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US Congressional Members Staying Away from Japan: A Special Effort to Sustain US-Japan Ties

Sankei Shimbun (unofficial translation), July 23, 2007, p. 1

No. 8 in the series "Watch Out, Japan: An Invisible Foe "
Author: Kyoko Chino

With the close ties between (President Bush and Prime Minister Abe), the US-Japan relationship is generally said to be better than ever before, but many who are involved with the field of US-Japan exchange are expressing concern about the current and future state of the relationship.

Sankei Shimbun

Tadashi Yamamoto (71), president of the Japan Center for International Exchange (JCIE), is one such person. Yamamoto has a long history of involvement in US-Japan exchange. In 1967, with funding from the Ford Foundation and Japanese businesses, he was involved in the launch of the Shimoda Conferences—a pioneering initiative in private sector US-Japan dialogue—and then started a parliamentary exchange between the two countries the following year.

He has become particularly aware of the necessity of parliamentary exchange both for deepening the understanding of each other’s country among legislators, who play a major role in the policymaking process, and for building the personal relationships and trust between legislators in the way that has been done between Europe and the United States.

After participating in 13 of JCIE’s exchanges, former Speaker of the House [Thomas] Foley went on to become US Ambassador to Japan, and former Secretary of Defense [Donald] Rumsfeld was a participant in JCIE’s very first exchange. However, even this parliamentary exchange program with its long history is now feeling the pinch. Last year, probably less than 10 Congressional members visited Japan, whether on this program or other business.

According to Yamamoto, “It is extremely difficult to bring American legislators to Japan. Compared to the past, not only have members of Congress become more inward looking, but they are too busy now as well. The Congressional sessions have gotten longer and the number of days when they have commitments has increased. They are unable to get away for long periods of time. ‘If it’s just three days, then maybe,’ they tell us.”

The criticism of junkets has also become stronger than before. Foley, who has been the target of such criticism, even lamented to Yamamoto, “I’d like to show them my schedule and ask them where the junket is!”

One issue, however, is that despite these adverse winds, exchanges to another Asian country, China, have actually been increasing. According to JCIE, more than twice as many members of Congress went to China (22) last year than to Japan (9). The statistics for Congressional staff are even graver. From 2001 to 2006, visits to Japan on exchange programs (excluding official Congressional committee trips) decreased by 75 percent, while trips to China increased 2.7 times during the same period.

Adding to Yamamoto’s concerns is the decline in posts for policy analysts of US-Japan relations. The current number is about one-third that of US-China experts, and if the current trend continues, it may dwindle even further. The Japan programs of Washington think tanks are also shrinking. In contrast, collaborative research and dialogues with China are being conducted by nearly every American think tank that deals with foreign relations, and even those who are not experts on China policy have been drawn to the subject.

For Americans, China is the focus of curiosity and a potential economic opportunity; at the same time, it is seen as a security issue and as a threat. In other words, China is a country that must be understood for various reasons. As a result, money from America’s foundations and businesses is flowing into China programs.

“When the United States gets a new priority, the money concentrates on and is invested in that issue,” notes Yamamoto. “They are always thinking about what the priority is. It is different from Japan, which only thinks about the budget level. I think that is one of the strengths of the United States.”

For this reason, Yamamoto’s largest task today is fundraising. Beneath the surface of the friendly US-Japan relationship, America’s perception of Japan’s importance is quietly declining.

A Special Effort to Sustain “US-Japan” Ties

In Japan, the budgets for exchange have been shrinking. For example, the program budget of the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership (CGP), which was launched in 1991 [to promote US-Japan cooperationand dialogue on shared concerns and global issues], has dropped by about 75 percent compared to the mid-1990s. The operating funds come from interest on a ¥50 billion fundset up with government funds, but it has taken repeated blows from low interest rates, the bursting of the bubble, and the financial reform.

Indeed, the budget problem may just be the tip of the iceberg. The aforementioned Yamamoto questions the way in which Japan carries out exchanges. “There are lots of cultural exchanges, but very few intellectual exchanges. There are not enough policy-oriented organizations and think tanks in Japan that can answer the questions about this country that really concern Americans at the moment—for example, which direction Japan will take within East Asia, how that compares to the United States, and who the key people are in Japan’s policymaking process.”

The human resources are not adequate. On this point, CGP Executive Director Sadaaki Numata agrees. “Every day and in many locations, seminars and symposiums are being held in Washington to discuss the various issues facing the world. At these events, it is hard to find any Japanese participants who can say, ‘Japan’s position is this.’”

In other words, Japan’s ability to communicate is weak. There are few people who can represent Japan’s position on an issue and offer a thoroughly reasoned argument. And when there are such people, it is always the same faces.

There is no system in government, universities, or businesses for dispatching people for that purpose. This represents a clear difference between Japan and China, since the latter views international conferences as places for communication and accordingly sends its people in large numbers to attend.

What should be done? According to Numata, who served as the Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson and who was known as the best English speaker in the entire ministry, experience is indeed the key. Many Japanese people tend to be perfectionists, but you have to try to express yourself even if your English is not great. The more experience you have, the braver you get, and the better you will become.

“If someone is always being made to write responses for Diet questions, even if you suddenly ask them to make a statement, they cannot. There are few people who can speak effectively. It’s important to get experience from a young age.”

It cannot be said that America has lost all interest in Japan. It seems that there are many people even in Washington who are hoping for greater Japanese participation in dialogue. There are, after all, limits to intellectual dialogue with China, including the level of freedom. In addition, any debate on East Asia that leaves out Japan and proceeds only with the United States and China will obviously be lacking a proper understanding.

Yamamoto believes that it is more important than ever to undertake US-Japan exchanges anew, including parliamentary exchanges. He wants to train key people who will have a deep understanding of why the US-Japan relationship is so important. For that purpose, he is working on new ideas, cooperating with new institutions and new localities in the United States.

The decisive difference between US-Japan and US-European relations is the accumulation of distance, funding, and history in the latter case. And the number of people going from Japan to Asia will probably increase even if nothing is done. But as Yamamoto has learned from his long experience with US-Japan exchange, “It will require a special effort to sustain and improve US-Japan relations.”


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