Nicholas Szechenyi is Deputy Director and Fellow, Japan Chair at CSIS. Prior to joining CSIS, he was a news producer for Fuji Television in Washington, D.C. In 2000, he served as editor of an annual overview of US-Japan relations published by the Edwin O. Reischauer Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). From 1994 to 1998, he was a program associate at the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, where he administered more than 30 policy-oriented research projects on East Asian affairs. He received an M.A. in international economics and Japan studies from SAIS and a B.A. in Asian studies from Connecticut College.
Articles by Nicholas Szechenyi
Benefiting from a window of political stability, the Abe government continued to focus on the twin pillars of economic strategy and defense policy reform. Bilateral engagement on security, trade, and regional and global issues informed the agenda for the prime minister’s official visit to Washington in late April, the first by a Japanese leader in nine years. Abe also became the first Japanese leader to address a joint session of Congress and relayed the main themes from his summit with President Obama by reflecting on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, celebrating the evolution of the US-Japan alliance, and outlining a strategic vision for the future.
Weak economic data prompted Prime Minister Abe Shinzo to postpone painful tax increases and call a snap election to extend the window in which to advance his policy agenda. US-Japan negotiations on TPP slowed, but President Obama made his first significant public push in December on TPP. Discussions on revising the bilateral defense guidelines advanced somewhat but were extended into 2015 to better coincide with the legislative debate in Japan on defense policy. Trilateral coordination with Australia and South Korea reflected a shared commitment to network the alliance agenda. Public opinion surveys revealed a foundation of support for the US-Japan relationship across a range of issue areas. All of the bilateral agenda on defense and trade was aimed at a potential Abe visit to Washington in the spring.
The Abe government outlined an economic growth strategy and introduced a package of defense policy reforms aimed at enhancing Japan’s leadership role on security. Bilateral dialogue on security cooperation and military exercises featured prominently, complemented by trilateral coordination with other US allies on the margins of multilateral gatherings in the region. The two governments conducted several rounds of bilateral trade negotiations related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership but were unable to make progress on sensitive market access issues that threatened to prolong efforts to boost the economic pillar of the alliance.
The Abe government focused on the economy, energy strategy, and defense policy reform but the timeline for implementing these pillars of Abe’s agenda was uncertain. A flurry of bilateral diplomacy paved the way for various initiatives including a trilateral summit with South Korean President Park Geun-hye and President Obama in The Hague. Obama made a state visit to Japan highlighting areas for strategic cooperation between Japan and the United States but the two governments were not able to conclude a bilateral trade agreement that would strengthen the economic pillar of the alliance.
Prime Minister Abe continued to focus on the economy but also introduced diplomatic and defense strategies as his first year in office came to a close. The US and Japanese governments participated in TPP trade negotiations and bilateral talks but could not resolve differences on agricultural liberalization and market access for automobiles. A meeting of the bilateral Security Consultative Committee set forth priorities for defense cooperation, and China’s announcement of its East China Sea ADIZ put bilateral coordination to the test. The governor of Okinawa approved a landfill permit for the Futenma Replacement Facility on Okinawa, establishing some momentum for the realignment of US forces there. Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine disappointed the Obama administration and sparked major debate in the US, but was not expected to upend bilateral diplomacy.
Prime Minister Abe focused intently on economic policy and led his Liberal Democratic Party to a resounding victory in the July Upper House election, securing full control of the Diet and a period of political stability that bodes well for his policy agenda. Multilateral gatherings in Asia yielded several opportunities for bilateral and trilateral consultations on security issues, and the economic pillar of the alliance also took shape with Japan’s entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and discussions on energy cooperation. Comments on sensitive history issues sparked controversy but did not derail bilateral diplomacy. The nomination of Caroline Kennedy as US ambassador to Japan marks a new chapter in the relationship.
Prime Minister Abe Shinzo generated a buzz in the media and the markets by introducing a three-pronged economic strategy designed to change expectations for growth as his ruling Liberal Democratic Party prepares for a parliamentary election in July. President Obama hosted Abe in Washington for a summit that paved the way for Japan’s inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations. Bilateral coordination on regional security and defense cooperation accelerated with high-level visits in both capitals to reaffirm the vitality of the alliance. The reemergence this spring of tensions between Japan and its neighbors over history issues was the only wrinkle in an extremely productive period in US-Japan relations.
