A not so special relationship

June 26, 1998

THE CLASH. US-Japanese relations throughout history. By Walter LaFeber. 508pp. Norton. Pounds 22. - 0 393 03950 1.

The binational polls that regularly measure the mood of United States-Japan relations recently reported that 43 per cent of Japanese and American people believe that relations between their two countries are now good - a relatively warm showing in the volatile history of Japanese-American mutual opinion. At the same time, officials and commentators in each country continued to harangue the other, the Japanese criticizing the United States for its unrelenting geopolitical arrogance and Americans scolding Japan for its steadfast failure of international leadership. In short, at the public level, it was business as usual between two nations thrown together by history into one of those "special relationships" that seem to bring as much bane as benefit.

The title, The Clash, clearly suggests more bane than benefit. In his widely researched and smoothly written account of US-Japan relations, Walter LeFeber traces the phases of amity and enmity - with the emphasis on the latter - from the early 1850s to the late 1990s. This is a big book with a strong storyline, in which two forms of capitalism clash over two visions of empire, with wrenching, sometimes cataclysmic effect. The conflict centred on China. From the nineteenth century, America called for open doors and open markets for its global capitalist expansion. Japan preferred spheres of influence and a regional basis for economic and political autonomy. (Neither cared much what China thought.) The result, in 1941, was war between Japan and the United States. Later, during the Cold War, China became, in LaFeber's words, "a vast glowering ghost hovering over the US-Japan relationship", as imperial America strove to contain Communism while Japan concentrated on its own capitalism, succeeding to the extent of sparking a series of economic flashfires with its ally, the United States. After the end of the Cold War, the systemic clash between American-style market capitalism and the state-and-network capitalism of Japan continued against the back-drop of "the century-old rivalry to decide which system was to lead in developing Asian and especially Chinese markets". LaFeber thus concludes that "history promises continued clashes".

This bald rendition does not do justice to the breadth and texture of the book, which is rich in anecdote and lively detail. But it does suggest the strengths and weaknesses of so sweeping a narrative. The first strength derives from the surprising fact that, despite the sometimes obsessive interest in the relationship on both sides of the Pacific, there is no similarly comprehensive account in either Japanese or English. An acknowledged master of US diplomatic history, LaFeber had perhaps the advantage of distance from the afflictive claustrophobia of many Japan specialists. His model may also have been his classic, and comparably grand, America, Russia and the Cold War, the eight updated editions of which, published between 1967 and 1997, chronicle another binational clash of (surely greater) historic proportion.

In both books, LaFeber insists that "long hist-orical themes" established early in the relationship continued to set the conditions for later interactions. Here he shows the durable half-life of such foreign-policy pieties as the US calls for an "open door" in China and for "fair field and no favour" in trade. The US State Department, he comments wryly, was so "light on new ideas" that it was still making the same demands for trade liberalization in the 1960s as it had in the 1930s, no matter the post-war rise of Japan's economy or the patent failure of such ultimata to move the Japanese Government in any era. Japan, for its part, used similar arguments about its economic vulnerability to justify imperial prerogatives in Manchuria from 1900 to 1945 as it did in order to resist American demands for open markets in the 1980s. But this reflexive diplomacy had structural roots, the deepest of which LaFeber traces to economic soil. If his clash of two capitalisms sounds old hat in Marxist terms, it should be noted that few American histories of US-Japan relations confront the economic contradictions head on, preferring instead to ascribe pre-war conflicts to Japanese militarism and post-war tensions to deficiencies in Japanese global citizenship. And few American historians are as critical of the United States as LaFeber is here. He writes a nuanced version of what was once called revisionist diplomatic history, which made its mark during the Vietnam War era by showing that, anti-communist catechisms to the contrary, the Soviet Union was not unilaterally responsible for the Cold War. His steady focus on economics is therefore welcome, as is his insistence that the United States habitually assumed a self-conferred transpacific right to tell the Japanese what to do.

