WASHINGTON – During a visit to Washington late last month, all flags at public institutions were flying at half staff; a former president was indicted by a New York grand jury on over 30 counts; and a reporter for a leading newspaper was detained by Russian authorities on espionage charges.
Despite it being just a quick trip of two nights, I learned a great deal where I found that America’s conscience was being tested. I also had a hunch that, likewise, our “Japaneseness” would eventually be put to the test.
A few days before my arrival, six people, including three 9-year-old students, were shot and killed at an elementary school in Nashville. While this one incident alone was so shocking that it left me speechless, surprisingly, it was the 129th such shooting in the U.S. of the kind in 2023. Except for war-torn countries such as Ukraine, no other country in modern times has had 129 mass shootings in just 90 days.
It reminds me of a bad joke I heard a long time ago. Every nation in the world has a taboo that its citizens will never accept. For example, speed limits on the autobahn in Germany, importing rice in Japan and gun control in the United States. Now the autobahn has speed limits and Japan imports California rice but the U.S. Congress still shows no sign of moving on gun control. This is a situation unthinkable in any other democracy.
On March 30, the Manhattan district attorney indicted former U.S. President Donald Trump, who stands accused of falsifying business records and possible illegal conduct related to his 2016 presidential campaign. Although it was expected, a shock wave quickly spread across the United States. The New York Times, CNN and other liberal media outlets triumphantly replayed every charge against the former president. In contrast, conservative media such as Fox News naturally reacted by calling it a “political witch hunt.”
For its part, Fox tended to downplay the indictment rather than treating it as top news. Its coverage was not as rabidly “pro-Trump” as it had been in the past and was in fact quite restrained. Perhaps Fox is changing its assessment of Trump ahead of the 2024 presidential election. At the very least, I could sense this time that all conservative media are no longer in the pro-Trump camp.
While the American media was abuzz with news of the Trump indictment, a young American journalist with the Wall Street Journal was reportedly detained in Russia on espionage charges. Speaking of Russia, a famous female professional basketball player was released in a hostage exchange not too long ago. It seems as if American society has once again begun to be at the mercy of Russia’s repeated hostage-taking tactics.
The mainstream media has been focused on how the U.S. government is handling the situation, with appearances by Americans previously detained in Russia and by those in the support groups that worked to free them. No one, however, has the right answer. Since Russia believes it is fighting the U.S. in Ukraine, the detentions should be seen as part of Russia’s attempt to test the will of Americans to fight.
The fact that these three incidents occurred within a few days of each other is probably coincidental. There is no doubt, however, that they are serious tests and challenges to America’s social, domestic and foreign policies, and ultimately, to “Americanness” itself. Can America withstand these challenges? Will the U.S. continue to be exceptional or will it be transformed into a mediocre nation?
My first visit to the United States was to the West Coast in 1970. From McDonald’s to rock and soul music, American culture literally captivated me — a mere teenager from Japan at the time. Although society in the U.S. started changing after the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, America was still affluent, generous and conscientious. Everything in the U.S. at that time seemed bright and shining for Asian youths like me.
The recent cab drive from Dulles Airport saw me traveling down a beautiful tree-lined highway along the Potomac River. It was a nostalgic scene that I used to pass by every day in the early 1990s when I was with the Japanese Embassy in Washington. At the time, I even thought of leaving Japan and living in the United States. However, today, I have no desire to live in this increasingly irrational, dangerous and no longer exceptional country.
What I reaffirmed during my trip to Washington is that the very nature of the U.S. is being tested in terms of social, domestic and foreign policy.
Can the U.S. survive these tests? In order to overcome its problems, self-reform is compulsory. But does the U.S. have the strength to do so? And even if it does, will its political leaders be capable of carrying out needed reforms?
The U.S. experienced unprecedented prosperity in the 1950s and won the Cold War with its overwhelming military and economic might. America worked hard on correcting the absurdities of its society through the civil rights movement, but eventually lost overwhelming influence in international politics and allowed China to rise in the Indo-Pacific. Can the U.S. regain the Americanness the world once longed for?
These questions may also apply to Japan today. After World War II, Japan deeply regretted its pre-war strategic errors in judgment, returned to the right alliance, rebuilt its devastated economy and eventually restored democracy. Since the 1990s, however, has Japanese society not begun to lose its former vitality, and is it not facing major challenges similar to those of the United States in the social, domestic and foreign policy arenas?
Perhaps tests of these sorts are common challenges shared by the world’s democracies. Unless the Japanese people correctly understand these tests and unless the country’s politicians seriously seek to reform their nation, Japan will eventually face problems similar to those of the United States. Japan must take a scalpel to the bedrock of vested interests, not hand over power to unsound populist politicians, and be reborn as a resilient and powerful nation before it is too late.