Japan's Remarkable Call for American Leadership


Apr 22, 2024

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida addresses a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., April 11, 2024, photo by Michael A. McCoy/Reuters

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida addresses a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., April 11, 2024

Photo by Michael A. McCoy/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on The Hill on April 20, 2024.

Something quite remarkable happened during Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's visit to Washington last week. It was not the wide-ranging bilateral agreements, though there was plenty to applaud for an alliance that now appears to be truly global in nature. Nor was it the fact that Kishida gave an address to a joint session of Congress. It was not even the trilateral summit that included Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., which highlighted the alignment among American allies against Chinese aggression.

No, what stood out last week was the fact that a Japanese leader appeared before Congress and told the United States to act like a global power.

The roles have historically been reversed. For much of the Cold War, the United States pushed Japan to get more involved in global affairs beyond just economic issues. During the waning days of the Cold War, and particularly after it ended, Washington applied tremendous pressure on Tokyo to act in ways commensurate with its economic power. During the Gulf War, the George H.W. Bush administration tried to get Japan to move beyond financial support, leading to heavy criticisms of Japanese checkbook diplomacy when it did not. When it finally sent minesweepers to the Persian Gulf after the war ended, the United States criticized Japan's assistance as “too little, too late.”

History almost repeated itself 10 years later during the Iraq War. Once again, the United States pushed hard to get Japan involved, especially since so much of Japan's oil came from the Middle East. This time, the pressure was more specific, to put “boots on the ground” and “show the flag” as a visible member in the coalition of the willing. The Junichiro Koizumi administration delivered in spades, leading to a rejuvenation of the U.S.-Japan alliance that has been in accelerator mode ever since.

Japan has its own word for pressure brought on by the United States, 'beiatsu,' meaning literally 'U.S. pressure.'

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Other examples exist, so much that Japan has its own word for pressure brought on by the United States, “beiatsu,” meaning literally “U.S. pressure.”

The frustration by the United States is understandable. Japan, a powerful economy with global reach and an advanced defense force, constantly shied away from involvement outside of its national interests. Japan, however, was shackled by its own history. Out of fears how other countries would respond, and maybe even lacking confidence in its own prowess, Tokyo found it easier to leave the heavy lifting of maintaining the international order up to the United States. Washington may have been comfortable with playing the role of global policeman, but when it looked to its ally for assistance—particularly after the Cold War—Tokyo often offered only financial support. The result was frustration in the United States.

But Tokyo noticed. Over the last two decades, there has been a noticeable shift in Japan's behavior. Unfortunately, many in Washington have missed Japan's emergence as a much more proactive player in upholding the international order.

Whether it be Japan's strong advocacy of the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea; its assistance to regional countries in support of maritime domain awareness and coast guard capabilities; or its increasing voice about issues traditionally not directly tied to its own defense, like the future of Taiwan and Ukraine, Japan has found its groove. Today it is cooperating in “minilateral” formations that include Australia, the United Kingdom, India, the Republic of Korea, and others. Arguably the shining example of this proactive Japan is its Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy that other countries—including the United States itself—adopted as their own.

That brings us to last week's speech. For a country that either has been underappreciated for its international commitments or historically criticized by the United States for shirking its responsibilities, the Japanese prime minister turned the tables on Washington in a way few expected.

Kishida's speech forcefully stressed the importance of American leadership in the world. He reminded Congress that it was the United States that shaped the international order in the postwar world through every facet of its national power. He also reminded listeners that it was the United States that championed freedom and democracy, including “noble sacrifices” when necessary to “fulfill its commitment to a better world.” And in a line that was clearly meant for would-be isolationists in the chamber, Kishida pleaded, “The world needs the United States to continue playing this pivotal role in the affairs of nations.”

The Japanese prime minister turned the tables on Washington in a way few expected.

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Kishida was artful in his approach. Rather than criticizing the United States, he told the chamber that he detects “an undercurrent of self-doubt” among some about what role America should play in the world. Then, flipping the script on decades of “beiatsu,” Kishida walked through the litany of challenges facing the world today and stated firmly that the United States is not alone. While he recognized the indispensable nature of American leadership and flagged potential dangers that await if the United States shirks that responsibility, Kishida told members of Congress that Japan is side-by-side with America as one of its closest friends to encourage it to fulfill those responsibilities yet again.

Japan clearly takes its role as America's ally seriously. It has been doing much domestically to enable a more proactive posture in all facets of national power. Given the history of “beiatsu,” Japan's emergence over the past two decades to become a more willing and able partner to carry a larger burden in maintaining the international order is welcome.

That's also what makes Kishida's speech so remarkable, highlighting a concern in Japan on a strain in U.S. politics that does not advocate for U.S. global leadership. And yet, unlike American criticism of Japan in years past, Kishida's speech contained no censure or accusations. Just a plea from one of America's closest allies to members of Congress to come back and be the champion of the international order that it knows America can be.

Jeffrey W. Hornung is the Japan lead for the National Security Research Division and a senior political scientist at RAND. He is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

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