In a country in which “McDonald’s” is so difficult to pronounce that they instead settled on “Mac,” it’s Donald Trump’s good fortune that his last name is one of the easiest of English names for a Japanese to pronounce and one of the most familiar, for it is the word Japanese use, borrowed from the British, when referring to playing cards. For most Japanese it’s practically a Japanese word learned from childhood and as an American growing up in Japan it was a word I heard often. I spent most of the first 18 years of my life looking at America and American Presidents through the lens of the Japanese people and although many foreign policy watchers who monitor the U.S.-Japan relationship are deeply concerned by the prospects of a Trump presidency vis-a-vis Japan, I see opportunities.
Over the last year I wrote extensively about the possibility, even the likelihood, of a Trump presidency and I shared that information with a number of Japanese friends including government officials. While my American friends thought I was merely crazy, my Japanese friends were simply dumbfounded that such a thing could even be remotely possible. For a nation run by the grandson of a Prime Minister, it is simply unthinkable that a pop culture figure like Trump could be elected President. I explained to them that he was akin to Tamori, a popular fixture of Japanese television for the last 35 years, and that he was likely to garner the votes even of people who disagreed with his politics because of his unorthodox message and familiarity and because we are living in a celebrity culture. After the election, I received more than a few emails from my Japanese friends who remembered my prediction and with a mixture of fear and amazement, wondered what comes next.
It’s a question I’ve had many opportunities to think about over the years in various capacities I’ve worked in in which I’ve often found myself explaining one side to the other. I spent the 1990s reporting daily from the U.S. for radio stations FM Yokohama and Tokyo FM and producing documentaries and hosting a television show for Japan’s flagship NHK TV Network. Although the express purpose of my show was for Japanese to learn English, I was hoping to give my viewers a window into the American soul, a window that was often fogged over by media in both countries which tended to report what was of interest to people in places like New York, Los Angeles Osaka and Tokyo, but didn’t reflect the rest of our respective countries. I spent dozens of episodes interviewing well known figures like Larry King, Jay Leno, Charlton Heston, Snoopy creator Charles Schulz and Japan historian Chalmers Johnson, but I also made it a point to interview farmers, preachers, city planners and firefighters so that my viewers could understand the real America by meeting Americans who didn’t make the news-the kind of people that elected Trump last week.
Another of those guests, the late researcher George Gallup Jr., became a friend and later, a collaborator. I had shared with him a desire to increase understanding between the two countries and we decided to team up and produce a documentary, Japan: Searching For The Dream.
Utilizing George’s Gallup Organization, we conducted extensive research of the Japanese people and George later observed of our work: “In my 50 years of polling, there has been no study that I would consider as important as this one.”
While my knowledge of Japan was instinctual, George’s was data driven and together we learned many interesting and surprising things about the Japanese people, about their hopes, dreams and fears for their future. And Japan has much to fear. A collapsing birthrate means that unless something radically changes, it will literally disappear, leaving one Japanese standing by the year 3000. A steady and far too high suicide rate and the plight of Japanese youth, a million of whom are severely depressed enough to stay indoors, does not indicate a healthy future for a once thriving nation.
But another and very current fear among the Japanese is what a Trump presidency will mean for them. Will he withdraw American troops who have served as a stabilizing force in the region? Will he demand that Japan become a nuclear power, against a majority of its citizens as well as its neighbors’ wishes? Will he launch a trade war against Japan and China, with no distinction made between their respective statuses as a vibrant and stable democracy and friend to the U.S. and a repressive Communist regime hostile to American values and interests? These are the known unknowns that are on the minds of both ordinary Japanese and their leaders.
All of this comes on the heels of a Japan-U.S. relationship that has deteriorated over time not because of any overt action, but simply from atrophy. In the post World War II construct, Japan has always believed that it has a special relationship with the United States above all others, with the possible exception of the U.S.-British relationship. It had never been fully conquered by a foreign power and the dignified manner in which the United States conducted itself after Japan’s surrender was never forgotten and goodwill gestures like the return of the island of Okinawa, an unthinkable act in the context of world history, were duly noted and appreciated. I felt this gratitude firsthand as a child when on more than one occasion I was confronted by inebriated elderly men on trains who would commonly say things like “Thank you MacArthur,” a reference to General Douglas MacArthur who oversaw Japan’s rehabilitation.
