Trump, US Japan alliance, and the reincarnation of an independent Japan

The Grand Japanese Detachment

by Fatima Er-Rafia

Trump effect and the reincarnation
of an independent, strong Japan

The end of World War II rang the death knell of Japan’s expansionism in Asia. The U.S stopped it by dropping the infamous atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima and started interfering in Japan’s affairs. A look at US Japan alliance demonstrates that Japan has managed to extricate itself from the “annoying” American interference by adopting their ideas, adapting them to Japan’s particular context, and adjusting itself to a changing world. In the eighties, to the astonishment of many, Japan became world’s second largest economic power. This occurred at a time when America was struggling with a historic recession. As to meddling into Japan’s foreign affairs, that’s another story!

At the end of World War II, Japan entered the American incubator

Japan lost World War II and, with it, its prerogative to be free. During the Occupation of Japan, with General Douglas MacArthur at the helm, the Supreme Command of Allied Powers (SCAP) actions such as the prosecution of war criminals following Washington’s guidelines speak for themselves. A new Constitution was adopted under Allied supervision. Its main feature is Article 9, aka the Peace Clause, in which Japan renounces war and bans itself from maintaining any armed forces. The clause was aimed at preventing Japan from ever becoming, once again, a belligerent military power. Beaten and anxious to take advantage of the US, Japan conceded and went to the American school, with more courage and perseverance to save the Imperial State (incarnation of its cultural identity) and to respond to its most pressing social, economic and political needs.

Nevertheless, in 1949, Mao’s new Communist Republic posed a serious problem to the US who was fearing the rise of the red peril. It prompted the US to change its policy of weakening Japan and make it a powerful ally. Later on, in 1952, with San Francisco Peace and the Security treaties, Japan, to the immense displeasure of its population, surrendered all its power, faced the issue with Korea (Japan ceased all relations), and experienced a new problem with China over Taiwan legal status. Also, the “San Francisco System” drew the lines of Japan’s relationship with the US, pushing it to become the US Foreign Policy pawn in the region. Japan replied and executed its mission. It was the first game changer in Japan’s post-war history.

Then the Cold War took place

With the Cold War in full swing, Japan continued playing many roles to ensure the US hegemony in the Far East either through the auspices of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) or the security umbrella from the Korean War. It pushed Japan to be stronger and stronger until it became the world’s second largest economy, threatening the American hegemony. But two events, which are the second game changer in Japan’s post-war history, occurred nearly at the same time.

On the one hand, the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 signaled a thaw in the Cold War across Eastern Europe which had repercussions on Japan’s foreign policy and its relations with the US. With the disappearance of the Soviet menace and the specter of communism in decline, there was then no need for the US to maintain a stronghold on Japan as was the case before.

On the other hand, Japan entered the Economic Bubble of 1989 that was followed by the Lost Score (or the Lost 20 years), with significant impact on the country’s domestic politics lasting to present day. In the economic sphere, Japan’s GDP experienced drastic fall— during the 1995-2007 period, it shrank from $5.33 to $4.36 trillion in nominal terms—followed by a decline in real wages, while the country faced unprecedented deflation despite multiple stimuli applied over time such as Abenomics 1.0 & 2.0 that, according to many observers, had mitigated results. Policymakers are still grappling with these tectonic consequences with the path to recovery appearing foggy and uncertain, especially given that the social sphere is facing a demographic crisis for years now.

Indeed, the Japanese population is in decline, with the latest census showing a decrease of 0.7% between 2010 and 2015. Even the Policy of Nikkeijin (Japanese Diaspora) by the Ministry of Labor did not result in the desired outcomes. Prime Minister Abe is aware of this conundrum and is trying to lift the economy from its current downturn, but it is mission impossible. How to stimulate growth from an aging and shrinking society that relies heavily on public health and social welfare?

Moreover, the political sphere has been paralyzed for decades now. The Jimintō (LDP) has been dominating the scene since November 1955 with two short periods won by other parties (from August 1993 to January 1996, and from September 2009 to December 2012). On top of this, the Jimintō is experiencing a severe decline in its membership and internal wars among political factions. No real renewal policy for decades numbed the political scene and made it sclerotic, and slow to face and to adapt to all the quick changes happening in an increasingly globalized world.

While the Japanese political governance is in crisis, its Foreign Policy is weak and is dependent on US guidelines. Japan has never had a strong Foreign Policy due to more than two centuries of self-isolation, imposed by the Tokugawa during the Edo period (1603-1868) and the atrocities committed during World War II did not help its image at all at the international level. Japan remains, for many of its neighbors, as the “Bad Guy.” Finally, during the Thirty Glorious, Japan was focused more on its reconstruction than on its international relations that were dictated by the US, which makes many neighboring countries suspicious of Japan’s motives towards them.

Today, Cold War 2.0 sheds a new light of hope for Japan!

The third game changer in Japan’s post-war history is the New Cold War. On the one hand, a renewed state of political and military tension is pulling several geopolitical power blocs in different directions (i.e. China vs. the US; Russia vs. NATO-US, and the US vs. the rest of the world). All this, hand in hand, with the rise of global terrorism, populism, and corruption coupled with a decline in democracies, human rights and freedoms. On the other hand, the conflict is beyond geography; it is transposed to the cyberspace through social media, information infrastructure, and broadcast media, adding a layer of complexity with no real impact from international legislation.

A series of developments have paved the way for the current new cold war atmosphere.  China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 and its subsequent rise, displaced Japan as the second World Economic power, followed by a regular show of force in the South China Sea.