Japan, meanwhile, repeatedly sought independence from its perpetual role as junior partner in what LaFeber calls "the ironic relationship". He sees irony in the "slipknot" of the 1930s, when the more Japan struggled against the dependence of the relationship with the United States, "the tighter it became - until, finally, the Japanese empire strangled". After the war that strangled the empire, the irony shifted to the other side, as the United States sought to rebuild Japan, "so it could gain a kind of economic interdependence with the Asians it had long sought and the Americans had tried to prevent". In its Cold War efforts to make post-war Japan a bulwark against Communism in the 1940s and 50s, the US Government helped to put in place the very protectionist measures that it later blamed Japan for perpetuating, to the economic detriment of the United States. Racism compounded the ironies for the Japanese, who in 1924 found themselves barred from immigration to the United States precisely at the moment when Tokyo was acquiescing in Washington's post-First World War vision of diplomacy in Asia. Part Americaphilic, part Americaphobic, Japan's deep ambivalence towards the United States emerged over decades of this sort of ironic treatment.

LaFeber is not only good on irony, he is also strong on geometry. By paying heed to the larger world context, LaFeber avoids the blinkered bilateralism that characterizes many accounts of US-Japan relations. He shows how policies adopted by the two countries often arose in response to developments somewhere else, usually (though not always) in China. But he, too, falls victim to a sort of biographer's optic: a loss of peripheral vision caused by intense focus on his subject. Not only does the subject fill the author's visual field, but it assumes disproportionate scale in the larger landscape.

Because of this occupational hazard, LaFeber misses the extent of the asymmetry in the Japanese-American relationship. Japan's enduring fixation on the United States was reciprocated only intermittently by Americans, who, when it came to Asia, seemed to be capable of favouring either Japan or China, but never both at the same time. Most of the time, of course, they did not think of Asia at all. A true history of US-Asian relations would contain long chapters in which neither Japan nor China figured very much in the briefing rooms of US national interest - a history, as it were, of inattention.

For despite a hundred years of rhetoric about a Pacific century, the United States situated itself first in an Atlantic and, later, in a global world. Even between 1937 and 1941, the period which LaFeber calls "the most instructive" in Japanese-American relations, and which culminated in war at Pearl Harbor, it was the fall of Europe, not the fate of China, that consumed the days and nightmares of American leaders. The hardening of their policy towards Japan arose geometrically in response to events on the other side of the world. Not that such international geometry is surprising on the eve of a world war, but that it repays the historian to chronicle not only the direct encounters between two nations but the less visible and often more consequent actions that arose from a different quarter altogether.

If binational history has its limitations, so, too, does an analysis that, while it insists on the importance of China for Japanese-American relations, treats China as a more or less inert object of competing imperial attentions. This may make historical sense, since Japan and the United States tended to treat China in just this way. But the problem with this approach becomes apparent when LaFeber describes the future clash in terms of a century-old Japanese and American rivalry for Asian and Chinese markets, as if Asia and China would have little to say in the matter. Writing truly international history turns out to be no less difficult than dealing with a truly international world.

It also seems difficult, even for a master historian like Walter LaFeber, to surrender the sweep of a grand narrative which is neatly arranged in an almost inevitabilist manner, so that Japanese-American relations move from crisis to crisis as if structurally predestined to clash. The most recent exemplar of a by now archaeological literature of transpacific hostility, the Japanese translation of the book will sell ten times as many copies as the English original, the old asymmetry of interest between Japan and the United States still holding. Many other accounts, of course, tell the same story in the opposite way, with a matrix of good relations punctuated by conflict, only to resume an appointed course of binational friendship. Both narratives are wrong; neither entirely friendly nor wholly at loggerheads, the United States and Japan participated in a relationship that was never so special in earlier times and is growing more "normal" every day. The question for the future is how the relationship between the world's two largest economies will affect the rest of the world. And this book is a very good place to begin to think about why the past does not provide an answer to that question.

Carol Gluck is George Sansom Professor of Japanese History at Columbia University.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments