Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2015.04.16

U.S.-Japan Relations 70 Years After WWII

JBpress on April 13, 2015

On a super sunny Saturday at the Tidal Basin in Washington DC, cherry trees were in full bloom. Although it was a little windy, tens of thousands of Americans of all ancestries gathered at the National Cherry Blossom Festival to celebrate spring in the United States' capital. Many visitors, however, may not know that those trees were originally donated by the Mayor of Tokyo City in March 1912.

A friend of mine in Washington called it "the only truly non-political Asian-American festival" in the United States. The person continued, saying that, "Korean Americans don't have anything like this. Chinese Americans' New Year always brings out protesters and Vietnamese Americans have anti-communism as a theme. The Cherry Blossom Festival only focuses on good relations."

Speaking about the cordial bilateral relationship between the United States and Japan, an opinion survey report, published on April 7 by the Pew Research Center, is worth close attention. The report of the polls, conducted in February and based on 2000 samples in both the United States and Japan, was entitled, "Americans, Japanese: Mutual Respect 70 Years After the End of WWII."

According to the Pew Research Center, which is considered a fairly neutral and highly dependable opinion poll organization, the findings are very encouraging. It is especially heart-warming to those, including myself, who experienced very hard and bitter feelings during the so-called U.S.-Japan 'trade wars' of the 1980s and 1990s. The report's key findings include:

- Adversaries in World War II, fierce economic competitors in the 1980s and early 1990s, Americans (68%) and Japanese (75%) nonetheless share a deep mutual respect.

- Americans believe that Japan has atoned for its actions during WWII (37% of Americans consider Japan has apologized sufficiently, 29% not sufficiently and 24% no apologies necessary).

- The animosity of the 1980s and 1990s, marked by a series of trade wars, has all but vanished (22% of Americans saw Japan as a fair trader in 1989, and 55% in 2015).

- Americans are divided (47-43%) over whether Japan should play a more active military role in the Asia-Pacific region.

- Even so, twice as many Americans (47%) as Japanese (23%) think Japan should take on more military responsibilities.

- More than half of Americans (56-34%) believe that the U.S. use of nuclear weapons to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified. The Japanese strongly disagree (14-79%).

- Americans overwhelmingly see Japanese as hardworking (94%), inventive (75%) and honest (71%).

- A majority of Japanese (67%) see that Americans are inventive, but half (50%) also say Americans are aggressive. Relatively few Japanese think of Americans as hardworking (25%) and honest (37%).

- China looms large in the minds of both Americans and Japanese in their consideration of the U.S.-Japan relationship. Just 30% of Americans and 7% of Japanese trust China.

- In contrast, a majority of Americans (80%) and Japanese (78%) trust Australia but they do not necessarily trust South Korea (49-47% for Americans and 21-75% for Japanese).

- Six-in-ten Americans (60%) believe that the rise of China as a military and economic power makes relations between Japan and the U.S. more important.

- More Americans (43-36%), especially young Americans (61-23%), think it is important to have strong economic ties with China than believe it is important to have such ties with Japan.

Although the above findings are generally promising, there are some figures in the Pew polls that the silent majority of Japanese should pay due attention to. For example, when it comes to strong economic ties, more Americans prefer China to Japan, especially non-whites (52-28%), the young (61-23%) and the Democrats (50-33%).

Another concern could be about the way Americans see the past. For example, as to the Japanese and German war deeds during WWII, 24% and 21% of Americans respectively consider that Japanese and German apologies are "not necessary." What do those numbers suggest to us? Is it because the Americans believe that the Japanese and Germans did nothing wrong? Hardly!

Remember the number of Americans (56%) who still justify the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and you can easily imagine similar figures for Americans or British who justify the bombing of Dresden in February 1945. And what about the disproportionate mass murder of civilians in Nanjing or the bombings of Tokyo or Hankow? The list goes on...

It was wonderful that those who gathered at the Tidal Basin on April 11, 2015 did not talk about the past and just enjoyed the beauty of the cherry blossoms. The festival is another example of the U.S. and Japan's shared wisdom that it is better to look to the future of our bilateral relations rather than to revisit the past. We should allow nobody to politicize the historical past between the United States and Japan.