The damaging massive-9.0-magnitude earthquake in Japan followed by the tsunami in March 2011 halted Japan’s weak economic upturn abruptly. Then happened Russia’s comeback on the global stage in 2014 with the Ukrainian crisis and its subsequent intervention in Syria that halted the Jihadists’ advance against Assad. And finally, Trump taking office in 2017 amid worldwide protests may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Japanese politicians saw these developments as an electric shock.

Japan’s Strategy: Being A Smooth Operator

From Japan’s point of view, the current international system is the perfect opportunity to extricate itself from the quicksand it is in. In fact, since the domestic issues cannot be resolved quickly, what better than to turn its attention to the international stage and make Japan great again as Trump is doing for the US?

The old Cold War relationships are being reviewed, renewed, and redeveloped following Neurath’s boat analogy. Trump’s effect pushes Japan to reform itself on many levels, including militarily. Since 2015, Abe, with the support from the Jimintō, has pushed for an expansion of military powers under the convenient excuse of fighting in foreign conflicts and self-defense against alien aggressors—i.e. North Korea and China. But with Trump’s various stances, Japan is becoming bolder day by day. Recently, as reported by CNN, Abe has set 2020 as a deadline for changing the Constitution: “I strongly wish to make 2020 the year that the reborn Japan will make a new start.”

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have the eighth largest military budget in the world and possess one of the most sophisticated technologies; a fact disregarded for many decades by an international community that viewed Japan as harmless because of its pacifist Constitution. But this is far from reality!

Let’s not forget that, in the Confucian world, every crisis is an opportunity for change and, since the end of World War II, Japan has gone through several internal and external crises. In each crisis, Japan took advantage of what was available and bent back when it could not, while continuously monitoring the world stage and waiting for the perfect moment to be reborn like a phoenix from its ashes. And the perfect time arrived, incarnated by Trump and his famous “Let’s make America great again!” motto, a motto that found an echo within the Japanese political class. It is a reminder of a glorious past that deserves revitalization. And that is what Abe is doing! When Trump says America first, don’t be surprised to see Abe saying Japan first!

On top of this, Japan is still in the incubator of the US and, therefore, under its protection. It would be difficult to stop Japan from doing what Trump does himself in the US. The Japanese know how to imitate their protector in the general themes of politics. Japanese cannot be stopped. What is good for Trump is good for the US and what is good for Abe is good for Japan too, particularly in a time of interlinked world crises. The United States is experiencing on a daily basis the consequences of Trump’s “irrational/puzzling” decisions. Russia is trying to reaffirm its position as a global power. China is working on its image as the World “savior” and as an alternative to Western ways of governance. The post-Brexit Europe is trying to reinvent itself, and the Middle East is a volcano about to erupt anytime soon with many not-too-distant jolts here and there.

To achieve its goal, Japan is playing on two fronts: Reaffirming publicly the cooperation with the US to temper the Chinese patriotic passions while working on changes to its Constitution and reforming its army. The Japanese are adept in Sun Tzu’s ways: They have a long-term strategic vision, but they have their tactics that they implement by precisely taking advantage of the crises in world affairs. With Trump in power, the Japanese will cross the Rubicon by changing the Peace clause in their Constitution and securing constitutional legitimacy to their military industry and a subsequent and welcomed boost to their GDP through new market niche of arms sales.

That said, the Japanese see the succession of several Trumps at the White House. They are already preparing for the vagaries of Washington and the rest of the world. The Japanese are aware that without the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with the United States, the Chinese, who harass and provoke them almost on a daily basis, would have invaded the Senkaku Islands to make their way to the vast Pacific.

Practically, in the Confucian way, the changes will be introduced smoothly, inevitably and profoundly without making a noise. It is illustrated by the Japanese proverb “Nou aru taka wa tsume kakusu (能ある鷹は爪を隠)” which means the talented hawk hides its claws. Japan will keep intensifying the revival of its international relations with Russia, India, Australia, and even China to some degree, using different excuses with each one of them (e.g. Kuril Islands dispute with Russia and North Korea Security issue with China). The idea is to place its pieces judiciously on the international chessboard and to knit tight webs that will allow Japan to be great again in the long run. To achieve this goal, Japan would have to attend to its domestic challenges that may put a halt to its grandiose dream.

Without playing the Pythoness, Trump in the White House will most likely cause Japan to leave the US incubation chamber, which will allow the Empire of the Rising Sun to take flight and ultimately enjoy the prerogatives of an independent State. It would have taken seven decades to free itself entirely from the American yoke. This long period at the individual level represents nearly nothing on the scale of the life of people whose pride of independence and cultural particularism goes back to the first contacts with China of the Sui around the year 600 A.D.


Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia is a lecturer at HEC Montréal and Polytechnique Montréal, a consultant, and an independent researcher. She holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration with a focus on China and Japan. Dr. Er-Rafia specializes in cross-cultural management, international affairs, strategy and organizational behavior. Her focus is on Weberian sociology, politics, economics, and history, and she uses aspects of all these disciplines to study Asia.

Dr. Er-Rafia previously served as a Corporate Strategist at Desjardins Group and as a Management Consultant, Director of Operations, and a Strategy and Business Development Consultant at Stratégies Internationales. She provides training for Business Executives at the international level and regularly gives presentations about Asia’s geopolitics, and its business, management, and culture. She is the recipient of several honors and awards and author of two book chapters on China and Japan, several articles and over twenty business case studies.

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