Politics, No.8  Oct. 5, 2011


Photo : IRIYE Akira


Much is being made of the fact that this year, 2011, is the sixtieth anniversary of the San Francisco peace conference that ended the state of war between Japan and the United States and at the same time established the basic framework for a security alliance between the two nations. We could also note that this year marks the seventieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor and the eightieth anniversary of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria that ultimately led to the U.S.-Japan war. It is also fifty years since 1961 when President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato declared a “new era” in the two countries’ relationship, and forty years since the “Nixon shocks” of 1971 that seemed to shake the foundation of the alliance. What do these past landmarks mean not just in terms of U.S.-Japan relations but also in modern and contemporary history? How has the alliance contributed to the making of the world today? Conversely, in what ways may it be said that the shifts and turns in U.S.-Japan relations have reflected global developments during the recent decades?

Contemporary History Perspective

Contemporary history, or the history of the recent decades, corresponds to the time in which we have lived, and for this reason our conception of this history often blends into our own personal experiences. It is not surprising that a large number of historians in the West have sought to understand the meaning of contemporary history through their own personal histories. I must also confess that as one who was born in 1934 and lived through two-thirds of the twentieth century and now a decade and longer in the twenty-first, I am also tempted to consider recent world history through my own life history. We must realize, however, that every individual has had his or her own unique experiences so that they must make a choice as to which part of their personal lives is pertinent to understanding recent world history. We should try to avoid self-centered perspectives when we seek to make sense of the world today and the evolution of U.S.-Japan relations.

Limits of International Relations History Framework What Is an Alliance?

We tend to focus on international relations when we try to understand the evolution of modern world history. That is obviously a valid perspective but only one of several that we should adopt. For our generation, to be sure, it is difficult to avoid viewing the Second World War as the starting point of contemporary history. Whenever I meet people of my generation in Japan, the United States, and elsewhere, this becomes very clear. For them, the recent history of U.S.-Japan relations must be understood in the context of international affairs during the 1930s in which Japan and China fought a war, which eventually came to involve the United States. Then, after the war, Japan was able to conclude a peace treaty with the United States rather quickly, but it took much longer to restore normal relations with China and the Soviet Union. Actually, Japan became an ally of the United States in a Cold War that pitted them against the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. In time Beijing and Washington, and Beijing and Tokyo, normalized relations, but the Soviet Union disappeared from the world in 1991 before Moscow and Tokyo were able to conclude a peace treaty. Such a treaty still eludes Japan and Russia, one of the unusual features of contemporary international relations.

Such an outline, however valid, also shows the limits of an international relations perspective. International relations by definition refers to relationships among nations, but usually the focus tends to be put on the “great powers” or the militarily powerful nations. Because they are by definition endowed with superior military and economic power, it is assumed that international relations would be more or less stable when these great powers are able to stabilize their relationships, but that the converse would be the case if they fail to do so. The two great wars as well as the Cold War do indicate that international order could be seriously undermined when the great powers are unable to stabilize their mutual relations. For this reason, it is tempting to assume that these powers determine the fate of the world.

We must recognize, however, that the world consists of more than the great powers and therefore that world history must not be made interchangeable with the militarily and economically strong nations. For one thing, there are a host of countries besides the great powers, and the usual international relations framework tends to ignore their existence or consider them relevant only as objects of the great powers’ ambitions. Such, for instance, has been how nations like China, Turkey, or Mexico have been traditionally understood in the context of modern world history. In reality, however, these countries were not just objects of the powerful nations’ policies but developed with their own momentums, in the process even shaping international relations as much as those powers.

For instance, most historians consider that the twentieth century began with the Great War of 1914, while some go back to the Russo-Japanese war of 1904. Both are episodes in great-power rivalries, but they hardly amount to the totality of world history. To understand what was happening outside a small circle of powerful nations, we need a different perspective. It is just as plausible, for instance, to argue that the twentieth century dawned with the Young Turks’ uprising in 1908, or the Mexican revolution of 1910, or the Republican revolution in China in 1911. These were all landmarks in the establishment of modern nations and previsages as much, or even more, about what was to come in the twentieth century than a chronology that previsages the coming of the European war in 1914.

