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Column: Japan emerges as point of contention in U.S. presidential election

By Naoya Yoshino in Washington


Japan turned out to be a point of contention in the first TV debate between Democratic presidential candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 68, and Republican candidate Donald Trump, 70, on Sept. 26. Why has Japan emerged as a discussion topic now even though it was hardly mentioned in past presidential debates? The two candidates’ intentions regarding Japan have come to the fore.


Advocating the strengthening of the alliance


Clinton was the one who brought up the subject of Japan in the debate. She said: “Mr. Trump has stated repeatedly that it is okay for Japan, the ROK, and Saudi Arabia to possess nuclear weapons.” She claimed that Trump is “not qualified” to be the commander-in-chief of the U.S. forces, who is in a position to press the nuclear button. She argued for strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance.


In response, Trump asserted that, “We defend Japan, Germany, the ROK, Saudi Arabia, and many other countries. They do not pay us what they should be paying us” He went as far as to say: “We cannot defend Japan, a behemoth selling cars to us.”


Trump mentioned Japan four times and Clinton did twice. This was unusual. Even during the era of fierce Japan-U.S. trade frictions in the 1980s, Japan was hardly mentioned in TV debates. Republican candidate Ronald Reagan talked about Japan only once in 1980 and so did Democratic candidate Walter Mondale in 1984. In 1988, neither of the candidates mentioned Japan.


Since “there are no votes in foreign policy” is supposedly a political truism, there is no reason Japan should be discussed in the context of foreign policy in a TV debate held in the final phase of the campaign. What Clinton did one week before the debate foreshadowed her reference to Japan.


Clinton visited Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his hotel on Sept. 19, when the UN General Assembly was in session, for a meeting that lasted 50 minutes. There was nothing new in their reaffirmation of the importance of strengthening the bilateral alliance. Clinton had two motives in meeting with Abe at a time and place that was likely to be reported prominently.


Ohio holds the key


First, she wanted to show the American citizens and the international community that Japan supports her and not Trump. Second, she would like Japanese companies in the U.S. to ponder this message. What she had in mind was Ohio in the Midwest, a closely contested state. Many Japanese companies, such as Honda, are located in Ohio.


Votes of the employees of Japanese companies will be crucial in Ohio. Clinton flaunted her honeymoon with Japan in an oblique attempt to appeal for votes. That was the reason for her meeting with Abe and her statement on strengthening the alliance in the debate.


In all the presidential elections after 1900, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were the only ones who lost in Ohio but got elected. Both were Democrats. No Republican candidate has been able to become president without winning in Ohio in more than a century. Clinton took note of this history.


A majority of employees of Japanese companies in the U.S. are American. Trump had been clamoring all the while that Japan is stealing American jobs, which is a completely untenable claim. He has stopped repeating this line recently after his advisers pointed out that this is not true and he realized his mistake. He had also judged that it would not be good for the votes of Japanese company employees to go to Clinton.


This was also the reason why Trump no longer mentioned employment by Japanese companies, limiting himself to the question of the cost of stationing U.S. forces, when Clinton brought up the subject of Japan during the debate. Trump has been preparing his policy on Japan behind the scenes. He will be sending former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Michael Flynn to Japan in mid-October to discuss foreign and security policy and the strengthening of the bilateral alliance.


Many U.S. media outlets made the assessment that Clinton won in the first debate. Yet, there has not been any dramatic change in the two candidates’ support ratings. The debate has not had a significant impact. Clinton must have miscalculated if her victory in the debate has not contributed to an increase in her support rating.


Trump said he was “taking it easy (in the first TV debate),” implying that he will no longer be restrained in terms of using nasty language in the second debate on Oct. 9. How will Clinton deal with Trump’s vulgar attacks? The battle between the two is moving toward the climax a month or so before voting day on Nov. 8.

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