Weekly Insights and Analysis

Calming Japan’s Jitters – Secretary Clinton’s First Stop: Tokyo

February 18, 2009

By Allen C. Choate

The Japanese foreign affairs establishment welcomed Secretary Hillary Clinton’s February 16-18 visit to Tokyo with a strong dose of positive pleasure and a tad of uncertainty–even anxiety.

The country is delighted by the fact that Secretary Clinton chose to make Tokyo her very first stop on her inaugural trip as Secretary of State. The visit has also derived considerable comfort from her recent repeated description of the Japan-U.S. alliance as the “cornerstone of U.S. policy in Asia.” Finally, the Japanese public seems very pleasantly surprised by the widely-reported — but still unconfirmed — news that Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University, the father of “smart power” and a knowledgeable observer on Japan-U.S. relations, has been offered the role of U.S. Ambassador to Japan by the Obama administration.

However, Japan is also a little nervous about how the Obama administration will handle this bilateral alliance in both the near-term and the long-term. Japanese politicians from both the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition Democrat Party have a tendency to over-simplify. They have regarded the alliance as stronger when American Republican administrations are in power than when Democrats are. Many Japanese political leaders reflect on President Bill Clinton’s administration as an era of “Japan passing.” China, in their eyes, received more attention from the United States, at the expense of Japan. For example, the U.S. pressured Japan on trade issues during a period of Japanese economic stagnation – making the 1990s the so-called “lost decade.”

Today, Japan’s biggest long-term, strategic concern continues to be that the U.S. will focus its Asia policy and energies on China and neglect Japan.

Japanese worry that their country will be asked by the U.S. to foot some of the bill for American and international economic recovery. The American economic crisis, among other bad outcomes, has led to a significant increase in the value of the Japanese Yen. This, in turn, has produced a dramatic down-turn in Japanese exports. The latest report on the Japanese economy, released the day Secretary Clinton arrived, shows the worst economic downturn in that country in 35 years. There is a widespread perception here that the U.S. has yet to do enough to re-start its own economic engine. But there seems to be little sense of crisis in Japan that its own economy is faltering badly – in fact, GDP shrinkage in the last quarter was the worst by far of all the major world economies, the U.S. included.

Japan is also concerned that the U.S. may cut a deal with North Korea that focuses too much on non-proliferation, and not enough on complete denuclearization or the emotionally-charged Japanese abductee issue. Japanese politicians and diplomats are also bracing for increased pressure from the U.S. to do more on the stabilization and recovery of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. In anticipation of the latter, Japan recently announced a supplemental $300 million aid package for Afghanistan. Japan has also offered to host a Pakistan donor conference in the next few months. The U.S. has already responded by saying it would send Special Representative Richard Holbrooke to participate.

As for the other anxieties, Japanese leadership was waiting for what Secretary Clinton had to propose. But Secretary Clinton, in tune with the Obama administration’s promise to listen more to America’s Asian allies and friends, rather than ask things of them or dictate to them, did more listening than proposing. This is, after all, her first trip abroad as Secretary, and the Obama administration’s first month in office, with many key foreign policy positions as yet unfilled. While she did suggest that Japan could do more to stimulate its own economy, the rest of Secretary Clinton’s actions and comments during her Tokyo visit seemed to be calculated to re-assure Japan that it remains the key U.S ally in Asia.

Japanese leaders have an ideal opportunity to put their views and suggestions forward to the new U.S. administration with clarity and consensus. Unfortunately, domestic politics in Japan – even more than in the U.S. – are the strongest influence and greatest obstacle to Japan’s efforts to play its role as a major global power. As a consequence of being so tied up in partisan politics, in the words of one observer, Japan never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity in trying to increase its prestige and clout on the world stage. This was illustrated quite dramatically by the resignation of the Japan Finance Minister in the middle of Secretary Clinton’s visit in the face of public criticism of his allegedly inebriated behavior during the G-7 summit in Rome last weekend.

In short, Secretary Clinton had her work cut out for her to simply get the attention of a Japan that is distracted, self-marginalized, lacking confidence, and unsure about how the U.S. views it. But she seems to have gone about the task in just the right way. In addition to her formal meetings with the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and Defense Minister, she met with families of those abducted to North Korea, had a discussion with the head of the opposition Democratic Party (which stands a good chance of gaining power for the first time in the next Japanese election), spoke to students at Tokyo University, was constantly available to Japanese and international media, and showed respect for Japanese culture by visiting the Meiji Shrine and having a ceremonial tea with the Empress. To cap things off, she extended an invitation to Prime Minister Aso to be the guest of President Obama. Prime Minister Aso accepted, and will go to Washington February 24. He will be the first foreign leader to visit the Obama White House. That fact, along with Japan being the first country visited by the Obama administration’s Secretary of State should serve to calm Japanese jitters.

Allen Choate is based in Tokyo as The Asia Foundation’s Vice President for Partners in Asian Development. He can be reached at


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