The same sort of observations may be made about the period after the Great War. We know for sure that in the wake of the unprecedented disaster in Europe, efforts were made to do away with the great-power oriented world order and to establish a new international system on the basis of participation by all countries. There was recognition that medium-scale and small countries were just as critical a part of the world as the major military powers. Unfortunately, the attempted new order did not materialize, and in the 1930s the world reverted back to the age of great-power domination in which the stronger nations fought a war among themselves and, after the conflict, the victors began their Cold War against one another. Here again, however, such an international-relations oriented perspective ignores much that went on. Historians in the West and elsewhere have for some time been pointing out the danger of viewing world history after the Second World War solely in the framework of the Cold War, for there were so many crucial developments that tend to be ignored if we just focus on the geopolitical drama. Likewise, after the Cold War, it would be a very superficial view to continue to view the world in terms of the great powers–or of the single great power, the United States. Rather than playing the game of guessing which new power (China?) might come to replace the Soviet Union as the next great power, or how long the only super-power would maintain its hegemonic position, we should keep in mind developments outside the framework of international relations.

Consider, for instance, “international” terrorism or “international” financial crises. These are “international” phenomena that lie beyond the framework defined by the great powers, or by the United States as the sole great power. Likewise, the crises in Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda, and elsewhere demonstrated that these were less “international” than inter-ethnic crises where the United States was virtually helpless. With regard to such international agreements as the treaty to eliminate anti-human landmines or the Kyoto protocol against global warming, the United States did not play any role at all but was in fact opposed to the interests and intentions of the international community. Such instances show that the United States as a nation is not always capable of leading the world. Even if China were to emerge as the next great power, it is entirely unclear whether it would do better.

What is the alliance?

In short, the international relations perspective does not help us much in understanding what is happening in the world. A world order made up of nations is just one of many worlds that actually exist. An alliance system such as the one between the United States and Japan constitutes just one reality, only one facet of a given world order.

What, after all, is “order,” whether international, national, social, domestic, or other? It is not maintained by military power, police force, or similar instruments of violence alone. Equally crucial is some sort of balance or consensus that is built on the basis of ideology, tradition, or culture. An alliance system that is a product of a temporary coincidence of interests is, therefore, of very limited utility. The fact that the U.S.-Japan alliance has lasted as long as it has must be explained by the existence of such consensus. The world today is vastly different from what it was sixty years ago, but to the extent that the alliance is still valid today, it is because between the two nations there has developed some cultural consensus or social balance. Such consensus or balance does not always coincide with “national interests” defined by geopolitical considerations but is capable of establishing an international community through transnational connections created by individuals and their associations. In other words, the alliance has lasted as long as it has because the United States and Japan have been interconnected not just at the level of the state apparatus but through non-state actors such as their respective civil societies, business communities, mass media, intellectuals, educators, artists, and non-governmental organizations. These connections have growing stronger precisely because they reflect an important trend in the contemporary world. In other words, the stability in U.S.-Japan relations has grown because they are reflective of the emerging world community.

Edwin O. Reischauer who served as U.S. ambassador in Japan during the first half of the 1960s used to refer to a U.S.-Japan “partnership.” According to him, the partnership was unique because the two countries represented different cultural traditions. In other words, if two such culturally divergent countries could maintain their partnership, it was an unprecedentedly important phenomenon in world history. We can say that the longevity of the alliance has depended as much on such partnership as on shared geopolitical interests. However, the idea that the two countries represent sharply contrasting cultures may today sound out of date. May it not be said instead that the longevity of the alliance has depended on the two peoples’ cultural contact to such as extent that today they share a great deal in common?