That closeness reached its zenith in 1983 when Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and President Ronald Reagan began to call each other by their first names. I had a chance to hear the story first hand from Nakasone himself when I visited with him in connection with a film I’m producing.
At their first meeting Reagan asked Nakasone, “what does your wife call you at home?” to which Nakasone replied “Yasu.” “Well, Yasu, my name is Ron,” replied Reagan and with that, the fabled “Ron-Yasu” relationship, signaling a new era of closeness, was born. Although subsequent administrations on both sides continued a spirit of general cooperation, Japan’s never-ending recession and America’s involvement in the Middle East and its own economic malaise meant the two nations were preoccupied with other problems and were to some extent unable to focus on their relationship.
But like a marriage that is strained but never beyond renewal, the Japan-U.S. relationship can be fixed with more attention to the things the two nations have in common as well as the common challenges they face and a good place to start is to return to that winter day in 1983 when Reagan and Nakasone first met. Like them, Trump and Abe are powerful figures who share a goal of revitalizing their nations’ sagging spirits and creating a vibrant economy that will benefit both nations. Trump is no ideologue but a people person for whom policy follows relationships, and, by quickly establishing a firm “Donald-Shinzo” relationship, Abe may prove to be a strong partner for Trump on the world stage in much the manner Nakasone was to Reagan.
Although he was known as a strong leader himself, recalling Reagan, Nakasone told me he considered Reagan to be a “leader of leaders” and at a particularly pivotal moment when many of the other leaders on the world stage were giving Reagan heartburn at the Williamsburg summit, Nakasone told Reagan that he would be the pitcher and Nakasone the catcher, but, he reminded him, sometimes pitchers have to take signals from the catcher. Reagan eagerly agreed with the proposition and Nakasone’s intervention in support of the U.S. determination to place Pershing II missiles in Europe helped Reagan’s argument win the day.
In that same spirit, a “Donald-Shinzo” relationship could revitalize the U.S.-Japan relationship that could provide a model for the rest of the world. The first task will be for Japan to realize that TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) as we know it, is dead with no hope of salvage. But out of the rubble can grow a new bilateral agreement between the two nations that accomplishes many of the same objectives with the possibility of later allowing other nations to join it. That same bilateral spirit may lead the two nations to work more closely on the world stage to combat terrorism, perhaps joined at a later date by Russia to form a trilateral relationship that would focus on rolling back terrorism and later find other areas of common agreement.
Like all good pitcher-catcher relationships, sometimes the pitcher accepts the catcher’s signals and sometimes he shakes them off and asks for another. Although it’s not likely that he’ll actually withdraw American forces from Japan or demand that she go nuclear, President-elect Trump has already sent some signals of this own―that he wants Japan to bear a greater share of the burden that it pays for the U.S. to defend her and that he wants as much access to Japan’s markets for American businesses as Japanese businesses have in the U.S. It will be incumbent on Abe to, like all good catchers, be prepared with a variety of signals as he meets with a President who has received a mandate from the American people that while they accept the unique American responsibility of protecting their friends around the world, they do not want to be taken advantage of. One symbolic but nonetheless important such signal of good will that Abe might send is to unilaterally announce that Japan will no longer charge the United States the modest rent it is said to charge for use of the property in Tokyo that houses the American embassy.
In the town I grew up in in Japan I had only one choice if I wanted to have friends in the neighborhood: to reach beyond the cultural divide, find common areas of interest and learn to speak to one another. Adult relationships and those of nations are much the same and the election of our most unlikely President combined with the presence of a strong Japanese leader provides unique opportunities for the American-Japanese relationship to thrive.
At the conclusion of my brief time with another of Japan’s consequential prime ministers, as we paused to have our photograph taken together, one of his aides showed the near centenarian Nakasone a copy of a letter to the editor I had written as a teenager in support of him.
“During your most difficult days people like him were supporting you,” I heard his aide tell him, and at that moment he reached for my hand just as the photographer captured the moment. For me it was yet another reminder of the need for the United States and Japan to continue to support one another, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, in a world filled with bad actors and hostile players and to face the future together.