Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. CREDIT: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/thejointstaff/36478259912">Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">(CC)</a>
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. CREDIT: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CC)

The Trump Effect in Japan with Robert Dujarric

Sep 5, 2017

"When you have a president like Trump, you do have to ask yourself: 'What will the United States look like in five years or in ten years?' A strong United States is what the government of Japan wants. In that sense, Trump is a threat. It is one that not all, but I feel a lot of Japanese analysts, are oblivious to. And second, what can they do? The answer is they can't do anything."

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Robert Dujarric. He is director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies (ICAS) at Temple University in Tokyo, Japan. Robert and I have been involved with the Korea-Japan Study Group, which Robert runs now in Tokyo. We have been involved with that for about 15 years, so we've known each other for quite a long time. Robert is stopping by here in New York on his way back to Tokyo eventually.

Robert, thanks for coming to Carnegie Council.

ROBERT DUJARRIC: Thank you for having me.

DEVIN STEWART: There is a lot to talk about. The big theme basically is Trump and Japan. Before we get into views in Japan, how would you describe Trump's approach toward Japan in general?

ROBERT DUJARRIC: I think the short answer is there is none. Donald Trump arrived at the presidency as probably the least informed, the least intellectually curious, and the least educated in many ways—despite his degree—president ever, so he had no approach to Japan. He had, however, a kind of 1980s view that he has had for a long time, that Japan is stealing American jobs and that there is a threat from Japanese exports to the United States, so he arrived with a fairly hostile attitude toward Japan.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there still a point to that, or is that just an outdated view of Japan?

ROBERT DUJARRIC: It was already in the 1980s a view that was not fully accurate. It is totally outdated, but that is what he came into the office thinking.

DEVIN STEWART: So in the past eight months or so has there been an update to his view on Japan? Do you see anything emerging?

ROBERT DUJARRIC: I think there have been almost no tweets about Japan. That is really the only insight you have into the way he thinks. What you had from day one, of course, was getting out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Now, TPP would have been in bad shape even if Clinton had been elected, but it might have been resurrected or at least been put on life support for some time.

He has an enormous focus on bilateral trade balances, which any economist would tell you is irrational, but that is how he looks at it, so he wants to do bilateral deals. He, of course, has no idea about how to do it, nor does he understand the complexity of these negotiations.

DEVIN STEWART: I'm getting a sense that it's basically just coasting right now, that the U.S.-Japan relationship is just sort of status quo, coasting, no direction.

ROBERT DUJARRIC: TPP is dead. That's a big problem for Japan. Japan is trying to bring it back as a TPP minus the United States with the idea that at one point when the United States regains its senses it will join. I think any negotiation toward a bilateral deal will not reach anything. These things, anyhow, take so much time. We know from all major trade negotiations that if they start under a particular president they are generally only concluded well after he has left office.

Trump made fairly provocative statements regarding North Korea, but then afterward both his secretary of state and his secretary of defense said essentially: "Look, don't listen to the president. The president very easily gets excited, and U.S. policy will remain the same as it has been for 10 or 20 years.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's talk about the view in Tokyo about Trump. First of all, how is he generally received in Japan?

ROBERT DUJARRIC: I think it is important when you look at how Japanese perceive Trump to understand that in European nations, in some Latin American ones, when they look at Trump they see their past and their present in the mirror; that is, obviously, the 1930s and 1940s for Europe; periods of populism in places like Argentina; and they also see some of the problems they have. You have Trump-like creatures throughout Western Europe.

Japan has a different history. Japan doesn't have the kind of racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, protectionist, populist movement which Trump represents. There are populists in Japan, there are xenophobes, but they are not organized the same way.

There also hasn't been the same—you have in the United States, as you have in Europe, a very strong anti-establishment wave that you saw with Brexit, that you saw with Trump, and even where they lost, like the French presidential election, or probably will do in Germany, you have a very strong anti-establishment—in Japan, you don't.

