Authors: Aruga, Tadashi

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Title: Reflections on the history of U.S.-Japanese relations.
Authors: Aruga, Tadashi
Source: American Studies International; Apr94, Vol. 32 Issue 1, p8, 9p


Discusses assumptions and perceptions held by Japanese regarding United States-Japanese relations, and explains why many Japanese entertain them. History of U.S.-Japan relations; Japanese exclusion clause in the immigration act by the US Congress in 1924; Japanese victim-mentality in dealing with the US; Importance of mutual images of Japan and US as reliable nations with shared values and purposes. Full Text Word Count: 4333 ISSN: 0883-105X Accession Number: 9410060578 Persistent link to this record:,ip,url,uid&db=afh&an=9410060578 Database: Academic Search Elite * * *


AS A JAPANESE SCHOLAR WHO TEACHES AND WRITES ABOUT THE HISTORY OF international relations and particularly of American foreign relations, I have often noticed certain assumptions and perceptions held by my Japanese audience regarding U.S.-Japanese relations. These perceptions have also been evident in many Japanese writings. They tend to color Japanese attitudes toward current issues in U.S.-Japanese relations. In this essay, I would like to mention these assumptions and perceptions that I have encountered and explain why many Japanese entertain them. While doing so, I would also like to present my own views of the history of U.S.-Japanese relations.

The relationship between Japan and the United States began with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry's fleet in the Edo (Tokyo) Bay in 1853. This first U.S.-Japanese encounter was also the first crisis in the relations between the two countries. The United States used forceful diplomacy backed by naval power to demand the opening of Japan. But Washington directed Perry not to "resort to force unless in self defense." Perry gave the Japanese eight months to decide their response to the American demands. The Shogunate leaders had only a limited, though not negligible, knowledge of world affairs, but understood that the time was coming for them to change the traditional policy of national seclusion. They did not make a vain attempt to use force against the fleet, and succeeded in deciding on the acceptance of the minimum American demands within less than one year. Satisfied with the Shogunate's acceptance of the minimum American demands, Perry developed the first U.S.-Japanese treaty in 1854. This episode of the first U.S.-Japanese encounter is usually written as a matter of course. But both sides should be commended for their political realism. Both sides acted with realism and restraint, making it possible for U.S.-Japanese relations to start in peace.

Townsend Harris, the first U.S. consul and minister to Japan, acted with tact and patience in negotiating for a commercial treaty with the reluctant Japanese officials. He gradually gained their trust for himself and his country, persuaded them with American friendliness, and finally succeeded in developing a commercial treaty between the two countries. The Shogunate sent its first overseas mission to the United States in 1860. Thus, Japanese knowledgeable about foreign affairs came to regard the United States as the most friendly, or at least the most benign, Western country. When the Meiji government sent its first overseas mission in 1872-73 with a hope of negotiating a treaty revision with the Western countries, Ambassador Tomomi Iwakura and his company visited the United States first.

Nevertheless, it was unfortunate that U.S.-Japanese relations started with a demonstration of military power. The Shogunate policy of opening Japan was bitterly opposed by anti-foreign clans and factions, and brought forth a domestic turmoil which led to the Meiji Restoration. During the period of the turmoil, Western powers sent naval expeditions against anti-foreign clans, Choshu and Satsuma. An American warship joined in the Shimonoseki expedition against Choshu in 1864. Many Japanese, then and later, considered it a humiliating experience for the Japanese that their country had to open its door to the West under the threat of Western military power. In their eyes, Perry's "Black Ships," the first major naval demonstration by a Western country in Japan, inevitably became a symbol of the military power of the West which dominated Asia and threatened Japan. Some years ago, Shu Kishida, a psychologist, remarked that the arrival of the Black Ships was, so to speak, an American rape of Japan. Out of the Black Ships episode, the Japanese developed what might be called a victim mentality. This mentality has often influenced Japanese perceptions of U.S.Japanese relations.

Meiji Japan quickly adopted Western institutions to modernize itself. Progressive Japanese of the Meiji era admired not only Western technology but also modem Western ideas. But they were afraid of Western imperialism. Yukichi Fukuzawa, the foremost champion of Westernization, expressed his fear of Western imperialism in his writings. "Among the countries touched by the Westerners," he questioned in 1875, "was any able to maintain real independence?" "Western countries are extending their domains in the East," he warned in 1881. "Now their expansion threatens East Asia like a spreading fire." Thus, Westernization was a necessity for non-Western countries for their survival. Recalling the fate of the American Indians, Fukuzawa predicted that just as the American Indians had lost their country, the Asians would lose theirs if they remained backward.

Once Japan became a major power in the Asia-Pacific region, an era of amicable U.S.-Japanese relationship was over. Japan's victory against Russia was a turning point. The United States began to restrain Japanese expansion, but failed in effectively challenging the Japanese position on the continent because of Japan's connection with the Entente powers before World War I and because of American involvement in European affairs during the world war. When the war was over, the United States was able to isolate Japan and force Japan's retreat from wartime expansion. Imperialist power politics was the international environment by which Meiji Japan found itself surrounded. This experience influenced and still influences Japanese views of international affairs. Because of their perception of international relations as imperialist power politics, the Japanese tend to emphasize rivalries and conflicts rather than cooperation in their interpretation of U.S.-Japanese relations from the end of the Russo-Japanese War to the outbreak of the Pacific War.

Such a view discounts Theodore Roosevelt's effort to maintain friendly relations between the two countries or William Howard Taft's effort to include Japan in an international effort in China after his failure in challenging Japan in Manchuria. In such a view, Woodrow Wilson's advocacy of a new democratic world order or the cooperative framework created by the Washington Conference of 1921-22 do not loom large, either. Although Japan actually worked with the United States and Britain to form a cooperative framework in naval limitation and in East Asia-Pacific affairs at the Washington Conference, many Japanese tend to regard the Washington system mainly as an Anglo-American device to contain Japan. Because of such a perception of the history of U.S.-Japanese relations, many Japanese feel that the United States is beginning to weaken Japan again now that Japan's power seems to be rising.

The Washington Conference and Japan's subsequent moderate diplomacy substantially improved the American image of Japan which had been tarnished by Japanese actions, particularly the Twenty-One Demands to the Chinese government during World War I. Americans believed that Japan had become a peaceful democratic nation. But even this friendly state of U.S.-Japanese relations did not prevent a Japanese exclusion clause in the American immigration law of 1924.

Policy makers in Washington, from Theodore Roosevelt to Charles Evans Hughes, like most white Americans, regarded Japanese and other Asians as unsuitable immigrants who would be unable to assimilate themselves into American society. Because of their own beliefs and also for of political reasons, they were determined to keep Japanese inflow to a minimum. Since Japan had become a major power in the Pacific, however, those policy makers wanted to avoid antagonizing Japan over the immigration issue. This was possible because the Japanese government or public was not interested in sending a great number of Japanese to the United States as immigrants. Japanese diplomacy on the immigration issue has been dubbed "face-saving diplomacy" because the goal was to prevent outright discrimination against Japanese immigration. Tokyo was willing to restrict voluntarily the flow of Japanese emigration to the United States in the hope that this self-restriction could prevent Japanese exclusion legislation and tame anti-Japanese movements in the west coast states. Thus Tokyo and Washington agreed on the formula of a "gentlemen's agreement" that is, Japan's voluntary restriction of Japanese emigration to the United States in 1908.

Policy makers in Washington were able to prevent anti-Japanese legislation on the national level until 1924, but they were not successful in preventing anti-Japanese legislation in the western states during the 1910s. Their ability to successfully manage the immigration issue depended on their ability to restrain the west coast states. Anti-Japanese agitation was limited largely to California and west coast states which had a sizable Japanese population. But there was a danger that the regional force of the west coast might win in Congress because Congressmen tended to be not so sensitive to diplomatic delicacy and often fell in with a strong regional demand for undiplomatic measures. The gentlemen's agreement did not satisfy the west coast whites. They went on to legislate alien land acts, prohibiting "aliens ineligible to naturalization" first to own and then to lease agricultural land. The west coast states also argued for complete Japanese exclusion.

As the federal government lacked effective means to influence the policy of a state toward Japanese residents, Japanese diplomacy lacked practical means to cope with discrimination against Japanese immigrants in the west coast states. Thus Tokyo's main aim was to prevent federal Japanese exclusion legislation.

The decisive time arrived in 1924 when Congress included a Japanese exclusion clause in the immigration act, ignoring the pleas of the executive branch that Japan should be given a token quota of immigrants or that the gentlemen's agreement should be continued. A token quota proportional to the Japanese contribution to the ethnic composition of the American population was the formula that could satisfy the Japanese government. This would essentially restrict Japanese immigration. But a political movement always aims at not only a substantial but also symbolic victory. The total exclusion of Japanese immigration was such a victory.