As one who first came to the United States in 1953 and has lived in the country for nearly sixty years, I am convinced that the two peoples do share a great deal in common. To be sure, in the early 1950s, there was a sharp contrast between their cultures and societies. The contrast was staggering between a country that had been destroyed by war and one that boasted an unprecedented level of wealth. American consumer culture and family life were things that appeared to be beyond the reach of an impoverished foreign student like myself. Nevertheless, as individuals, I felt no distance between myself and the large number of American teachers, friends, and their families who accepted me as an individual. I do not think this was because I was brainwashed or superficially Americanized. Much more important was the fact that we saw each other as a human being and defined our relations personally, not in terms of nationality or wealth. (Even today, I remain in contact with my college mentor who is ninety-one years old now, as well as with my former roommates and other friends.)

Differences in the levels of material well-being between nations are destined to narrow, and the case of the United States and Japan was no exception. The gap in their standard of living began to shrink in the 1960s, and by the 1980s their cultural products such as food, clothing, and entertainment were remarkably similar. They were even interchangeable and blending into one another so as to create a hybrid culture. Instead of each maintaining its own unique culture, the two were coming closer. Here again, we should note that such a phenomenon reflected global trends.

“The American Century”

The United States played a key role in the global transformation that brought about those changes. In this context, Henry Luce’s celebrated essay, “The American Century” that he published in Life magazine in 1941 is suggestive. The essay popularized the notion that the twentieth century would be an American century, an idea that still remains influential. It should be noted, however, that the “American century” here included far more than the military and economic power of the United States. As noted already, such power has played only a limited role in the making of contemporary history. The seventy-year period since 1941 may indeed have been a period of preponderant American influence, but Luce himself asserted that such influence would entail much more than military and economic factors and would embrace the spread of the nation’s ideas, ideals, and lifestyle to other parts of the world so as to transform them. To use a term that would become popular much later, what he was suggesting was that America’s “soft power” would be as crucial a determinant of its transformative influence as its “hard power.” Simply put, there was the conviction that if the United States were to transform the world, it would not primarily be through the superiority of its military hardware or natural resources and productivity but through the cultural activities of the American people. Exactly the same kind of belief was expressed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his “four freedoms” speech in January 1941 and in the Atlantic Charter announced jointly by him and Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill in August of that year.

To the extent that the world has been “Americanized” since 1941, it is fundamentally through the influence of the American people’s belief in such principles as democracy, freedom, justice, and equality, and through the open society they have sought to build on the basis of those ideals. Of course, they have not always been put into practice, and even today there are Americans who remain close-minded. One may even cite instances where people in other countries are more “American” than the Americans in their espousal of justice and openness. This, too, is an aspect of the Americanization of the world. In other words, the “American century” should be understood as the process through transnational efforts to promote human rights, to protect the natural environment, or to extend assistance to refugees. Such efforts have been made not just through government initiatives but also through individuals and non-state actors. This may be said to be a very “American” phenomenon. To seek to transform the world not through relying on states and governments but through individuals and non-state actors – this has been a core phenomenon in the world since the second half of the twentieth century and constitutes the key to the phenomenon of the “American century.”

The Americanization of the world through private initiatives to such an extent that people everywhere become “Americanized” – conversely, the process through which the Americans become less unique – this is a major development in recent history. The history of U.S.-Japan relations must be placed in such a context. The alliance has lasted as long as it has not simply, or even primarily, because of its geopolitical contributions but because of the intimate connections that the Americans and Japanese have built through the sharing of common visions and a commitment to building better domestic and international communities. In the process, the Japanese have become “Americanized,” and it may even be said that Americans have become “Japanized,” in other words, they both have come to share a great deal with the rest of the world as it has been transformed during the last seventy years.

A Delicate Balance

How would U.S.-Japan relations evolve in the future? The question can best be understood by recognizing that the key to the continuation of a close relationship between the two countries lies in the degree to which they continue to transform, or “Americanize,” the globe.

