U.S.-Japan Relations Through the Lens of America’s Heartland

posted by Eleanor Shiori Otsuka Hughes on March 11, 2020 - 12:00am

This report is written by Eleanor Hughes, Writer & Commentator, East Asian Affairs.

A few weeks ago, on Wednesday, February 19th, Indiana University-Bloomington’s 21st Century Japan Politics and Society Initiative hosted Noriyuki Shikata, a Japanese diplomat, at their Hamilton-Lugar School of Global and International Studies. With a distinguished career in the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), Shikata is taking a sabbatical from his post this year, and instead has taken a one-year position as an Associate at Harvard University’s Program on U.S.-Japan Relations, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. While in the United States, Shikata is conducting research on the emerging U.S. trade policy toward China based on his experiences in Beijing as Deputy Chief of Mission at the Japanese Embassy in China as well as working on managing U.S.-Japan relations for years.

To begin his remarks—it is worth noting that he spoke on a personal capacity—Shikata reminisced his time as a high-school exchange student in Missouri, emphasizing that it was a transformative experience and even labeling it as his most memorable overseas experience. It was through this exchange program that he had discovered a great penchant for learning about other parts of the world, which is what led him to pursue a career in the Foreign Service. Because of his ties to the Midwest, he recounted that Japanese companies made investments in the Midwest region (and other regions in the U.S.) starting in the late 1960s. Though trade tensions between the U.S. and Japan heightened in the 1980s, eventually, those sentiments simmered down, and the Midwestern states like Indiana became major destinations for Japanese automobile production. 

Shikata then mentioned that he wanted to highlight two major themes in his talk. First, he delved quite extensively into recent Japan-China relations in response to China’s rise as a great power in the 21stcentury. Some points he made include how anti-Japanese sentiments in China were manifested in response to Japan’s decision to nationalize the Senkaku Islands in the fall of 2012, as well as China’s attempts to change the status quo in East China Sea. He also explained Japan’s past constructive efforts to integrate China into the international economic system as early as the G-7 summit held in Houston, TX in 1990. He also referred to Dr. Ezra Vogel’s new book, entitled China and Japan: Facing History. 

Second, in light of China’s continuously expanding military capabilities, he delved into the role of U.S. military presence in Japan, saying that the U.S.-Japan alliance effectively serves interests of our countries during the last 60 years. For example, during the Iraq War, some American military members of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (31st MEU), who were stationed in Okinawa’s Camp Hansen, left for Fallujah. In addition, North Korea’s expanding nuclear arsenal and ballistic missiles have also prompted the U.S. and Japanese forces to co-locate military command elements at Yokota Air Base for missile defense. As the Japanese military is defensive and focused on defending its own homeland, the presence of American military personnel in Japan demonstrates deterrence capability, which means that any country should think twice before making any sort of attack on Japanese soil. 

Shikata then told the attendees that he accompanied Prime Minister Abe on a trip to India in August 2007, where PM Abe gave a speech on the theme of “Confluences of two Oceans,” whose concept has translated into the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) Strategy during the second Abe administration. There, he stressed the great need to advance democratic-oriented values such as freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, and the Rule of Law. While there may be a perception that “Indo” refers to India, Shikata quickly clarified that “Indo” actually refers to the Indian Ocean. That is not to say that India does not play a strategic role in promoting security in the Asian continent; in fact, it does. He even added that European nations such as France and the United Kingdom are also interested in becoming a part of this initiative, as they have territories in the region. 

As China is Japan’s largest trading partner, perhaps economically and strategically speaking, Shikata noted that it would be in Japan’s best interest to actively engage with China on infrastructure projects in developing countries, so long as they meet Abe’s four conditions: openness, transparency, economic viability, and fiscal sustainability. Originally, President Xi Jinping planned to make a state-visit to Japan at the zenith of Japan’s cherry blossom this spring, but due to rising concerns of the coronavirus (COVID-19), which has killed thousands of people worldwide, the Japanese government announced that his visit would be postponed. 

To conclude, Shikata emphasized the critical role that multilateralism plays, especially at a time where there is a global necessity to combat the coronavirus. In the Q & A session, he even referenced to the following quote: “When China catches a cold, Japan may get pneumonia.” This immediately reminded me of EconVue’s newsletter from early-February: “China Sneezes and the World Holds Its Breath.” At this time, though many seasoned economic experts can confidently illustrate that the coronavirus has already caused economic damage worldwide, we have yet to see just how extensive the damage will be. And with this uncertainty, I am also inclined to say that we have yet to see if it would affect the warming relations between China and Japan. 

Now, I would like to insert a short personal anecdote. One week after Shikata’s talk at IU Bloomington, I moderated a lecture at the University of Notre Dame, entitled “U.S.-Japan Economic Partnership: The View from 40,000 feet and The View from South Bend.” The two speakers were Lyric Hughes Hale, editor-in-chief of EconVue; and Kevin Hughes, President of RKC Instruments USA, which is a small Japanese manufacturer of temperature controls. It did not take long for the attendees to ask thought-provoking questions ranging from Japanese soft-power through anime; how the coronavirus will impact global supply-chains; and why there has been a decrease in the number of Japanese international students pursuing a degree-seeking program in the U.S. In the end, both speakers wanted to convey this message: there are still ample opportunities to initiate new business partnerships and cultural exchanges that will continue to strengthen the robust U.S.-Japan alliance.

One of my favorite quotes is from Father Hesburgh, a beloved president of the University of Notre Dame who wrote the following in 1979: “Whatever you value, be committed to it and let nothing distract you from this goal. The uncommitted life, like Plato’s unexamined life, is not worth living.” My sincere hope is similar to what the Japanese Consul-General of Chicago Kenichi Okada said when he made his first visit to Indiana University in November 2019, which is that the attendees from both talks will commit themselves to elevate U.S.-Japan relations.