Who are the "populists" in Japan? Miss Koike. She is entirely establishment. Abe has some nationalistic aspect to him, I think you could say some latent—I wouldn't call him a xenophobe, but Abe's views on history represent those of the neo-Confederates. If Abe were American, he would love to have a Robert E. Lee statue in front of the White House. He would be intelligent enough, I think, to realize that it is not a good idea. But Abe is 100 percent a product of the establishment, so you don't have that.

A lot of the issues on which Trump focuses—immigration, appeals to white racism, to Islamophobia—they don't resonate in Japan. Japan has very few immigrants; it doesn't have white supremacists for a very simple reason: There are very few white people in Japan. It doesn't really have an Islamophobic problem.

DEVIN STEWART: Not a refugee problem or a crime problem, either.

ROBERT DUJARRIC: No. Japan refuses refugees. That is not good, but that has not become a political issue because—on the other hand, in countries like the United States and Europe that have taken lots of refuges, yes, you had an anti-refugee movement. So that's the first thing to realize.

I think the second one is that the Japanese establishment—obviously with different views—didn't fully understand how dangerous Trump was. I think there has been a feeling among most of official Japan that whoever is the president, the interests of the United States will remain the same and won't change that much.

Secondly, among official Japan, for reasons which I have yet to fully understand, there has been a belief that Democrats are bad for Japan and Republicans are good.


ROBERT DUJARRIC: It is strange because if you look at the historical record, the Nixon shocks, that comes under a Republican president. There are two aspects of the Nixon shocks: There is dealing with China; that to some extent wasn't that bad for Japan. I think Tokyo was in a way happy not to have been directly involved. But the economic one, getting out of Bretton Woods, at one point threatening Japan with the Trading with the Enemy Act, that was really bad.

Under Ronald Reagan, you have voluntary restraint agreements. Then, under the second Bush presidency, the presidency of George W. Bush, you have a pivot away from Asia because Bush focuses on the war against nonexistent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and that is bad for Japan because it weakens the United States in East Asia, which is where Japan wants American power to be, and it also undermined the prestige of the United States, which was bad for Japan. It forced the U.S. military to focus on a type of warfare that has nothing to do with defending Japan against North Korea and China.

The U.S. armed forces, because of the Iraq War and Afghanistan War, have really been concentrating on a type of war-fighting that is counterinsurgency-oriented and that doesn't do Japan any good. What Japan wants is a traditionally strong conventional military that can basically beat North Korea and China if it has to.

There were problems, of course, with Democratic administrations as well—trade friction under Clinton—but somehow I think a lot of official Japan was happy to get rid of Obama. There was a feeling—I remember talking to a Japanese naval officer who said, "Well, Obama loves China so much, it was so bad." There is no evidence. I think if you talk to anybody in Beijing, they would look at the Obama administration as having been one that rolled back U.S. power to the Pacific, which is not what China wants, and it surely wasn't perceived, I think, as soft in Beijing.

If you look at North Korea, they think the Democrats were very weak. This is a legitimate point. But then the George W. Bush agreement that does deal with North Korea at the end of the Bush administration in 2007 is equally weak and equally failed. I think that meant that there was less concern about Trump when he arrived.

DEVIN STEWART: Interesting. Where do the Japanese get this impression that Obama loved China so much, do you think?

ROBERT DUJARRIC: It is strange. There is, I think, no objective "fact." I think official Japan, the Japanese government, would like the United States to be a little tougher toward China. But whether you think it is a good or bad idea, if you look at U.S. policy toward China under the first President Bush, Clinton, Obama, and George W. Bush, it has been fairly consistent. It has been one of getting ready for conflict if there is one, but believing that not everything is lost, that you have to engage China, that China plays an important role in the world economy, and that you have to balance deterrence and cooperation in a complex way.

