is still putting up a valiant resistance, and Putin has failed to achieve his invasion objectives. I was moved to tears when I saw on the news that as thousands of citizens fled across the border, Ukrainian men, after safely taking their families to Poland, turned around and returned to their country to fight Russia.
Two things became clear from this war. One is, despite strong global condemnation, there is no institutional mechanism to stop Putin’s outrageous action other than countering it with force. Second, while the U.S. has been said to be in danger of decline and even breaking apart, its presence is indispensable, both in power and ideology, at a time of a major international crisis such as the invasion of Ukraine. We had forgotten these things for a while.*2
The world is a violent and dangerous place now. What happened in Ukraine could happen elsewhere. Japan and its surrounding areas are no exception. China is closely watching the situation in Ukraine. Japan is allied with the U.S., a country with which it shares interests and values. The Ukrainians must be envious of us.
Of course, there are times when America, too, hesitates to judge the situation and make decisions as Japan’s ally. If that is the case, it is all the more necessary for Japan to seriously think about what it can and should do. Japan should commit to further strengthening this alliance by becoming a more dependable and capable ally for the U.S.
We say we worry about America’s decline. And yet, we continue to rely heavily on America. We somehow assume that our Self-Defense Forces and U.S. armed forces together as allies will maintain our security and peace without ourselves thinking more about what we, the Japanese people, can do. Isn’t something missing here? Like the Ukrainians fighting Russia, shouldn’t we, each of us, be prepared to take up arms when the time comes?
*1 The Federalist Papers: No. 51, The Federalist Papers, Hamilton, Jay, Madison
*2 Toshihiro Nakayama, Professor at Keio University Shonan Fujisawa Campus, had pointed this out in his tweet at the beginning of the invasion. https://twitter.com/tnak0214/status/1497416025754996742
This is a translation of the Japanese article published in the vol. 96 (May 2022) of the Asteion magazine.
Naoyuki Agawa was born in 1951, entered Keio University’s Faculty of Law, then transferred to and graduated from the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. He also read law at and graduated from Georgetown Law School several years later. After working for Sony Corporation and U.S. and Japanese law firms, Agawa served as a professor at Keio University’s Faculty of Policy Management and as a distinguished visiting professor at Doshisha University’s Faculty of Law. From 2002 to 2005, he served as a minister at the Embassy of Japan in the U.S. His major publications include: The Birth of an American Lawyer (in Japanese: Chuokoron-Shinsha, Inc.), Friendship across the Seas: US Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (in Japanese: Chuokoron-Shinsha, Inc. and in English: Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture), American History Read Through the Constitution (in Japanese: Chikuma Shobo), What is Constitutional Revision? Thinking from the History of Constitutional Changes in the United States (same: Shinchosha).