TOKYO -- Japanese and U.S. diplomats are working hard to lay the groundwork for a successful summit when President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan in April.
They have their work cut out for them because of one fundamental issue that continues to hinder smoother ties: Obama and his administration represent the Democratic Party, while Japanese lawmakers, bureaucrats and even journalists tend to have a soft spot for the Republican Party.
There are three main reasons for this preference. The first is geographical. Like Alaska, a state that predominantly votes Republican, Japan is physically close to Russia. During the Cold War, Alaska was America's "front-line" state in the faceoff with the Soviet Union. Since 1960, the Republican Party has won every presidential vote in Alaska except for the 1964 race.
In the Cold War era, Japan was in a similar position regarding the Soviet Union. Today, China is the big threat. Like Alaska, Japan tends to embrace the Republican Party's more hawkish stance toward potential adversaries.
The second reason is historical. Democratic U.S. presidents have baggage that does not sit well with Japanese. Woodrow Wilson rejected Japan's proposal for racial equality at the Versailles meeting in 1919. Franklin Roosevelt forced Japanese-Americans into internment camps during World War II. Harry Truman authorized the use of atomic bombs against Japan.
Republican leaders, by contrast, have scored important points in Japan. Dwight Eisenhower agreed to revise the Japan-U.S. security treaty, Richard Nixon authorized the return of Okinawa to Japan and Ronald Reagan apologized to Japanese-Americans who were forcibly relocated during the war.
The third reason is psychological. The Liberal Democratic Party and the Republican Party are both conservative. Left-of-center parties took power both in Japan and the U.S. in 2009, creating an opportunity to establish strong ties between them. But the Democratic Party of Japan's Yukio Hatoyama, the prime minister at that time, failed to do so.
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Differences between the two U.S. parties vis-a-vis Japan go all the way to the level of senior policymakers. While former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, a Republican, is known to understand Japanese sensibilities, the Democrats do not appear to have such a Japan expert in their top ranks.
Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and leading expert on Japan among Democrats, is a gifted political scientist and polymath who studied music in the Soviet Union. Although he had a military career, he took a different path from Armitage, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. Campbell has a reputation as a logical intellectual, while Armitage is intuitive.
Michael Green, former senior director for Asian affairs at the White House and another Republican, developed a feel for how Japanese think while working as a reporter and assistant to a lawmaker in Japan. Green, whose father was a Democrat and whose mother was a Republican, had no political affiliation when he was young. He opted for the Republican Party based on his personal relationship with Armitage.
But the warmth that Japan could count on from the U.S. right appears to be fading. Even The Wall Street Journal said in an editorial that Abe's visit to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine a strategic liability. But Abe apparently felt the need to go to the Shinto shrine regardless of the consequences.
Washington pronounced itself "disappointed" with Abe's decision. It is hard to imagine Reagan administration, for example, issuing such a stern rebuke, particularly since Reagan was criticized for his 1985 visit to Germany's Bitburg cemetery, where German soldiers, including SS troops, are interred.
Faced with political deadlock at home and abroad, and with three years left in office, Obama faces the prospect of becoming "the longest-running lame duck president in modern U.S. history," according to Britain's Financial Times daily.
To succeed diplomatically, the Abe government will have to take practical steps with the Obama administration in such areas as the relocation of the Futenma air base in Okinawa Prefecture and the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact. Relations between the two countries can be productive and beneficial even if they are not warm and fuzzy.