But there was this idea, they said that it was Japan-passing, that Clinton went to China and didn't stop in Japan. Then George W. Bush himself spent, I think, much more time in China than in Japan. And actually, if you're a Japanese official, you want the U.S. president to focus more on China than Japan because Japan is an ally. What you need with Japan is alliance management. What the United States has to do with China is to find a way, at least as far as Japan is concerned, to avoid a conflict with China.

A war between the United States and China would not be good news for Japan. This is not the sort of event—a lot of individuals who go to sporting events like to have a front-row seat, but when you have a U.S.-China war, you don't want the front-row seat, you want to backbench it, and that's a lot easier for, say, Argentina to do, which is on the other side of the world, than it is for Japan.

DEVIN STEWART: Right. I think people watching the Trump administration have rightly concluded that Trump is not interested in traditional priorities of U.S. foreign policy in the past several decades, namely free trade, maybe democracy promotion, and protecting human rights, generally speaking. Those three—you could call them "liberal" priorities—don't seem to have any resonance whatsoever with Trump or the administration generally speaking. That's the general feeling I'm getting from talking to a lot of people.

Yet, those three things are things that we've been talking about as Americans in the Pacific for forever—not forever, but for at least 70 years. You could call it the "liberal order" or promoting "democratic values" or "openness." Especially in the area of free trade it's something that we've been pounding Japan on for a long time.

So I'm just wondering, now that we have as a country apparently dropped these priorities so suddenly, is there a sense of betrayal at all in Japan as it being a friend of the United States and a partner in promoting some of these democratic aspirations? Is there a sense of, "Hey, what happened here?"

ROBERT DUJARRIC: Surprisingly, I think if you look at the government, there has been relatively little sense of betrayal. I think it's based on a belief that things will get better, like Trump will be educated, will improve. I think it's obviously a hopeless cause.

I think it's much more realistic the fact that they believe the Defense Department, the State Department, the establishment, the "Deep State" have kept the United States away from totally derailing. And to some extent, Trump at one point threatened to withdraw U.S. forces from Japan if Japan didn't pay more, whatever that meant. That has been forgotten.


ROBERT DUJARRIC: The government of Japan doesn't want the United States to ignore North Korea, but it doesn't want the United States to engage in a preventive war unless it really looks like North Korea is going to attack. But it is obvious that the "fire and fury" talk that Trump gave a few weeks ago has been ignored by the Pentagon and by the State Department, so I think there is a feeling that to some extent he is kind of controlled by the system and that they are still dealing with the same officials, especially in the military community. So I think that is how they are looking at it.

DEVIN STEWART: It sounds like you're thinking that is kind of naïve.

ROBERT DUJARRIC: The idea that Trump will improve I think is totally naïve. I'm not saying that everybody believes that in Japan. I think so far he has been prevented from terminally damaging things in Asia. He has not withdrawn forces from Japan. At one point I think he said also that he wanted the Koreans to pay more. He has threatened the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), but so far nothing has happened, sort of like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). So from a purely Japanese point of view, it has been so far okay. How long that can last—I think if I were a Japanese government official I would, of course, be worried about what happens in the case of real crisis, the sort of crisis where you are on the brink of war, because day-to-day management can be delegated to the Pentagon, to the professionals in the State Department—at least the ones who are left.

On the other hand, when you have what I would call a "type-A" crisis—you know, a Cuban Missile Crisis, that sort of thing—the buck stops with the president, and you have to ask yourself, imagine the Cuban Missile Crisis with Donald J. Trump instead of John F. Kennedy sitting in the Oval Office. I think most analysts would say, "Well, that would have been pretty horrible." So that is something you have to be concerned about.

Of course, it may never happen. I think North Korea is manageable, and I think the North Korean leadership is going to continue to engage in provocations, but it is not going to do something that would generate a situation where the United States would really consider initiating a war. At least, I think so. So I think that is kind of the Japanese hope.

It is a little naïve. I don't think they also realize, because they are less familiar with the U.S. political system and with what is happening in Western societies, the damage that he is doing to the United States. Charlottesville and pardoning a xenophobic, bigoted sheriff doesn't have a direct impact on Japan.