The term “Americanization” is sometimes used interchangeably with “globalization.” But we should recognize that globalization entails much more than economic interconnections among nations. Actually, the globalization of capital and production has often led to a widening gap between the rich and the poor in many countries, as well as bringing about occasional “bubbles” and their collapse. But globalization would mean something different if we put it in the context of Americanization, that is, global transformation under the influence of the United States. Globalization in the sense, for instance, of expanding networks of popular movements to pursue democracy and justice, transnational organizations to cope with environmental disasters, or the deepening contact among people of different races and cultural background would continue to define the world to come.

We may gain some historical perspective in exploring the phenomenon if we go back to the widespread crisis and disintegration of social and political order throughout the 1960s and to the efforts to define new arrangements undertaken in the 1970s and beyond. Suggestive in this context is a 1967 drama by the American playwright Edward Albee called A Delicate Balance. The play depicts a slow disintegration of a family whose members have defined and preserved some sort of balance for many years. The story may be taken as reflective of the sense of uncertainty felt in the United States and other societies during the 1960s. Within a family, a measure of balance is maintained through some shared rules governing the relationship between parent and child, husband and wife, or between the family’s members and their neighbors. These rules are enforced through words and gestures that are repeated from day to day. At one point, however, such rules cease to preserve order. The family’s members no longer take each other for granted, and neighbors now are seen as strangers. The result is the disappearance of balance or of order. It may be noted that what Albee described also became apparent in the world at large during the 1960s, as various studies suggest.

The question is how to re-establish balance and order after they have been undermined or lost. The so-called “establishment” may try to restore the old order before it had begun to break down. Conservatism provides the basic ideology for such an attempt. But the world since the 1960s never quite reverted to the earlier order. Neither the established state nor the ideology of conservatism succeeded in bringing back the old world. The subsequent transformation throughout the world suggests that once a balance is broken, it is next to impossible to re-create any system. Under the circumstances, efforts must be made to establish a new balance or order. The future of U.S.-Japan relations may be put in the same context. In order to preserve the close relationship between the two countries that has developed since the end of the Second World War, they would need to cooperate in constructing a new order.

The search has been going on since the collapse of the old order in the 1960s. In a way, we may characterize world history since the 1970s in terms of such an effort. And this search has been undertaken as much by individuals and civil societies as by governments. This itself is an important aspect of contemporary history. That is, the authority and prestige of states have eroded since the 1970s, and their roles have increasingly been ceded to non-state actors. Various world-shaking events of 2011 – the democratization movement in the Middle East known as “the Arab spring,” the Japanese government’s incompetence in coping with the nuclear radioactivity crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, the meltdown in Washington in the face of a serious fiscal crisis, riots in London that spread to other parts of Britain – all were indicative of national authorities’ ineptitude and people’s lack of faith in their government. We should note, however, that the dwindling faith in government and the growing activism on the part of non-state actors were phenomena that became noticeable in the 1970s. The same trend will continue in the near future. If, therefore, national authorities would not be capable of providing leadership in establishing a new order at home and globally, the key role would have to be played by civil societies everywhere and through transnational networks of individuals and their associations. It is not surprising that in all countries the number of non-governmental organizations began to grow phenomenally after the 1970s.

The Search for a New Order

To the extent that central or local governments cannot be replied upon to provide the necessary leadership, the only creators of a new balance would have to be citizens and their organizations.

