Over the past 48 hours, I have had to remind myself more than once that the purpose of my trip to Japan went beyond providing firsthand witness to a dramatic, unexpected, and horrifying natural disaster. The members of the Japanese American Leadership Delegation – 13 of us from across the nation and our stalwart leader Irene Hirano Inouye – came to Japan to meet Japanese business and political leaders, to deepen our knowledge of pressing issues in U.S.-Japanese relations, and to find a collective voice as Japanese Americans.
We did accomplish all of these things, at least before events turned our attention in a different direction. It seems a bit odd at this point, with the scale of the human disaster in Japan only now becoming fully apparent, to return to questions of trans-Pacific relations, which seem so trifling and narrow in comparison. Yet thinking about these matters of policy is not only therapeutic, carrying my mind to the time before the earth shook, but also true to the purpose of the JALD and of this series of short reflections from Japan.
In the moments after the earthquake hit, and before we realized the extent of the devastation, one member of the delegation joked that the 2011 JALD would be known as the trip of the “two shocks.” Japan’s people and media love to speak of “shocks”: the Oil Crisis of the early 1970s is known in Japan as the “oil shock”; Washington’s opening of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China and the floating of the dollar versus the yen are known collectively as the “Nixon shocks”; and the recent Wall Street financial debacle is widely referred to here as the “Lehman shock.”
One of the “two shocks” for our delegation, of course, was physical – the sharp collision of geologic plates off the east coast of Japan – and the other was political.
As soon as we arrived in Japan, news of scandal in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan was brewing. The charismatic Foreign Minister, Maehara Seiji, revealed that he had accepted a series of campaign donations from a foreign national, which is illegal under Japanese law. The details of the payments made it seem like a tempest in a teapot: The donations added up to only a couple thousand dollars over several years, and the donor was an elderly Korean woman, long a resident of Japan, who used a Japanese name and ran a barbeque restaurant in Kyoto patronized by Maehara and his family.
The whole crisis reeked of the partisan politics and culture of political scandal that have paralyzed the Japanese establishment for decades, and especially since the collapse of Japan’s “Bubble Economy” in the early 1990s. Maehara, it turned out, would be the latest victim of the mud-slinging in Japan’s dysfunctional political world: deciding to cut and run rather than endangering his future prospects by fighting to the bitter end, Maehara announced his resignation on Sunday.
All this hit pretty close to home for the delegation, since our trip was sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and we were scheduled to meet Maehara in Tokyo on Thursday. Maehara had proved himself, even in his short term in office, to be very committed to building relations between Japan and the United States, and we all had looked forward to a candid and meaningful conversation with him. We resigned ourselves to a meeting with some flunkie at the Ministry at the end of the week.
As it turned out, the wheels of politics continued to move quickly. By Thursday, Matsumoto Takeaki, a deputy in the MOFA, was appointed as the new Foreign Minister and the meeting with our delegation was confirmed. The fact that we had the opportunity to talk with him on his first full day on the job made our visit quite unexpectedly special. It was doubly so for me, since I was on deck to serve as the spokesman for the group, greeting the Foreign Minister, posing the first questions, and steering the conversation.
Our visit with Matsumoto was short, and we did not have the chance to dig deeply into issues, but it was a revealing encounter. As one might expect from someone fresh to a new position of tremendous responsibility, the Foreign Minister was very deliberate and guarded in his comments. He talked with us about the important roles that could be played by Japanese Americans, about the centrality of the U.S.-Japan alliance in the security of Northeast Asia (an unpredictable neighborhood, with North Korea and China in the mix), and about some of his personal priorities moving forward. His answer to a question about free trade negotiations among Pacific Rim nations revealed that he had not yet developed canned responses, and also that he was being extremely circumspect in all he was saying, even in a closed-door meeting.
We left the Ministry very impressed by Matsumoto personally – he is from a long political lineage and is a descendant of Ito Hirobumi, the father of Japan’s 1889 constitution and a political giant of historic proportions – but not terribly certain about what his appointment would mean for the future of U.S.-Japanese relations.
Up until the earthquake on Friday afternoon, we all wondered whether another political shock was in store. The rumblings were rife in the media that the prime minister, Kan Naoto, was going to be the next head to fall. Kan was under attack not just for the Maehara scandal, but also for gridlock over the passage of a new national budget and wafting odors of a new political scandal of his own. We joked that we might be shaking hands with another first-day-on-the-job rookie when we turned up at the prime minister’s office for our scheduled meeting late in the day on Friday. Of course, the disaster that day made our meeting impossible. It also most likely cemented Kan’s job, at least for the time being: a change in leadership at this moment of extreme national crisis seems unthinkable, although appraisals of the government’s response to the earthquake will almost certainly determine Kan’s longer-term fate.