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Nikkei Voice: A JA’s view of Trump and Japan

By May 19, 2017June 8th, 2017No Comments

By Gil Asakawa

Many Japanese Americans I know don’t pay much attention to Japan, which I think is a pity. I believe JAs should keep up with news from Japan, and travel to Japan. A lot.

However, most JAs I know closely follow the news of Donald Trump’s presidency and what he’s doing in the U.S.

JAs — and others — have been concerned enough about our president that this year’s Day of Remembrance events across the U.S., were packed with much larger audiences than in past years. That’s because Executive Order 9066 led to the incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese descent in American concentration camps.

Now, with President Donald Trump signing a blizzard of executive orders, including two that are controversial and currently on-hold, one temporarily banning travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries and another that threatens to punish “sanctuary cities,” also blocked by a federal judge, E.O. 9066 has a much heavier symbolic weight. People are worried that what happened to Japanese Americans could happen again to Muslim Americans.

So, Trump’s brief reign as president has already resulted in a lot more awareness of the Japanese American experience. Thanks, prez!

But JAs should also keep an eye on what he does and how he thinks about Asia and, in particular, Japan.

His grasp of foreign relations is by all accounts his weakest point. By intoning “America First” as the tagline for his campaign and now administration, Trump is purposefully turning his back on the rest of the world.

Trump alarmed anyone with an interest in Japan, for instance, by suggesting during the campaign that Japan and South Korea might be better off developing their own nuclear weapons — a suggestion that’s anathema to Japanese.

He repeatedly growled about how Japan wasn’t paying its share of the U.S. military’s presence in the country. He repeatedly criticized the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP, as a terrible trade pact. This opposition to the TPP has already manifested itself — though to be fair, Hillary Clinton also said she’d veto it if she became president — and Trump has backed out of the deal.

Trump symbolically embraced Taiwan’s independence by having a friendly phone call with the country’s leader, then later seemed to back down and cow in front of China’s President Xi Jinping and reaffirm the “One China Policy” that has been part of U.S. foreign policy for decades. He has also said repeatedly that China is a currency manipulator.

Since meeting in person with Xi, he now says that China isn’t manipulating its currency after all. He has put a lot of faith into China’s ability to keep North Korea’s Kim Jong-un from doing anything rash. Trump admitted that after speaking with Xi for “10 minutes,” he now realizes that the relationship between China and the Korean peninsula isn’t so simple. But that hasn’t stopped him from talking as if China can control North Korea. Or else, he threatened, he’ll act unilaterally with American military might.

Yikes. Imagine how this trash-talk is going over in both Japan and South Korea, which would be Kim’s first targets if war breaks out.

Japan’s Abe was brave enough to be the first foreign leader to visit Trump after he was elected, even before he was sworn in. Abe returned to visit Trump after his inauguration, spending a weekend with the president and being involved in more unexpected controversy.

During a posh dinner at Mar-a-Lago, the news came in that North Korea had fired a test missile that landed in the Sea of Japan. Instead of moving into a private room to discuss the potential world crisis, Trump kept the dinner party at his club’s restaurant, allowing gawking members (whose dues to just join the club were doubled from $100,000 to $200,000 when Trump won the presidency) to look on, peer at national security intelligence photos and briefings and shoot selfies with the soldier who carries the “football,” the code to the nuclear trigger.

Donald Trump has turned the most important job in the world into a reality TV show.

Abe’s outreach to Trump, and the nudge from Kim Jong-un’s missile threat, seems to have helped seal the cracking relationship between our two countries. Trump has affirmed the close relationship with Japan and has pledged to protect Japan, as has been the case since the end of World War II.

He still isn’t inclined to sign on to the TPP (leaving China to become the dominant economic force in Asia), but the U.S. is negotiating on trade deals directly with Japan. We’ll see if products from Japan end up more expensive because of tariffs charged to import them in the U.S.

If consumers shun these products — like food, toys, machines and cars — the ripple effects will be felt not just in the U.S. economy but around the world.

It remains to be seen how this closest of relationships between the U.S. and Japan evolves during the Trump presidency. But we should all be watching closely because if it doesn’t affect us personally (and probably will, in our wallets), it might affect our relatives across the Pacific.

Gil Asakawa is chair of the Editorial Board of the Pacific Citizen and the author of “Being Japanese American” (second edition Stone Bridge Press, 2015). He blogs at