But this is something that weakens the United States, and Japan has a stake in a strong United States. Even domestic events in the United States in the longer term affect Japan. There is, of course, very little the Japan government can do. The Japanese government, I guess, could offer to send Japanese police forces to deal with the Ku Klux Klan, but that's not something you're going to do, right? They have also got to be worried about how Trump will react to the Mueller investigation, whether this will create other challenges to the rule of law in the United States. It is a long-term issue. In the short term, it doesn't affect Tokyo.

DEVIN STEWART: When you say "weaken the United States," do you mean weaken our prestige and credibility, our soft power, or do you mean something more like weakening our institutions and our coherence as a nation?

ROBERT DUJARRIC: It's everything. It has obviously weakened U.S. soft power. Japan has a stake in U.S. power. It also has a potential—we're not there yet—of weakening U.S. institutions. When you have a president like Trump, you do have to ask yourself: "What will the United States look like in five years or in ten years?" A strong United States is what the government of Japan wants. In that sense, Trump is a threat. It is one that not all, but I feel a lot of Japanese analysts, are oblivious to. And second, what can they do? The answer is they can't do anything.

DEVIN STEWART: The other thing you mentioned was "type-A" crises. It sounds like you think that maybe North Korea can be managed, which I think is probably true. So then what would you say is the worst-case scenario in Asia that would amount to a type-A crisis?

ROBERT DUJARRIC: That is one, of course. So far North Korea has been fairly predictable. There is always a risk that they will actually cross a red line.

DEVIN STEWART: What is that red line?

ROBERT DUJARRIC: That red line is either an attack on South Korea, I think very unlikely; it is even a little before—their missiles don't always work. What do you do if they have missile tests and two of them land on Japan? You can say: "Look. It's a test. It failed." It's a little hard then for Japan and the United States not to do anything. But what do you do, how do you calibrate it?

I think if you think of recent presidents, the one who was the most masterful when it came to handling international affairs was George H. W. Bush. If that is the gold standard, Trump is, I don't know what to call it in something that could be printed in a family newspaper, but it's not a very high standard to say the least.

You also have the China issues. I think the South China Sea is not explosive. As a lot of thoughtful U.S. analysts have said, the United States is not going to go to war over the South China Sea. China can build islands and can establish military bases there. At least no president until Trump, whether you're talking about the two Bushes, Clinton, or Obama, would have said this is a casus belli. It's not. Nor actually in the end, I think the Japanese government has been concerned about the South China Sea.

Let's imagine the U.S. president said: "Look, we've got our problems with the Chinese in the South China Sea. Tomorrow we're sending U.S. Marines backed up by a couple of aircraft carrier strike groups, and we are going to actually take down their bases. That's it. We're going to go there and remove them, and if need be, kill them, and plant the U.S. flag to show, 'You want these islands? You don't have them. We are taking them, and then we'll figure out what to do with them.'"

DEVIN STEWART: People have talked about doing that.

ROBERT DUJARRIC: But the fact is the Japanese government would go berserk, would say, "No, don't do it."

DEVIN STEWART: "Please don't do that."

ROBERT DUJARRIC: No one, I think, in Tokyo wants a war over the South China Sea or over islands whose sovereignty is ill-defined and in a region that is actually not that strategic.

But the real issue is Taiwan. What do you do in case there is a Chinese attack on Taiwan or something that comes close to it—a blockade, whatever? This is a type-A crisis for the United States.

DEVIN STEWART: And possible. It's possible.

ROBERT DUJARRIC: The South China Sea is not a core U.S. interest; Taiwan is. And, as always, there are legal issues, the Taiwan Relations Act, and there is a national security aspect. If Taiwan tomorrow were to come under People's Republic of China (PRC) sovereignty, this would be an enormous blow to the U.S. position in East Asia.

It's hard to manage because it need not be a Chinese invasion. It can be a blockade, it can be economic pressure, it can be kind of so-called "hybrid" warfare. How do you respond to it? What does Japan want to do, because the government of Japan would really be unhappy.

