the Japanese term for “foreign pressure”—is the idea that the only way to get Japan to do something that it doesn’t want to do is for foreign partners to apply enough pressure so that eventually Japanese decisionmakers relent. It’s an easy framework to work with when trying to understand the history of U.S.-Japan relations thus far, but it’s an incomplete one at best. While U.S. pressure—with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s ships in Yokohama—may have served as an impetus for Japan to open its doors to the world, Japanese leaders were also well aware of the results of foreign activities in nearby China and were determined to avoid that outcome for themselves.
A less dramatic example may be playing out now. The announcement of new trade negotiations between the United States and Japan may seem like a concession given that Japan was determined to avoid bilateral trade talks, but the narrow scope of the talks reveals that Japan isn’t giving up much—agricultural concessions are capped at those offered under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks, and President Trump agreed to hold off the imposition of auto tariffs while the talks are ongoing. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s determination to cultivate and maintain a strong personal relationship with the president led many to assume that Japan would go out of its way to make economic concessions to ensure alignment on security issues, as well as the broader relationship.
The reality is more complicated. Japan is historically risk-averse, a posture that others often confuse for passivity or deference. Abe’s charm offensive on Trump was indeed designed to keep the United States and Japan on the same page on security issues but was also intended to help keep the United States off Japan’s back on economic issues and to keep Trump from following through on his campaign threats. In that sense, concessions were never the goal but rather a means to limit the damage and ride out the storm until better conditions prevailed in the bilateral relationship.
However, it’s not a move designed to save Prime Minister Abe domestically—anti-Americanism doesn’t move Japanese voters the way it might in Europe or Latin America. In fact, the main scandals he has faced are due to allegations of crony corruption rather than his competence in managing Japan’s foreign relations. If anything, his management abilities (coupled with a lava lamp of untested or untrusted opposition parties) ended up saving his approval ratings from dropping even lower.
It’s worth noting that the United States has never made the explicit linkage between the exemption from the steel tariff and bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) talks. It may be a safe inference, but the fact that neither the United States nor Japan for that matter has publicly linked the two may mean that the failure to exempt Japan from steel or auto tariffs could be linked to anything from the trade deficit to auto imports to currency. These are all things that could be tackled in a bilateral FTA but are not necessarily dependent on one. Furthermore, Japan has insisted that any FTA meet the same standards as the TPP that Trump abandoned, prioritizing strong rules for international trade over deference to the United States. Abe’s prioritization of reinvigorating TPP-11 is probably the best example of Japan’s insistence that the door to an agreement with the United States is open, but only under the right conditions. Even the possibility of a roughly “cosmetic” agreement like the update on the Korea-U.S. FTA is dismissed out of hand in Tokyo—the idea of reopening or renegotiating the agreements made to secure U.S. participation in TPP is too much to ask of Japan’s domestic stakeholders. When Abe described the existing agreements in TPP as “delicate as glass,” he may likely have described Japan’s domestic situation as much as the international agreement.
Japan shouldn’t really be affected by the new U.S. steel tariffs. Even though the United States accounts for only 5 percent of Japan’s steel exports, Japanese officials insist that the U.S. purchasers should continue to buy highly specialized Japanese steel products. Auto tariffs, on the other hand, may cost Japanese industry 1 trillion yen (about 9 billion dollars)according to recent estimates. And if Japan chooses to lodge a complaint against the United States at the World Trade Organization (WTO), it would hardly be the first time—the United States has been involved in seven out of Japan’s 23 cases as a complainant at the WTO (though the most recent one was in 2004). Furthermore, the Trump administration would also not be the first U.S. administration that Japan has stood up to over trade disagreements. Indeed, tensions may have been higher in the 1980s and 1990s when the United States insisted on improved market access.
The result is that Abe’s relationship with Trump and his steadfastness on trade policy are two sides of the same coin—protecting Japan’s national interest by avoiding outright confrontation (and jeopardizing security cooperation) and making clear where Japan’s red lines are drawn. Whether this is the right approach is a fair question, but Abe’s approach is more consistent with precedent than is often appreciated. Foreign pressure may seem like an enticing strategy but still has its limits in Japan.
Paul Nadeau is an adjunct fellow with the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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