The Liberal Democratic Party won a Lower House election in a landslide and Abe Shinzo became prime minister for the second time amid public frustration with poor governance and anemic economic growth. The United States and Japan continued a pattern of regular consultations across a range of bilateral and regional issues with tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands and another North Korean missile launch topping the diplomatic agenda. The US military presence on Okinawa also featured with the deployment of the V-22 Osprey aircraft to Okinawa and the arrest of two US servicemen in the alleged rape of a Japanese woman. The year came to a close with Prime Minister Abe hoping for a visit to Washington early in 2013 to establish a rapport with President Obama and follow through on his election pledge to revitalize the US-Japan alliance.
Prime Minister Noda advanced a legislative package on tax and social security reform but faced stiff political headwinds in the form of a frustrated public and a jaded opposition steeling for an election. Japanese concerns over the safety of the MV-22 Osprey aircraft scheduled for deployment in Okinawa dominated the bilateral agenda – at least in the media – and tested the mettle of Japan’s widely-respected new defense minister. The two governments agreed to continue consultations on Japan’s interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) but political paralysis in Japan and presidential politics in the United States could complicate efforts to make progress in the near term. Two reports issued over the summer addressing US force posture strategy in the Asia-Pacific and the agenda for US-Japan alliance, respectively, focused on the future trajectory for the bilateral relationship.
After three tumultuous and frustrating years as the DPJ tried to find its legs, Prime Minister Noda finally visited Washington. Noda has been busy pursuing an increase in the consumption tax, trying to gain support for some continuation of nuclear power, cobbling together domestic support for Japanese participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, and facing the perennial struggle on relocating Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Okinawa. By the time of his visit, Noda had started to line up support for the consumption tax, backed off temporarily on TPP, and waited on restarting nuclear plants. However, he did manage to complete an agreement to de-link the move of about 9,000 US Marines to Guam and other locations in the Pacific from the Futenma relocation issue. That announcement was a rare victory and set a positive tone for the summit and the joint statement pledged to revitalize the alliance. The prime minister returned home to face the same domestic political challenges, but with an important if limited accomplishment in foreign policy.
Prime Minister Noda accomplished important steps including the selection of the F-35 as Japan’s next-generation fighter, relaxing the three arms export principles, and announcing a decision to join negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – all of which demonstrated the current Japanese government’s readiness to revive the economy and strengthen security ties and capabilities. At the same time, the government’s support rate began to collapse in a pattern eerily similar to Noda’s five predecessors, raising questions about the ability of the government to follow through on the more challenging political commitments related to TPP. President Obama met Noda at the United Nations in New York and at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Hawaii in an active season of bilateral diplomacy. Public opinion surveys revealed generally positive views of the US-Japan relationship in both countries but the impasse over relocating Marine Corps Air Station Futenma fueled negative perceptions in Japan.
Kan Naoto resigned as prime minister on Aug. 26 after promising to step aside almost three months earlier amid dissension within his ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and dwindling public support after a clumsy response to the tragedies of March 11. He was succeeded by Finance Minister Noda Yoshihiko, who prevailed in the DPJ presidential race despite little evidence of support in the polls, but strong backing within the party. The US and Japan convened the first Security Consultative Committee or “2+2” in four years to outline common strategic objectives and strengthen alliance cooperation in a regional and global setting. The two governments also consulted on the margins of international events to discuss cooperation on various issues. Vice President Joseph Biden visited Japan in late August to reiterate US support for the recovery effort and met victims of the disaster in Tohoku. Public opinion polls in Japan and the United States revealed a solid foundation of support for the US-Japan alliance.
The earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that struck Japan on March 11 tested the leadership credentials of the Kan government and the capacity for alliance coordination in response to simultaneous crises. With the exception of disconnects in assessing the nature of the nuclear emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the March 11 tragedy revealed the strength of the alliance as the Obama administration further demonstrated US solidarity with Japan by announcing a partnership for reconstruction to support Japan’s recovery. Prime Minister Kan reshuffled his Cabinet for the second time and unveiled a policy agenda aimed at “the opening of Japan” but faced scrutiny for failing to usher budget-related legislation through a divided Diet. Bilateral diplomacy proceeded apace and was aimed at advancing economic and security cooperation though a controversy over alleged remarks about Okinawa by a senior US diplomat had the potential to cause another crisis in the alliance.
Prime Minister Kan Naoto opened the quarter with a speech promising a government that would deliver on domestic and foreign policy, but public opinion polls indicated he was failing on both fronts, damaging his own approval rating and that of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The US and Japanese governments continued a pattern of coordination at senior levels and North Korea’s bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23 furthered trilateral diplomacy with South Korea and exchanges among the three militaries. President Obama met with Kan on the margins of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leader’s Meeting in Yokohama to take stock of the relationship, though a once-anticipated joint declaration on the alliance did not materialize and the optics of the meeting appeared designed to lower expectations as the Futenma relocation issue remained unresolved. A bilateral public opinion survey on US-Japan relations released at the end of the quarter captured the current dynamic accurately with Futenma contributing to less sanguine views but convergence in threat perception and an appreciation for the role of the alliance in maintaining regional security as encouraging signs for the future.
The ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) suffered an embarrassing defeat in the July Upper House election less than a year after assuming power. Prime Minister Kan Naoto subsequently took a beating in the polls but managed to withstand a challenge from former DPJ Secretary General Ozawa Ichiro in a party presidential election marked by heated debate over economic policy. Political turmoil did not preclude active diplomacy on the part of Kan’s government, nor coordination between Washington and Tokyo on a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues including the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma on Okinawa; a collision between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku Islands; and sanctions on Iran to condemn its nuclear activities. The quarter came to a close with President Obama and Prime Minister Kan taking stock of a rapidly developing bilateral agenda during a brief yet productive meeting on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, setting the stage for the president’s trip to Japan in November.
The relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Okinawa remained the predominant issue in the US-Japan relationship and the two governments issued a joint statement in late May reaffirming a commitment to realize a plan adopted in 2006 with some modifications to be explored. Prime Minister Hatoyama then resigned as polls revealed frustration with his handling of the Futenma issue and weak leadership overall. Finance Minister Kan Naoto succeeded Hatoyama as premier and outlined his own policy priorities just weeks before an important parliamentary election. Kan stressed the centrality of the US-Japan alliance to Japanese diplomacy and reiterated the theme in his first meeting with President Obama at the G8 Summit in late June. The two leaders’ first meeting was business-like and lacking for drama – exactly as both governments had hoped. New public opinion polls suggested political turmoil at home has not had a significant impact on Japan’s standing globally or in the US, but some observers continued to suggest the US should lower expectations of Japan as an ally in the debate about the future of the alliance.
Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio moved to implement his domestic policy agenda with an eye toward the Upper House elections this summer but watched his approval rating fall as he and members of his ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) were beset by political fundraising scandals. The impasse over the relocation of Marine Air Station Futenma continued to dominate the bilateral agenda and alternative proposals put forth by the Hatoyama government failed to advance the discussion. Concerns about barriers to US exports and the restructuring of Japan Post emerged in commentary by the Obama administration and congressional leaders but a joint statement highlighting cooperation on the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) reinforced the economic pillar of the relationship. The Toyota hearings in Congress were covered extensively by media in both countries but did not have an immediate impact on US-Japan relations. However, the recall issue and other developments point to potentially negative perceptions that could cloud official efforts to build a comprehensive framework for the alliance over the course of the year, the 50th anniversary of the 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty.
In the last quarter of 2009, the US-Japan alliance entered one of the greatest periods of uncertainty in recent memory. Many of the populist policy proposals of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) fell by the wayside as the party settled into power after trouncing the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in August elections. Fiscal and political realities forced Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio to shelve several key domestic pledges. On the foreign policy front, the new government announced Japan would terminate a naval refueling mission supporting coalition operations in Afghanistan, as it had pledged during the campaign, but unveiled a $5 billion aid package focused on infrastructure and vocational training. President Obama and Prime Minister Hatoyama met in Tokyo in November to discuss Afghanistan and several other issues including North Korea, nonproliferation, and climate change. However, the summitry did little to conceal Washington’s frustration with Tokyo’s conflicting messages about the US-Japan alliance. Obama came away from the summit believing that Hatoyama had promised to implement the current bilateral agreement on realigning bases in Okinawa; instead, Hatoyama announced that he would make a decision on how to proceed in the late spring after exploring other options that the Obama administration and Hatoyama’s own ministers of foreign affairs and defense had already dismissed as unrealistic. The Obama administration was also chagrined to see Hatoyama pledge to other Asian leaders that Japan would move forward with an ill-defined “East Asia Community” in order to reduce Tokyo’s “dependence” on the United States. Public opinion polls in Japan revealed dissatisfaction with Hatoyama’s approach to the Okinawa issue and his leadership skills overall, while opinions toward the US hit their highest mark ever. Nevertheless, the difficulties managing the alliance cast a shadow over bilateral discussions on how to mark the 50th anniversary of the bilateral security treaty in 2010.
Hatoyama Yukio led the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to a landslide victory in the Aug. 30 Lower House election and was elected prime minister after a spirited campaign for change both in the form and substance of policymaking. Exit polls showed that the public had grown weary of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) but had not necessarily embraced the agenda of the coalition government Hatoyama would subsequently form with an eye toward consolidating power in an Upper House election next summer. Though the election centered primarily on domestic policy, Hatoyama began his tenure by outlining foreign policy priorities during visits to the UN in New York and the G20 summit in Pittsburgh less than a week after he took office.
The Obama administration emphasized respect and patience as Japan experienced a transition to a non-LDP government for only the second time since 1955. Senior U.S. officials visited Tokyo for consultations soon after the election and prepared for the first meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Hatoyama in New York on Sept. 23. The leaders reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance and set the stage for a visit to Japan by Obama in November. The quarter ended with good atmospherics but also questions about the extent to which Hatoyama would try to implement several campaign pledges – such as renegotiating the realignment plan for U.S. forces on Okinawa – with the potential to strain bilateral ties.
Most analysts had thought this quarter would begin with the dissolution of the Lower House of the Diet and elections, but Prime Minister Aso Taro put off the election with the hope that additional economic stimulus measures would translate into increased support for his ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The stimulus package helped a bit, but Aso received a real boost when Ozawa Ichiro resigned as opposition leader in May due to a funding scandal. That boost in the polls quickly evaporated when Ozawa was succeeded as head of the Democratic Party of Japan by Hatoyama Yukio. Revelations that an aide had falsified his political funding reports for several years tarnished Hatoyama’s image, but did not help Aso and the government raise their support rate beyond the low teens in many polls. As a result, most analysts continued to predict a victory for the DPJ in a general election expected in August and uncertainty continued hanging over the U.S.-Japan relationship because neither political party in Japan is likely to win a landslide – meaning another year or more of parliamentary gridlock.
Japan’s political mess did not get in the way of close U.S.-Japan coordination in response to a series of North Korean provocations, including missile tests and the detonation of a nuclear device. President Obama also made progress in nominating key personnel to guide the U.S.-Japan relationship including the nomination of attorney John Roos for ambassador to Japan and the confirmation of Kurt Campbell as assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs. The quarter came to a close with the U.S. Congress gearing up for a budgetary battle with the Obama administration over the future of the F-22 stealth fighter, which the Aso administration has said it wants to buy, and Secretary of Defense Gates has said he does not intend to sell.
A new calendar year did little to change the tenor of Japanese domestic politics as the public became increasingly frustrated with parliamentary gridlock and the leadership of Prime Minister Aso Taro, whose approval rating plummeted amid a deepening recession. Opposition leader Ozawa Ichiro continued pressure tactics against the government and became the favorite to succeed Aso until the arrest of a close aide damaged his reputation and stunted momentum for a snap election. Aso demonstrated the art of political survival, touting the urgency of economic stimulus over a poll he could easily lose and which need not take place until the fall. In an effort to prevent political turmoil from weakening Japan’s global leadership role, the government dispatched two Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) destroyers to participate in antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
The Obama administration wasted little time in establishing a positive trajectory for the U.S.-Japan alliance, first sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Tokyo in mid-February and receiving Prime Minister Aso at the White House shortly thereafter. The core agenda items for both visits – the economic crisis, North Korea, Afghanistan, and climate change – reflected both regional and global challenges. Bilateral issues also featured prominently on the agenda in the form of an agreement on the relocation of U.S. forces from Okinawa to Guam. In a fitting end to a quarter of close bilateral coordination, Washington and Tokyo were poised to monitor an anticipated missile test by North Korea and orchestrate a cohesive response that could determine the fate of the Six-Party Talks.
The quarter began with President Bush and Prime Minister Fukuda meeting on the sidelines of the G8 summit in Hokkaido, but their bilateral agenda and Fukuda’s own premiership were eclipsed by dramatic political and economic developments in both countries. Fukuda resigned suddenly on Sept. 1 having failed to convince the public he could strengthen the economy and move important legislation through a divided legislature. Aso Taro won the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential race in a landslide and began his tenure as prime minister stressing economic stimulus measures, the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance, and Japan’s role as a global leader, but with uncertainty about whether his government would even survive to the end of the year. Ozawa Ichiro was re-elected president of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and touted a populist manifesto to woo the public in anticipation of a Lower House election this fall. Meanwhile, the U.S. government struggled to contain a financial crisis that rattled world markets, prompting Japanese banks to take major stakes in ailing U.S. businesses. A successful ballistic missile defense test in September augured well for sustained bilateral defense cooperation, assuming defense budgets survive the current financial turmoil. And North Korea’s move toward reprocessing plutonium at Yongbyon threatened to erase the diplomatic progress made in the Six-Party Talks at a time when leaders in Washington and Tokyo already had plenty of diplomatic challenges and tough domestic elections to manage.
