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The Democracy Free US-Japan Alliance

SNA (Tokyo) — For decades, the US-Japan Alliance has become a democracy-free zone in which bilateral policy has been shaped by a handful of US government officials, who mainly represent the internal views of the US Department of Defense.

These US officials are, of course, both Republicans and Democrats. When one party captures the presidency, the other party is sent off to the major Washington thinktanks like the Center for Strategic and International Studies, biding their time until they can regain a senior government post.

These people—let’s call them the “Alliance Managers”—are very small group, and they all know each other very well.

Sayo Saruta, director of the New Diplomacy Initiative, is one of the few independent-minded Japanese citizens who has studied this community. She estimates that there are perhaps as few as five core Alliance Managers, with another couple of dozen individuals who are part of the community, but less influential in its thinking.

Republican or Democrat really makes little difference because “membership” in the Alliance Manager community is mainly based upon subscribing to a few articles of faith, which cannot be questioned if one wants to maintain one’s “credibility” within this group.

Saruta elucidates these articles of faith as follows:

1) The US-Japan Alliance Must Be Further Strengthened
2) The US Military Presence in the Asia-Pacific Must Be Expanded
3) Free Trade Must Be Maintained

She adds, “If your opinion is slightly opposed to these three conditions, even if you object to only one of them, you cannot enter the Japan community in Washington. You will not be given the opportunity to state your opinion.”

The chokehold over US policy toward Japan that the Alliance Manager community has exercised has a number of major implications.

First, on the US side, it means that ordinary voters have close to zero impact on Japan policy through national elections. If an Establishment Republican becomes president, they get Michael Green and his friends. If an Establishment Democrat becomes president, they get Kurt Campbell and his friends. And what’s the difference between Michael Green and Kurt Campbell? Nothing much.

The election of the anti-establishment Donald Trump has, admittedly, disrupted this comfortable system to a degree, largely because most undersecretary positions have yet to be filled, and also because Trump’s “management style” is chaos in which he personally must always have the starring role. Nevertheless, it’s likely only a matter of time before the Alliance Manager community recovers and once again exercises its grip on administration policy.

Another implication is that US scholars or bright graduate students who specialize in Japanese politics and international relations have a fundamental choice to make. They can embrace the Alliance Manager articles of faith and gain the prospect of becoming alliance managers themselves, or they can be independent thinkers and see their invitations to prestigious events in Washington quickly dry up.

Moreover, since so much of Japan studies in the United States has been funded by the Japanese government or by conservative organizations, there are very few jobs available for progressive scholars. Many of the brightest young minds, therefore, either trim their sails and speak carefully so as not to antagonize the Alliance Managers, or else they change their field of studies and move on to something else. The regrettable result is that, even within US academia, there are only a handful of outspokenly progressive Japan scholars. The ecosystem tends to weed them out.

On the Japan side, neither citizens nor governments have been allowed to challenge or question the Alliance Manager articles of faith, which is perhaps the biggest single factor that has made the Liberal Democratic Party into virtually the eternal ruling party of Japan.

During the Cold War, the US government was not above dirty tricks to keep the Japan Socialist Party out of power. During the Occupation, the purge was deployed against the left, even though its entire justification had been to root out militarist war criminals. There is now some documentation of CIA efforts to support the early Liberal Democratic Party, though after a while direct financial help wasn’t really needed.

The crystal clear case study that demonstrates that the Alliance Managers remain willing to overthrow any Japanese government that seriously challenges their articles of faith can be seen in the 2007-2010 period, when Ichiro Ozawa and Yukio Hatoyama had the temerity to act as if Japan were an independent country that could make its own basic foreign policy choices.

Hatoyama’s “East Asian Community” concept, in particular, had the Alliance Managers frothing at the mouth and signaling wildly to their many allies within the Japanese bureaucracy and conservative political parties that they wanted these guys out as quickly as possible.

The next two Democratic Party of Japan prime ministers did not dare to challenge the Alliance Managers on any major policy issue, and since December 2012 the Shinzo Abe regime has enthusiastically carried out, with conviction, the basic policies that the Washington Establishment desires from Tokyo.

Needless to say, Okinawa remains “Exhibit A” of the Alliance Manager contempt for the notion that democracy ought to play a role in bilateral policymaking.

The 1996 plan to relocate the US Marines from Futenma Air Base to a new facility at Henoko beach was itself the brainchild of some of the key Alliance Managers. Not surprisingly, it has since become the “Only Option” for Futenma relocation, as they state over and over and over again.

The fact that the people of Okinawa have put up fierce resistance against the Henoko plan for more than two decades is deeply annoying to the Alliance Managers. If that resistance could be crushed with an iron fist without making a big noise in the international media, they would certainly do so. For now they are mainly relying upon the Abe government to distribute bribes, crack heads, send in the bulldozers, and do whatever it takes to get the Henoko airbase built.

The last thing the Alliance Managers would ever consider—the very last thing—is that perhaps they ought to actually respect democracy and to make adjustments to their policies in accordance with the democratic will.

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