The enactment of the Japanese exclusion clause did not immediately destroy friendly relations between Tokyo and Washington. The Japanese government responded calmly and anti-American public agitation subsided after a while. But the humiliation of 1924 was remembered and used by Japanese militarists to inflame anti-American feelings in the 1930s. In Japan, the immigration act of 1924 became known as the Japanese Exclusion Act. Many Japanese wrongly assume that the United States enacted a special law to outlaw Japanese immigration. Because of their memory of past discrimination in the United States, Japanese still suspect racial prejudice in every move of the United States which is detrimental to their interests and in every unfortunate incident that befalls the Japanese in the United States.

During the 1920s, Japan and the United States were able to maintain friendly relations under the Washington system because the two countries agreed on peaceful East Asia-Pacific regional relations and on cooperation in naval limitation affairs. This entente collapsed when Japan began military actions in Manchuria and set up a satellite state, separating Manchuria from China in 1931-32. In the 1930s, U.S.-Japanese relations deteriorated as Japan embarked on a policy of military expansion on the continent, especially after the outbreak of a full scale war in China proper in 1937. U.S.-Japanese conflict over Manchuria was not conflict of interest but conflict over the principles of international conduct. While the United States held considerable interest in China proper, it was far from being vital. Again, American response to the Sino-Japanese war ("Chinese Incident") derived not merely from concern for American interest in China, but rather from concern for the principles of international conduct. This aspect of U.S.-Japanese conflict is not well understood in Japan.

Since China, particularly its northeastern part, was the vital theater for Japanese imperialism, Japanese are liable to assume that China was likewise very important for the United States. How can it be explained otherwise, they question, that U.S.-Japanese relations deteriorated seriously after the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War? Such a Japanese view of U.S.-Japanese conflict is partly a remaining influence of the Marxist idea of imperialism. But it seems to be primarily an application of the imperialist power-political world view which Japanese learned in the Meiji era and have inherited from that era.

The image of a militaristic and aggressive Japan formed among Americans during the Manchurian Incident and strengthened as Japan began a prolonged war in China in 1937. With the outbreak of World War H in Europe, particularly after the spring of 1940, Germany came to be seen as the greatest menace to the United States. But Japan's alliance with Germany in the Tripartite Pact and her thrust into French Indochina made Americans realize that they had to fight Japan if they had to fight Germany. Yosuke Matuoka, the then architect of Japanese diplomacy, wanted to strengthen the Japanese position through an alliance with Germany and rapprochement with the Soviet Union. But this power-political scheme did not yield the effect the schemer had intended. On the contrary, the alliance made the Americans more distrustful of Japan, and it became difficult to resolve problems in U.S.-Japanese relations.

Nevertheless, the United States continued to negotiate with Japan in 1941 because it was still desirable to detach Japan from Germany when war with Germany seemed to be imminent. Even after Japanese forces had entered the southern part of French Indochina in July 1941, the United States was willing to negotiate while tightening economic measures against Japan. By that time, however, the dark image of Japan as an aggressive militarist power had been firmly shaped in the American mind. Washington no longer entertained any serious desire to reduce tensions between the two countries. Without a complete reversal of policy on the part of Tokyo, Washington was not willing to ease its economic pressures. Tokyo was eager to avoid U.S.-Japanese war and wanted to negotiate, but only within a certain limit of time. Tokyo wanted to make some concessions to Washington, but only with consensus among the power elite. When negotiations proved to be fruitless within the previously set time-limit, Tokyo went to war, following the courses previously agreed on by a consensus decision. It seems to be one of the characteristics of American diplomacy to demand that an adversary make a complete reversal of policy and to ignore less substantial concessions. It is still the pattern of Japanese diplomacy to avoid a breakdown of domestic consensus rather than to break a diplomatic impasse. Such tendencies must be avoided in order to prevent a diplomatic disaster in the future.

For Americans, the Pacific War was a just war in which Americans fought against an obvious aggressor who had invaded China and Southeast Asia, and who made a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese tend to look at the Pacific War with the victim complex which was mentioned above. In its relationship with the United States, Japan was obviously the weaker party. It is difficult for Japanese to regard a weaker country as an aggressor against a stronger country even when the former made military attack first. In the Russo-Japanese War, Japan was the weaker party and made the first strike against Russia. That time, Japan was not blamed as an aggressor. Japanese tend to see the Pearl Harbor attack in the same light. Most Japanese who regard Japan's actions in China as an aggression do not think Japan was much guilty in attacking Pearl Harbor. They tend to believe that their sin in the Pearl Harbor attack was relative. Many of them like to think that Japan was forced to fight, or was maneuvered by the United States into attacking Hawaii. Therefore, any article or book by an American author which argues that Franklin D. Roosevelt knew of Japan's imminent attack upon Pearl Harbor and welcomed it for political reason has always found a large audience in Japan.

