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The rising sun also sets

How do the election results change US-Japan relations?

Unsinkable bases

The extent to which Japan serves as the cornerstone of American influence in Asia cannot be overstated, even if it has been taken completely for granted for decades. If Britain was America’s "unsinkable aircraft carrier" during World War II, Japan plays the role in Asia today.

More than 50,000 American Army and Marine Corps forces are based on Japanese territory, along with the U.S. Fifth Air Force in Fussa outside Tokyo, and the most powerful force in Asia, the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, based in Yokosuka.

The U.S.-Japan military alliance ensures materiel support for U.S. forces in any future Korean conflict and recent revisions all but commit Japan to similar help if China ever moved militarily against Taiwan.

In a larger sense, Japan is still the world’s second largest economy, and America’s second-largest creditor after China, holding its nose and continuing to buy American treasuries in spite of the diminishing signs that this is a wonderful way to invest their sovereign wealth.

Japan is not about to stop buying treasuries — like China and others holding major portions of the U.S. national debt, doing so abruptly would cause serious damage to their portfolio, bringing down the value of their investments along with the American economy. But both Japan and China may soon decide to take a more paternal and coordinated tone in chiding America for its spending and monetary policy decisions.

Much of this reflects a long-simmering discontent within Japan itself over the ossified state of domestic politics. Under the LDP, the political class, itself in league with big industrialists, very overtly co-opted the media and political opponents. (Indeed, the only previous stint of a non-LDP government since MacArthur left involved LDP dissidents who ultimately returned to the fold).

Truth to Power

But outside influences, including dire miscalculations by our own political and economic leaders, propelled events, too. As Hatoyama wrote, “I also feel that as a result of the failure of the Iraq war and the financial crisis, the era of U.S.-led globalism is coming to an end and that we are moving toward an era of multipolarity.” Americans have dismissed similar statements from the likes of Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin over the past year as so much sour grapes and propaganda. We poured scorn on the French and Germans when they said similar things in 2002, just before we blundered into Baghdad.

No doubt some here will write off Japan’s shift off as posturing by another foreigner keen to ride a wave of anti-American sentiment to power. But if the waves have reached so high that they can change the face of government even in Tokyo, who’s fooling who?