(The following speech was given on June 1 in Los Angeles during a symposium celebrating the 20th anniversary of the UCLA Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies. Inouye, the most senior member of the Senate, serves as the Senate’s president pro tempore and is third in line to the presidency after the vice president and the speaker of the House.)

I am often asked what I think about the state of U.S.-Japan relations, and about its future. Since the end of World War II and the U.S. occupation of Japan, our relationship was very stable and predictable, until recently.

I believe this period of transition signals growth, and reflect the dynamics of the region. As we contemplate the future of the U.S.-Japan relationship, I believe our strategic partnership will continue to shape the future of peace, stability, and economic growth in the region.

These are unusual times for our two countries. For Japan, it is a challenging political and economic period. Since U.S. occupation ended in 1952, Japan’s government was dominated by one party, the LDP or Liberal Democratic Party. In 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan, DPJ, ended 57 years of nearly uninterrupted LDP rule.

The last few years were also marked by diplomatic missteps and disagreements between our governments, which were complicated by changing Japanese leadership. For example, over the last seven years there have been six different prime ministers and foreign ministers. This led to the perception of political instability in Japan. However, these things did not occur overnight, or because the DPJ assumed power.

To the credit of the United States, we have not been critical of the political changes within Japan, and for the most part we have been supportive.

I often quote the words of former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, who became the 34th U.S. ambassador to Japan in 1977.  In one of his first speeches, Ambassador Mansfield stated, “the most important bilateral relationship is the one with Japan, bar none.” This has, and continues to be the policy of the United States.

Since the end of occupation, we provided Japan with a security umbrella. In part, it was due to our insistence that Japan’s post-war constitution includes a provision prohibiting the re-establishment of a military organization capable of going to war. Japan also served as a buffer and counterweight to communism during the Cold War. At the same time, our military presence tempered historic hatreds between Japan, Korea, and China.

A Changing Region

Today, the Asia-Pacific region is changing. The shift in U.S. strategy is attributed, in part, to China’s economic rise, its military modernization, and increasing regional assertiveness. Over the last 10 years South Korea’s economic and political muscle increased tremendously. Northeast Asia is no longer dominated by Japan and the U.S.

Sen. Daniel Inouye

The end of the Cold War, and entrance onto the world’s stage by post-Soviet Russia, brought our relationship with Japan to a crossroads. How do we move forward without the threat of communism and concerns about Soviet naval sea control and access to the Pacific Ocean in and around Japan?

There are also competing economic interests beyond China and South Korea. We remain deeply concerned about the nuclear build-up in North Korea, and the recent transition of power to Kim Jong-Un. Southeast Asia is rising in its importance and this will influence how we look at the Asia-Pacific region. How will our countries’ respective relations with these other nations influence the one between the U.S. and Japan?

The security umbrella we provided allowed Japan to focus on rebuilding its country and economy without the burden of defense spending. As a result, the Japanese economy boomed, but also fueled some resentment. One of the lowest points came during the 1980s with the decline of the Big Four automakers.

Today’s economic friction comes from Japan’s potential entry into the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, trade negotiations.  The U.S. auto industry remains concerned about access to Japanese markets; in the insurance market, we are concerned about the Japan Post’s domination of the industry; and have concerns about the very strong agriculture bloc in Japan. At the same time, the Japanese do not agree on whether or not the country should join TPP discussions.

Although Japan is no longer the United States’ largest trading partner, it remains an important market and point of access to the rest of Asia. Japan recognizes its relative importance to the U.S. is now overshadowed by China, who became our top trading partner in 2007.

The Okinawa Issue

In the security realm, the U.S.-Japan relationship is maturing, and looks different from the Cold War arrangement. Today our countries grapple with the planned relocation of forces from Okinawa to Guam. At issue is the relocation of Futenma Air Station to Henoko.

After years of negotiations, the U.S. and Japan entered into an agreement known as the 2006 “Realignment Roadmap.” The roadmap would decrease U.S. presence in Okinawa without reducing the overall forward presence of the U.S. in the region by relocating 8,000 Marines and their dependents from Okinawa to Guam. The initial cost estimate was $10.3 billion, which would be split between the U.S. and Japan, $2.8 billion and $6.09 billion, respectively. The goal was to begin construction in 2010 and complete the relocation of Marines by 2014. At the heart of the transfer agreement was the construction of the Futenma Replacement Facility.

Once Japan’s new political leadership expressed a desire to seek a location outside of Okinawa for the Futenma Replacement Facility, our relationship hit political and diplomatic turbulence. The world perceived cracks in our relations and I am convinced other nations in the region began testing our shared resolve and commitment.

However, after waiting patiently, the U.S. and Japan entered into a revised roadmap, which was announced at the end of April. Changes to the Roadmap included delinking construction of the Futenma Replacement Facility from the relocation of U.S. Marines. It also increased the number of Marines moving from Okinawa to 9,000 — 4,500 to Guam and the rest to other sites like Australia and Hawaii.

In the end, both sides reconfirmed that the alliance continue to help provide for the maintenance of peace, security, and economic prosperity in the region. Challenges remain, but I hope the Japanese government will be able to convince the people of Okinawa to support the agreement.

The 3/11 Disaster

The March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster devastated the Tohoku region of Japan. At that point in time, our relationship was choppy. Yet the U.S. response to the triple disasters demonstrated the fundamental strength of our relationship. Our military responded faster to aid Japan than did Japanese Self-Defense Forces.

A U.S. Navy carrier task force headed to Southeast Asia was diverted and rerouted to the coast of Fukushima to provide assistance in the immediate aftermath. For the first time, Japanese Self-Defense Forces were allowed to land on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. Every U.S. military service participated in what became known as Operation Tomodachi.

And now this humanitarian program is being continued by the State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and the U.S.-Japan Council through the Tomodachi initiative. This has been the nature of our relationship. Despite our disagreements, in times of need, friends come to each other’s assistance.

New Attitudes

For many who served in our military and fought in the Pacific during World War II, it may still be difficult to see that our most hated enemy is now our friend. This took time.

According to the annual Pew Global Attitudes Survey, the Japanese people perceived Americans and the U.S. positively by 87 and 85 percent, respectively. This was higher than all other countries included in Pew’s survey, and even more impressive is that the Japanese view of the U.S. was higher than the percentage of Americans that viewed the U.S. positively.

This positive view of our important partner in the Pacific is also shared by Americans. In 2011, the Japanese Foreign Ministry conducted its opinion poll of Americans’ perception of Japan as an ally or friend, and asked whether or not the U.S. should maintain the current security treaty with Japan. In both cases, Americans expressed an overwhelming positive view of Japan, by over 80 and 90 percent, respectively. It is this positive opinion of one another that allows me to remain optimistic about the future.

Contemplating the future of U.S.-Japan relations, one might believe it is growing apart. I believe our relationship is maturing. Like any maturing relationship, both sides will at times disagree with each other. After all, we are both sovereign nations, not a master-servant arrangement.

If you look at the stability in Northeast Asia since the end of World War II to today, there have not been any major conflicts in the area outside of the Korean War, which says something when one looks at the problems in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa.

The U.S. return to focusing on the Asia-Pacific region cannot come at the expense of its cornerstone, Japan. We will have to have difficult conversations as we move forward in this partnership. However, they should not come at the expense of the political stability, economic, and strategic success of this foundational relationship.

I anticipate our relationship will continue to move in a positive direction. The future of stability and success in the region rely on the strong foundational relationship Ambassador Mansfield spoke about over 30 years ago, “the most important bilateral relationship is the one with Japan, bar none.”

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