Japanese admit that Japan's war in China was a war of aggression, but they regard Japan's war with the United States and Britain as a war resulting from imperialist rivalry. They were all imperialists, were they not? Japanese cannot concede much legitimacy to Western domination in Asia. Wartime Japanese considered World War II as a war of Have-Not Nations against Have Nations. This view still lingers in the Japanese mind.

Another reason for Japanese unwillingness to concede so much justice to the American cause in the Pacific War is a racial factor. Japanese feel that the legitimacy of American liberal democracy was limited because of its racial discrimination against Asians and racial oppression of African Americans. Besides, it cannot be denied, as John Dower and Christopher Thorne have made dear, that there was certainly a racial factor in the Pacific War. Japanese resent America's use of atomic bombs against them, suspecting the existence of anti-Japanese racism behind Washington's decision to use them against exhausted Japan.

Few Japanese would justify the Pacific War as a war liberating Asia from western domination, since it is obvious that the aim of Japan's quest for a new order in Asia was domination. Actually, Japan's ultimate defeat, not her victory, contributed to the liberation of Asian peoples. Japanese know that the liberation of Asia, the wartime Japanese slogan, was mere propaganda. Likewise they do not give much credit to the American ideal of liberal democracy. Shumpei Ueyama, a Kyoto scholar who wrote essays on the Pacific War in the early 196Os, held that the United States and Japan fought the Pacific War in the pursuit of their respective interests. He argued that the Japanese had realized after the end of the war their mistake in the obsessional pursuit of power which had started with the derision to open their country to the West. He believed that Japan had reoriented the course of its national development towards pacifism. Ueyama emphasized only pacifism as the ideal of postwar Japan, somehow neglecting the importance of liberal democratic values. Because of their pacifism, postwar Japanese liberals have downplayed the importance of liberal democratic values in international relations. Besides pacifism, there was another reason for the reluctance of Japanese liberals in understanding the Cold War as a struggle between liberalism and totalitarianism. The Cold War in Asia was different from that in Europe. Communists in Asia often seems to represent Asian people's aspiration of national liberation and independence. On the other hand, regimes and forces allied with the United States in some Asian countries seemed often to represent anti-democratic reactionary elements. Japanese liberals were uncomfortable with American policy in Asia. In Japan too, the United States forged an alliance with conservative forces which Japanese liberals did not trust. The criticism of American policy by Japanese liberals was also an expression of their nationalism, which tended to be serf-assertive against the powerful country that had defeated and occupied Japan and continued to be a dominant power in Asia. In a sense, they could afford to be critical of the United States, while enjoying civil liberties established during the American occupation and external security provided by the continuing American military presence in Asia. These factors explain their vehement opposition to the security treaty revision of 1960, which made Japan a more active ally of the United States. In the 1960s many Japanese regarded America's war in Vietnam as a war without justice, something resembling Japan's war in China.

Now that the Cold War is over with the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Japanese should renew their commitment to liberal democracy and recognize the importance of its values in international relations. If Japan and her axis allies had won World War II, liberal democracy would almost have disappeared from the world. America's substantial contribution to the Allied victory and her great effort in postwar international reconstruction saved liberal democracy and paved the way for its postwar redevelopment in many parts of the world. If Japanese look at international history in the context of liberal democracy, they will not regard the Pacific War simply as rivalry between imperialist powers. They will give more credit to American effort in the Cold War. Without mutual recognition that both nations now share liberal democratic ideals, the memories of the Pacific War might become a psychological burden which hinders their relations in the post-Cold War era.

