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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Japan-U.S. Relations: Issues for Congress

Emma Chanlett-Avery, Coordinator
Acting Section Research Manager

William H. Cooper
Specialist in International Trade and Finance

Mark E. Manyin
Specialist in Asian Affairs

The post-World War II U.S.-Japan alliance has long been an anchor of the U.S. security role in East Asia. The alliance facilitates the forward deployment of about 36,000 U.S. troops and other U.S. military assets in the Asia-Pacific, thereby undergirding U.S. national security strategy in the region. For Japan, the alliance and the U.S. nuclear umbrella provide maneuvering room in dealing with its neighbors, particularly China and North Korea.

When a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on March 11, 2011, U.S.-Japan relations were stable but still recovering from a difficult period in 2009-2010. The Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ’s) landslide victory in the August 2009 elections for the Lower House of Japan’s legislature marked the end of an era in Japan; it was the first time Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was voted out of office. The LDP had ruled Japan virtually uninterrupted since 1955. Since the resignation of the DPJ’s first prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, in June 2010, bilateral relations have been smoother under the leadership of Naoto Kan and Yoshihiko Noda. The party appears to have shifted its strategic thinking after a series of provocations from North Korea and indications of growing assertiveness from the Chinese military in disputed waters in 2010. The massive and immediate relief provided by the United States following the March 11 disaster bolstered the relationship further.

Difficult problems remain in the alliance, particularly in resolving problems related to the stationing of marines on Okinawa. In April 2012 the governments agreed to relocate several thousand marines elsewhere in the region, but have been unable to make serious progress on implementing a 2006 agreement to relocate the controversial Futenma Marine Air Station to a less densely populated location on Okinawa. Futenma Air Base remains open and presents a risk of an accident or crime that could exacerbate local-base relations further. In addition, concerns and uncertainty about the cost of the realignment plans has drawn criticism from several U.S. senators, putting funding at risk.

Japan is one of the United States’ most important economic partners. Outside of North America, it is the United States’ second-largest export market and second-largest source of imports. Japanese firms are the United States’ second-largest source of foreign direct investment, and Japanese investors are the second-largest foreign holders of U.S. treasuries, helping to finance the U.S. deficit and reduce upward pressure on U.S. interest rates. Bilateral trade friction has decreased in recent years, partly because U.S. concern about the trade deficit with Japan has been replaced by concern about a much larger deficit with China. One exception was U.S. criticism over Japan’s decision in 2003 to ban imports of U.S. beef, which have since resumed, but on a limited basis.

However, the economic problems in Japan and the United States associated with the credit crisis and the related economic recession, together with the impact of the March 11 disasters, have played a role in the bilateral economic agenda. Japan has been hit particularly hard by the financial crisis and the subsequent economic downturn. Japan’s gross domestic product (GDP) declined 1.2% in 2008 and 5.3% in 2009 but grew 4.0% in 2010. It declined 0.7% in 2011. However, the major focus of discussions has been on Japan’s expressed interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and under what conditions Japan might join. 

Date of Report: May 4, 2012
Number of Pages: 34
Order Number: RL33436
Price: $29.95

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