Home [ AND THE WORLD ] And Barack sings kabuki!

And Barack sings kabuki!

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Japan’s new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was elected on a platform of developing a more independent relationship with America.  After all, those Yankee bully boys have been dictating Japanese foreign policy for over 60 years.  Ironically, this comes at a time when the US is losing interest in Japan, and is focusing on its G2 relationship with China, a country that has always been able to punch above its weight.  And also ironically, with neighbours like China and North Korea, Japan needs the US, which guarantees its defense, perhaps more than it realizes. 

The issue of the US forces in the southern Japanese island of Okinawa has become the lightening rod for US President Obama’s visit to Tokyo right now.  In 2006, after 15 lengthy years of negotiations, the US and Japan agreed to move its base to elsewhere on the island.

The new Japanese government has made it clear that it wants to re-open this agreement, and shift the base off the island completely.  Okinawa residents have had enough of the antics of US troops (there are occasional cases of teenage rape), accidents, pollution and airplane noise.  The US only returned Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty in the 1970s, having governed it for nearly 30 years after World War 2.  For the US, Okinawa is ideally located vis-à-vis China, Korea and Taiwan. 

In preparation for President Obama’s visit, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Tokyo to lay down the law.  The US/Japan agreement on Okinawa was not an agreement between the US Republican Party and the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party.  It was an agreement between two sovereign nations which cannot be flippantly reopened with a change in government.

Hatoyama is in a difficult position.  His government is new, still finding its feet.  There is lack of discipline among his ministers who are sending mixed messages.  The bureaucrats cannot help much.  They are running scared because of Hatoyama’s wish to reduce their power.  And the new Democratic Party of Japan government cannot back track too quickly from its campaign manifesto.  Its main focus is next year’s upper house elections.

For Japan, a country that has always punched below its weight, saving face and enjoying prestige are more important than substance.  Above all, being taken seriously by the US is crucial for this nation with one of the world’s biggest inferiority complexes.  Hatoyama was flush with pride that he is on a first name basis with Obama – Yukio and Barack!  

Obama is very popular in Japan.  The CD of his inaugural address and its accompanying book have been bestsellers in Japan thanks to its inspirational spirit and its help in learning English.  The Japanese market is now being flooded with Obama items.  He is quickly becoming Japan's English teacher, as his English is easy to understand as pronounces words clearly and he speaks slowly. 

Obama has also become a verb in Japanese -- "to Obama" (obamu) means to ignore inexpedient and inconvenient facts or realities, to think 'yes we can, yes we can' and to proceed with optimism.  There is even a small town in Western Japan called Obama, who the President saluted in his speech.  This ancient fishing village of 30,000 people has turned its accidental fame into a cottage industry with Obama souvenir items.    

Obama is also surely aware of Mao’s advice to Kissinger (as reported in Pyle) that “Japan must not feel neglected by the United States: it is inherently insecure and sensitive”. 

So Obama has agreed to reopen the Okinawa issue.  A high-level working group will be established.  It will likely agree to some small modifications to the original agreement.  Hatoyama will be able to pretend that he has stood up to the Americans.

Obama’s fellow African Americans have made immense contributions to world culture through jazz, blues, soul, hip hop, rap and so on.  Now Barack Obama has shown that he can sing Japanese kabuki!



Japan Rising: The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose, by Kenneth B. Pyle.  A Century Foundation Book.  2007