Japanese should free themselves from the victim mentality in their dealings with the United States. Japanese should not attribute all American measures which are detrimental to Japanese business activities, or other phenomena with anti-Japanese connotations to the remaining racial prejudice of white Americans. There may be some elements of racism in recent American resentment against Japan but it must be remembered that white American racism against Asians has been much weakened since World War II. Indeed, the Pacific War provided a turning point in the racial attitudes of white Americans towards Asians. To counter Japan's criticism of Western imperialism in Asia, Americans felt that they had to gain the friendship of Asian peoples. Since China was an American ally, discrimination against Chinese was abolished during the war. In 1952, Asians were given the right of naturalization and were given minimum national quotas. The quota system which favored West European immigration was abolished in 1965. The social and economic status of Japanese Americans has been improved greatly. In 1988, Congress passed a bill to compensate Japanese Americans for their forced removal to concentration camps during the Pacific War. Current anti-Japanese feelings are more closely related to the rapidly increased Japanese economic presence in America and a relative decline of American industrial power than to racism. Moreover, it is easy for Japan-bashers to invoke hostile images of the Japanese because Japan is the only country that has attacked U.S. territories in modern American history.

Nevertheless, the increasing inflow of Asian immigrants and the increase of successful Asian Americans, which both resulted from the elimination of discrimination against them, appears to have rekindled anti-Asian feelings among some Americans. Racial feelings will not disappear so easily. Recently, there have been a number of incidents involving Asian visitors and Asian Americans as victims. But it is undeniable that white Americans have shed much of their prejudice against Asians and that multi-culturalism is gaining acceptance as the principle of American society. A degree of social tension is inevitable in a country where the ethnic, demographic composition of its population is changing rapidly.

While Japanese were very sensitive about possible discrimination by white Americans, they were insensitive about the feelings of other peoples. A few years ago, several influential Japanese politicians' derogatory allusions to certain American ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans, incurred the wrath of these Americans. Gone is the day when Japanese can indulge themselves in criticism of the racial prejudice of white Americans without reflecting on their own. Japanese must make critical examination of their own prejudice toward other peoples. They also should study America as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation. Otherwise, ethnic-racial issues may disturb the future of U.S.-Japanese relations.

I have critically discussed Japanese assumptions and perceptions regarding the history of U.S.-Japanese relations in this essay. But these assumptions and perceptions are derived from their national experience. Some of their critical views of American foreign policy, I suspect, are shared by other people. For example, Japanese are not alone in regarding American foreign policy as overly self-righteous. The United States has often behaved self-righteously in its foreign policy. How could the United States champion democratic principles while practicing racial discrimination against non-white minorities at home? How could the United States justify its policy of excluding non-American influence from the Western Hemisphere under the banner of the Monroe Doctrine and at the same time oppose to Japanese hegemony in East Asia? How could the United States plot to assassinate Fidel Castro, president of a sovereign state? How could the United States invade independent Panama to capture its president and bring him to a trial in Florida? Although Japanese should give more credit to the United States for its contribution to the cause of liberal democracy in the world, they are justified to fear serf-righteous unilateralism in American foreign policy.

Japanese should free themselves from the victim mentality and from reactive diplomacy in the U.S.-Japanese relations. They should not fall into the pessimistic fatalism that the two nations cannot get along well when Japan becomes a major power. The future of U.S.-Japanese relations depends largely on how much they can share common values, interests, and purposes in the international community. Japan should take appropriate initiatives in contributing to the interests of the international community and in controlling U.S.-Japanese frictions. The past pattern of Japanese reactive diplomacy, that is, dependence upon American pressure to carry out policy change, should not be repeated. This practice has led to considerable weariness and resentment on both sides. Japanese should not continue externalizing the problem of weak political leadership by sticking with reactive diplomacy. On the other hand, Americans should not create new villains out of the Japanese to rebuild their national unity or to externalize their domestic discontents.

As the United States has been beset by various social maladies, such as increased violent crime, the increased use of illicit drags, the deterioration of inner cities, and widened gaps between the rich and poor during the past two decades, Japanese respect for the United States as an advanced nation has declined. On the other hand, the American image of Japan has gotten worse because of Japanese racial prejudice toward American ethnic minorities and because of recurring political scandals which seem to be rooted in the Japanese political and economic system. Both nations should restore mutual respect by demonstrating their respective capability in coping with domestic problems and in constructively serving the interest of the international community. The mutual images of Japan and the United States as reliable nations with shared values and purposes are very important for a future U.S.-Japanese partnership.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Tadashi Aruga



Tadashi Aruga is professor of international relations at Hitotsubashi University and author of several books relating to United States history and U.S. foreign relations. He studied at the University of Tokyo (B.A. in 1953 and M.A. in 1955) and has received several research grants, including Fulbright fellowships and ACLS fellowships. He served as President of the Japanese Association of International Relations (1988-90) and currently serves as President of the Japanese Association for American Studies. His current major research interest is ethnic factors in the history of U.S.-Japanese relations.

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