The debate in the Japanese Diet remained contentious this quarter as opposition parties challenged the Fukuda government on several legislative issues including the gasoline tax, a new health insurance program for the elderly, and host nation support for U.S. forces. Fukuda’s approval rating fell suddenly due to public dissatisfaction with his domestic policy agenda but later rebounded enough to quell rumors of a Cabinet reshuffle prior to the Hokkaido G8 Summit in July. The arrest in early April of a U.S. serviceman charged with murdering a taxi driver in Yokosuka brought negative publicity for U.S. forces.
Japanese anxieties also continued to mount as the U.S. prepared to lift terrorism-related sanctions on North Korea as part of the Six-Party Talks, despite earlier pledges that this would not be done without progress on the abductee issue. President Bush did announce his intention to lift those sanctions on June 26, but his strong reaffirmation of support for Japan on the abductee issue helped to assuage some of the concerns in Tokyo. It also helped that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stressed during the G8 foreign ministers meeting in Kyoto that the U.S. actions would be reversed if North Korea’s claims could not be verified; a message of reassurance Bush would likely echo and broaden during his visit to Japan in July. All of this took place as the Japanese public paid close attention to the U.S. presidential race and as the candidates took their debate into the pages of Japanese newspapers. Speculation also persisted about possible dissolution of the Diet and new elections in Japan sometime in the next year.
Japanese domestic politics was in turmoil this quarter due to a divided legislature and the opposition’s efforts to block several key pieces of legislation in an attempt to force Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo out of office. The deadlock centered almost exclusively on economic issues, much to the dismay of U.S. investors who have increasingly begun to question the ability of the political leadership in Japan to manage the economy. The Fukuda administration signaled Japan’s sustained commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance and a leadership role in international security by passing a bill re-authorizing Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) refueling operations in the Indian Ocean. But a collision between an MSDF Aegis-equipped destroyer and a fishing boat near Tokyo in February, coupled with continued fallout from a bribery scandal last fall, forced the government to focus more on structural reform at the Defense Ministry at the expense of new policy initiatives. Rape allegations against a U.S. soldier stationed in Okinawa and the detainment of another as a murder suspect sparked demonstrations against the U.S. military presence in Japan, though the two governments worked closely to prevent a crisis. Bilateral coordination on the Six-Party Talks continued and there were hints of renewed interest in a trilateral consultation framework with South Korea. Several events in Washington were dedicated to the U.S.-Japan alliance and brought public attention to pressing issues and ideas that might inform a bilateral agenda going forward.
Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo outlined his foreign policy agenda in an address to the Diet, highlighting – as did his predecessors Abe Shinzo and Koizumi Junichiro – the U.S.-Japan alliance and international cooperation as the foundations of Japanese diplomacy. But legislation authorizing Japan’s naval refueling mission in the Indian Ocean became a political football in a divided legislature and expired on Nov. 1, forcing Fukuda to draft a new bill and extend the Diet session twice in an attempt to continue Japan’s support for the war on terror. Fukuda noted the importance of the bill during a November summit with President Bush in Washington that also covered other issues including the Six-Party Talks and concerns in Japan about a perceived shift in the U.S. position on Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. Other developments such as a new agreement on host nation support for U.S. forces in Japan and a successful sea-based missile defense test demonstrated forward trajectory for alliance cooperation. Yet the quarter ended with other issues unresolved, namely Japan’s suspension of Indian Ocean refueling operations and Pyongyang’s failure to come clean on its nuclear programs.
The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was defeated in the July 29 Upper House election and lost its majority to a coalition led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Abe Shinzo vowed to stay on as prime minister despite calls for his resignation, reshuffling his Cabinet in late August and then continuing diplomatic initiatives in meetings with President George W. Bush and others at the APEC summit in Sydney. However, presented with news from his doctors that his ulcer-related health problems were now chronic and facing intractable opposition from DPJ leader Ozawa Ichiro to an extension of the government’s counterterrorism law in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Abe suddenly resigned a week after the Sydney summit. The quarter came to a close with Fukuda Yasuo succeeding Abe and vowing to forge ahead with economic reforms and strong support in the war against terror. But Fukuda only has three months to win back public support as the Diet could deadlock during contentious budget negotiations early next year, forcing an election for the more powerful Lower House by the spring. Such a showdown seems likely, given Ozawa’s pledge of a no-holds-barred fight to destroy the LDP.