March 7, 2014 12:49 pm

Japan-US relations hit new hurdle

Caroline Kennedy, US Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Japan, speaks congratulating both NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory teams, noting it was an example of over 40 years of strong US and Japan relations, Friday February 28 2014 at Tanegashima Space Center (TNSC) in Tanegashima, Japan©AFP PHOTO / NASA / Bill Ingalls

Barack Obama delighted Japan’s leaders last year by appointing Caroline Kennedy, celebrity and presidential progeny, as his new ambassador to Tokyo – confirmation, in Japanese eyes, that their country still mattered despite economic problems and the rise of neighbouring China.

Yet four months into her tenure, and one month before a planned visit to Japan by President Obama, Ms Kennedy’s popularity with the Japanese political class is being sorely tested, amid what some are calling a rocky patch in US-Japan relations.

Ms Kennedy, a Democratic party activist and daughter of the assassinated president and liberal icon John F Kennedy, was always going to struggle to find common ground with the conservatives who run Japan in the government of Shinzo Abe, prime minister.

Since taking her post in November, she has made waves by expressing her views on cultural issues such as dolphin hunting and as a conduit for broader concerns in Washington over Mr Abe’s handling of relations with Japan’s Asian neighbours.

In an interview broadcast late on Thursday by NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, she revived US criticism of Mr Abe’s visit in December to Yasukuni shrine, the Tokyo war memorial loathed by Chinese and South Koreans as a symbol of Japan’s early 20th-century imperialism.

“Anything that distracts from all the positive work that we do together and makes the regional climate more difficult is something that is not as constructive moving forward,” Ms Kennedy said. She urged Japan and South Korea, which like Japan is an important US ally in the region, to work harder to get along.

The comments drew a rebuttal from Japan’s top government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, the chief cabinet secretary, who said on Friday: “The prime minister visited [Yasukuni] with the aim of building a country without war, and we will humbly and sincerely explain this idea and seek understanding.”

Mr Suga was being more tactful than some other members of Mr Abe’s Liberal Democratic party. After the US released a previous statement saying it was “disappointed” with the Yasukuni visit, Seiichi Eto, a member of Japan’s upper house of parliament and confidante of the prime minister, posted a YouTube video in which he said: “It is us who are disappointed” by the lack of US support. The government later pressured him into removing it.

Another Abe ally, Koichi Hagiuda, was overheard last month telling fellow LDP lawmakers: “This kind of fault-finding never happened under the Republicans.”

Many see such comments as social conservatives letting off steam rather than signs of a serious breach. Indeed, Mr Abe, faced with the perceived threat of an ever more muscular China, has made strengthening the decades-old US-Japan alliance a priority, and many of his initiatives – from his Abenomics campaign to stimulate the economy to his passage of a bill to protect defence secrets and support for a long-unimplemented deal to relocate a US Marine base in Okinawa – have won energetic US support.

Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation, a think-tank, says China’s growing power and Washington’s desire to use a united Japan and South Korea to shore up its influence in the region have lowered US tolerance for divisive gestures such as visits to Yasukuni. “History issues aren’t usually a serious issue for the US, but this time it’s more sensitive because it’s related to China and strains in the Japan-South Korea relationship.”

This kind of fault-finding never happened under the Republicans

- Koichi Hagiuda

Ms Kennedy is still mobbed by admiring ordinary Japanese when she makes public appearances, but conservatives began seeing trouble in January when she turned to Twitter to condemn the annual “drive hunt” of dolphins in the western Japanese town of Taiji, in which hundreds of the creatures are herded together by boats to be captured or killed.

“Deeply concerned by inhumanness of drive hunt dolphin killing. USG opposes drive hunt fisheries,” she tweeted.

In addition to the pushback over Yasukuni, Japanese officials were upset when the White House decided to shorten the planned visit to Japan by one day to accommodate a stop in South Korea, following intense lobbying from Seoul. Some have also portrayed the US as taking an unreasonably hard line over agriculture and automobile tariffs in talks to form a Trans Pacific Partnership trade zone – though their aim may be to redirect the ire of anti-TPP farmers from Mr Abe’s administration to Washington.

Some defence hawks, meanwhile, believe the US has been insufficiently assertive in countering Chinese influence in the East China Sea, where Japan and China are locked in a stand-off over control of the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands.

The next area for tension could be the crisis in Ukraine: Japan is a major importer of Russian natural gas, and though Mr Abe has voiced general support for western efforts to confront Moscow, cutting off imports under a possible sanctions regime would hurt. Mr Obama and Mr Abe spent 40 minutes on the phone discussing the issue on Thursday.

Kuni Miyake, a former diplomat now at Ritsumeikan University, links Japanese frustrations to concerns among other US allies that the Obama administration is shying away from difficult military and diplomatic challenges. “It’s not just in Japan. It’s happening in Europe, it’s happening in the Middle East.”

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