When President Obama arrives in Tokyo on Friday, he will confront a country that seeks to be an ally of the United States. For Japan has never been an American ally. It was first a rival, then an enemy, and finally, after it lost the war it foolishly started with the U.S., it became a protectorate, not an ally.
The distinction matters. An alliance is an institution negotiated between two sovereign governments in which each agrees to a series of reciprocal obligations that have the force of law. A protectorate arrangement, by contrast, sees the protectorate retaining a degree of control of its internal affairs, but surrendering authority to manage external relations--most crucially, in the area of military decision-making. In return for the protectorate's ceding of this key aspect of sovereignty, the dominant partner in the arrangement agrees to provide for the defense of the protectorate.
By these lights, Japan has been a protectorate of the United States since 1951. As a condition for ending the Occupation that year, the United States essentially required Japan to agree to the terms that have governed relations between the two countries ever since. Japan's security would be seen to by the United States; the U.S. would enjoy unrestricted access to a network of military bases throughout the Japanese archipelago. Japan would pay lip service to American foreign policy goals without being expected to do anything substantive outside Japan to support them; inside Japan, leftists were to be kept away from the levers of power and no one could interfere with American military operations. Japan was no longer to be the beneficiary of direct American aid and was not to be permitted to trade with China, its historically most important external market; to compensate, Japan was to receive unrestricted access to the American market at an undervalued exchange rate, and it was allowed to develop its own economy in whatever ways it saw fit--trade with China excepted--including the construction of barriers to foreign goods and capital.
These arrangements were bitterly opposed by both the left and the right in Japan. The left felt betrayed by a United States that had started the Occupation with talk of genuine economic and political democracy, only to end up handing control of Japan's key governing institutions back to the men who had run the war economy. Meanwhile, many on the right believed the legacy of the Occupation and the terms on which it had ended had emasculated their country in both a cultural and a political sense.
Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, who had negotiated the 1951 Peace Treaty, pleaded that he had gotten the best deal for Japan that he could, and he was probably right--it had become obvious that the U.S. was simply unwilling to end the Occupation on any other terms and Japan had no way to force it to do so.
But as Japan set about rebuilding its economy, the intense domestic opposition to Japan's status as a dependent protectorate began to dissolve. For without being fully conscious of what they were doing, the leaders of Japan's corporations and economic bureaucracies found that they had constructed a model for economic growth that over time delivered both global supremacy in key industrial segments and higher economic growth rates than had ever been enjoyed to that point in human history. True, the model depended on circumstances that were likely to prove temporary--an undervalued currency, access to a limitless external market for export of goods and capital without a quid-pro-quo, and relief from both the financial and political burdens of maintaining a large military establishment. But that did not lessen the model's effectiveness in providing both rapidly rising living standards and a renewed sense of national purpose and pride.
Nominally overseeing the system that grew out of the postwar arrangements was an entity known from its formation in 1955 as the Liberal Democratic Party(“LDP”). To paraphrase Voltaire, this loose confederation of interest groups was neither liberal, nor democratic, nor a political party in the sense of the French Socialists or the UK Conservatives. Essentially power brokers, they adjudicated conflicts among the various semi-autonomous fiefdoms that constitute Japan's political economy. And they managed the relationship with the United States. The LDP did what was necessary to soothe Washington's periodic spasms of irritation when Japan's economic methods caused political problems for the White House, or when Tokyo was found insufficiently ardent in cheering on America's latest obsession, whether that be falling dominoes in Southeast Asia or tin-pot dictators in the Middle East. Indeed, no country save Israel devoted more zealous attention to cultivating America's good opinion than Japan. And the mark of the really effective Japanese politician was his ability to mollify the United States and whatever domestic interest groups had to be made to swallow the concession of the moment necessary to keep the Americans from grumbling too much.
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