What about if the United States says: "Look, we've got to go and fight there, so we're going to fight from Okinawa. And by the way, we want the Japanese armed forces—the self-defense forces—if not to participate, at least to back us up, to do anti-submarine warfare, combat air patrols, to kind of provide the shield to the U.S. sword." For Tokyo, that means you're going to war against China. Good idea? Bad idea? It's complex.

That is a lot easier to manage when you have somebody like George H. W. Bush, somebody who is as thoughtful and as analytical as Obama. If that happens during a Trump administration, the challenges—Secretary Mattis can ignore the president's order when the president says "I don't want transgenders." Mattis can say: "Look, you don't know what you're talking about. I'm giving it to a commission," which means the thing is kind of dead.


ROBERT DUJARRIC: But the question of war or not war against China, that is above the pay grade of the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, the national security advisor, the chairman of the joint chiefs; that is a presidential decision. How do you do it?

You could, of course, imagine a situation where Trump freezes and tells his secretaries, "Look, you do it for me." But what happens if they disagree: The secretary of defense wants to do something; secretary of state, the chairman of the joint chiefs has other ideas; he is not a policymaker, he is a policy implementer, but he is an important person obviously, and says this. At one point, you need to referee. This is what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy was getting different advice from different individuals, and at one point he had to decide.

DEVIN STEWART: His brother helped out, too, right?

ROBERT DUJARRIC: That's a good example. Who would you have? Bobby Kennedy or Ivanka and Jared? There were legitimate issues raised about having the president's brother as attorney general, but no one questioned the fact that Bobby Kennedy was well-trained, intelligent, and had government experience.

This is not the case—the problem is not that Trump has brought in his family, the problem is who the family is. They have no government experience, they have corruption issues. Bobby Kennedy played a very important role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Is Jared—

DEVIN STEWART: We're still here to talk about it.

ROBERT DUJARRIC: Yes. We are still here to talk about it, and that's the point. You don't imagine Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Tiffany Trump, Eric Trump, Donald Trump, Jr., going to see the Chinese ambassador and trying to establish a back channel to negotiate. So that's a big problem for Japan.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's go back to Japan itself. Takako Hikotani over at Columbia wrote a great article, fantastic, in Foreign Affairs, and she talked about Japan's situation under Trump, the Trump "era," if we can call it that, and she described Japan's approach as "disarm and disengage Trump," which she means kind of flatter him, and then after that go through back channels to manage the U.S.-Japan relationship.

Meanwhile, you have this recent missile launch over Hokkaido from North Korea, which is the first time it is actually a missile rather than a so-called "satellite" going over the Japanese islands. You also have an overstretched American Navy, which is apparent from the accidents. A lot of officers are talking about "the mission is too great and not enough resources, not enough people."

You also have the Trump effect of uncertainty. Then you have this relinquishing of a commitment to free trade and other things. So you have all these things doing on.

Hikotani kind of seemed to be saying that this is a strange, maybe even twisted, opportunity for Japan to reassert itself in Asia-Pacific as (1) a sort of protector of liberal values, and (2) having a greater security role and more of a political voice.

What do you make of Japan's trajectory?

ROBERT DUJARRIC: I think it was an excellent article, and I agree with it. In terms of Japan reasserting itself in the economic sphere, yes, it provides an opportunity for Japan, for example, to try to get a TPP minus the United States, to use its economic role, its credibility. I think, however, it is an opportunity that Japan didn't want. I think Tokyo wasn't looking for it.

I think Abe liked the idea of having the United States play a very important role. No one, I think, in Japan wants to replace the United States in East Asia. It wants the United States. It needs the United States because of the policy choices that the Japanese governments in the past decades have made.

Where it becomes always much tougher is in the political-military realm. Japan has a large military because it is a large economy, but it devotes very limited resources to it. The defense budget is increasing a little this year but by very little. Given the nature of the threats to Japan, I think most analysts would say that Japan under-invests in its defense.


