A Little More Gaiatsu, Please

I have been following U.S.-Japan summit meetings for 23 years. This one was rather disappointing. There are important real issues that the leaders of the two nations should discuss, but little of any importance emerged from their conversation. Both leaders missed opportunities to press the other on these issues.

First is the matter of the image of friendship. We no longer live in a world where international relations depend on the whim of absolute monarchs. So why do we put so much emphasis on the imagery of friendship between these two men? In our broad democracies, their personal friendship is irrelevant, but consistently in the past two decades the media focuses on the “chemistry” between our political leaders. The apparently friendly “Ron-Yasu” relationship between President Reagan and Prime Minister Nakasone was greeted with cheers. President Bush’s illness at dinner with Prime Minister Miyazawa became a metaphor for bilateral relations at the time. And a year later, the very stiff, unsmiling Prime Minister Miyazawa standing next to President Clinton became a symbol of the emerging Japanese government resistance in negotiations on trade and economics.

The image of closeness in this summit was entirely artificial. The decision to invite Koizumi to Camp David, having Bush personally drive Koizumi from the helipad in a golf cart, the casual setting without neckties, and the little game of catch with the baseball autographed by Bush (why not Ichiro?), were all scripted by staff people attempting to create an image of close friendship. What Bush and Koizumi really thought about each other we may never know, and I do not care to know.

All of this focus on image is especially reminiscent of the famous “Ron-Yasu” relationship. In fact, much of the Bush administration’s approach to relations with Japan seems reminiscent of the Reagan-era-especially the emphasis on security issues and the downplaying of economic issues. If “Junichiro” and “George” were not so hard to convert into a catchy phrase, the Bush administration might have copied this too. Actually, I am a bit surprised, since President Bush is fond of giving others funny nicknames.

More importantly, this meeting was a failed opportunity to discuss serious issues on which policies and attitudes differ. Prime Minister Koizumi should have been clear on Japan’s position concerning the Kyoto Protocol and the Bush administration’s decision to move forward with national missile defense. Whether Japan wants to agree with the Bush administration, or disagree, clarification is the starting point of discussion. Instead, he waffled. Prime Ministers Miyazawa, Hosokawa, Murayama, and Hashimoto had no difficulty in expressing disagreement with the Clinton administration trade policy toward Japan, and we survived those healthy disagreements without serious damage to the relationship. Why cannot Koizumi speak clearly on the environment and security?

Equally important, President Bush should not have given Prime Minister Koizumi unqualified, enthusiastic support for the economic reform package. By doing so, Bush appeared to be excessively eager to cultivate the image of bilateral friendship. Support was acceptable, but he should have added some gaiatsu on non-performing loans and macroeconomic policy. While observers of Japan both in and outside the administration have been encouraged by Prime Minister Koizumi’s rhetoric on reform, there is strong doubt as to whether he will actually move quickly and decisively on the bad loan problem. Bush’s completely uncritical comments conveyed none of the deep concern here, and thereby sent the wrong signal that Koizumi’s reform package is sufficient and that whatever he accomplishes will be acceptable.

Many readers may remember the strong pressure from the United States on these same economic issues in the spring of 1998. The President, Treasury Secretary Rubin, and Deputy Treasury Secretary Summers all spoke up sharply about the urgent need for action in Japan. That pressure created some resentment, but Japan was on the brink of a serious financial crisis and needed strong nudging from abroad. That nudging was important, and it worked. Today the situation is rapidly sliding in the same direction. Without strong gaiatsu this time, Koizumi’s banking reforms could end up weakly enforced and the economy in crisis.

Overall, this summit gives me the eerie feeling of having been transported back to the Cold War days of the 1980s. I don’t want artificial images of friendship; our bilateral relationship is broad, close, and friendly without artificiality. I do want honest discussion of real issues. Koizumi needs to be less like Nakasone, acting as a cheerleader for the United States, and more like Hashimoto, who could speak up when he disagreed with the United States. And Bush needs to be less like Cold-warrior Reagan and more realistic about the economic situation in Japan.

A Japanese-language version of this article appeared in the July 25, 2001 issue of Newsweek Japan.