Of course, there are all sorts of non-governmental organizations. Some, as typified by the Tea Party in the United States, are seeking to re-establish a conservative social and political order. But to the extent that they turn to state power and nationalism as agents for change, little constructive would result. We will instead have to turn to transnational non-government organizations to seek to create and fortify bridges connecting nations, races, and religions. Fundamentally, private citizens in all countries would be key. Of course, “citizens” nowadays are a more inclusive category than in the past. The British novelist Ian McEwan’s 2005 novel, Saturday, which depicts London in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist assault on the United States, reflects such awareness when its protagonist muses that in the contemporary world one’s “moral sympathy” extends to much greater circles than in the past and includes people far away who are to be considered one’s brothers and sisters, as well as foxes, laboratory mice, and even fish. In the past, the local community consisting of individuals who shared the schools, churches, and work places was the social unit, but now the sphere has become far wider, global and even planetary in including animals and plants in one’s universe. We must consider living together with them in seeking a world of shared well-being. We would have to build a society that is open to diverse races, ethnic groups, and religions, and that also seeks to preserve and protect the natural environment. The globe now includes fifty million refugees (half of whom live in their own countries), and at least five percent of the total world population are said to reside outside their own countries of birth. In such a world, where not just humans but also animals and plants are in danger of health hazards and even extinction through global warming and ecological disasters, and where the authority of, and trust in, state power has diminished, we must strive to strengthen a new kind of “moral sympathy.”

The future of U.S.-Japan relations must be put in such a context. Their partnership and alliance would only make sense if they were able to cope with such global crises. In order to do so, education at all levels – primary, secondary, citizenship – would be of critical importance. Extensive cooperation between educators, students, and intellectuals of the two countries is particularly important. (In this regard, it is regrettable that students in Japan appear to be inward looking, with little interest in meeting global challenges.) Ultimately, such efforts must go beyond just the two countries. If there develop networks of cooperation among citizens of all countries in dealing with environmental, refugee, education, and other problems, then the bilateral ties between the United States and Japan must merge into such global networks. The alliance will then have ceased to be purely bilateral and become part of a new global undertaking.

Until such a truly global community becomes a reality, regional communities may serve as a temporary solution. There already exist a number of transnational associations of nations. The European Union is the pre-eminent example, but we must remember that it is far more than just an economic entity. From the beginning, it had political and cultural significance in that its members pledged never to go to war against one another, and at the same time that they shared certain values and ideas together, including memory. The European Union is sometimes called a community of memory in that its members share the past, including wars and other tragedies as well as glorious developments, and that on this basis they would cooperate in dealing with immigration, environmental, and other pressing questions facing the region. Such a development, too, is part of the global transformation that began in the 1970s.

How about other parts of the globe? In the American continent, some historians argue that “Americanism” existed even before the European sense of community became evident. In the New World, there was from early on the awareness that the people there, both European newcomers and indigenous residents, developed their own unique history. Economically, too, there has long been an image of interdependence among the countries of North and South America. If, nevertheless, the American hemisphere has not yet developed as full a sense of clear regional identity as the European Union, it is in part because of the overriding influence and power of the United States, but more fundamentally because the continent faces both the Atlantic and the Pacific, so that in a sense it has two identities, Atlantic and Pacific. Of these two, the idea of an Atlantic community has long existed, promoted by Europeans, Canadians, and Americans since the eighteenth century. More recently, the western parts of Africa as well as the Caribbean have been incorporated into the image of a shared past embracing the wider Atlantic. Such an Atlantic identity is not identical with an American regional identity.

In the Pacific, there is a great deal that brings together the western sections of Canada and the United States as well as South America, along with Australia, New Zealand, Southeast and East Asia to such an extent that a Pacific regional community may be in the process of being established. The Trans-Pacific Partnership project is a good contemporary example. If, in addition to the European Union and the Atlantic community, something like the Trans-Pacific Partnership should develop, that, too, would make a major contribution to the making of a new global order. The future of U.S.-Japan relations must be considered in such a broad framework. The two countries’ close cooperation is urgently needed in the construction of a new transnational environment. The U.S.-Japan alliance would have to mean much more than geopolitical arrangements and should not seek to reverse the global trend toward a new balance. Its historic role would consist in reinforcing the trend toward the development of a new transnational world.

Note: This article was originally written in Japanese for “Gendai Sekaishi toshiteno Nichibei Kankei,” Chuo Koron, October 2011, pp.76-85. The author has written this article in English for use in Japan Echo Web, under permission from Chuo Koron Shinsha.