ROBERT DUJARRIC: Also, politically it is very hard for a variety of reasons for Japan to take the lead in the political-military thing. It also doesn't have allies. It has developed a stronger relationship with Australia and with India, but that is not the same thing.

DEVIN STEWART: But doesn't this sort of new situation give Abe cover to increase the military spending, go back to the constitution, do other things that he has been wanting to do?

ROBERT DUJARRIC: It gives Abe some cover. The problem is, I think, Abe has been misjudged by both his supporters and his enemies. His supporters say he is here to make Japan great again. His enemies say this is a return of prewar fascism. Technically speaking Japan wasn't fascist. They are both wrong.

If you look at what Abe has done in terms of defense budget and military deployment, he has continued very gradual and small-scale increases in beefing up Japan's defense capabilities and engaging foreign countries, but this is, if not microscopic, at least it is small. It is not a big change.

Abe in his heart, yes, he is a Yasukuni lover. He worships his grandfather Kishi, who by any standards was a war criminal, but actually he has not abolished democracy in Japan. He has tried to maintain at least a working relationship with China. He signed the comfort women deal regarding the former sex slaves of the Japanese army with South Korea. Maybe it didn't go far enough. Abe is the sort of guy that if he were American, in his heart would say, "Yes, I want a Robert E. Lee statue," but would have enough brains to recognize that it is a bad idea, and he wouldn't.

The problem is Abe has lost some of his popularity because of various petty scandals. He is now challenged by Koike to some extent because she won the election to the Metropolitan Council in Tokyo.

I think what Abe and Japanese conservatives like him wanted, on the contrary, was kind of a United States that is very active and where Japan can play a very important junior-partner role in this. They like the idea of having some autonomy, developing relations with other countries, but if there is one thing that Abe doesn't want, it is an Asia without the United States. That is probably what Beijing likes, although it may end up regretting it, but that's not what he wants.

DEVIN STEWART: So Abe is a nationalist but only on his free time, just a private-time nationalist.

ROBERT DUJARRIC: He is an emotional nationalist, but I think he is somebody who is sufficiently intelligent to realize there are limits.

I think also the system in Japan—it is often forgotten, I think, by those who accuse Abe of rebuilding the "bad Japan" of the 1930s and 1940s, that Japan is a democracy, there are elections. Japanese voters are not interested in this. Japanese voters are focused on the economy. When you campaign in Japan you're not really getting votes by being a national security guy.

One of the reasons that it is difficult to increase the Japanese defense budget is that both the Japanese electorate and a lot of the bureaucracy, especially in the finance ministry, don't think it is possible. They want to prioritize pensions, health care, and senior care.

In a different Japan, yes, Abe might be the guy who makes Japan the "Britain of Asia," whatever that meant, but that is not happening. There are lots of countries in Asia that devote far more resources to their national defense. Singapore is a prime example. Singapore, like Japan, is a rich, advanced economy, but Singapore has relative to its size an enormously large and potent military. There are actually Singaporean helicopters helping the Hurricane Harvey rescue.

DEVIN STEWART: Before you go back to Tokyo, Robert, any final advice for Japan in dealing with Trump?

ROBERT DUJARRIC: I think that Hikotani-sensei's piece was very good: You have to try to disengage and disarm him, that is, you have to try to basically flatter him, tell him "you're the most intelligent man in the world" and that sort of thing, and hope he doesn't do anything and continues to tweet about stuff that doesn't have an impact on Japan.

I think it also shows that it is important perhaps for Japan to have deeper engagement with the United States. I think a lot of official Japan has contacts with the few Japan hands in Washington, especially Republicans, but perhaps lacks the depth of contacts with the United States that other large American allies have.

DEVIN STEWART: Robert Dujarric is director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo, Japan. Robert, thanks so much for coming by.

ROBERT DUJARRIC: Thank you for having me, Devin. Always good to see you.

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