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U.S.-Japan relations are “in great shape – better than they’ve ever been,” says prominent American official and Japanophile Daniel Russel

In an interview with BuzzFeed Japan, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel reflects on Japan-U.S. relations past and future, touching on the Trump administration


By Daisuke Furuta, BuzzFeed Founding Editor, Japan


The leaders of Japan and the United States visited Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 27 (early morning of Dec. 28 in Japan), some 75 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor and 71 years after the end of World War II. This marked a turning point in Japan-U.S. relations.


Ahead of this visit, BuzzFeed Japan interviewed Daniel Russel, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.


Russel, who has been involved in Japan-U.S. relations for 30 years, described this Pearl Harbor visit as “dramatic act of closure, another important step forward in what’s been an extraordinary process of reconciliation.”  


Russel studied in Japan while in university and worked at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and the U.S. Consulate General Osaka-Kobe from 1985 to 1989. Later he worked at the United Nations as well as in South Korea and Europe before serving as U.S. Consul General in Osaka-Kobe from 2005 to 2008. Mr. Russel also worked at the White House as Special Assistant to the President and as National Security Council Senior Director for Asian Affairs.


He is married to a Japanese woman and speaks Japanese as well. He has been a leading pro-Japan U.S. official involved in Japan-U.S. ties since the “Ron-Yasu era” of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and President Ronald Reagan.


War generation linked Japan and the U.S. in the 1980s


Shintaro Abe was Japan’s foreign minister when Russel first worked in Japan. “His private secretary was today’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe. We had connections like that from those days,” said Russel with a smile.


The 1980s was dubbed the “Japan as No. 1” era as the country had passed through the period of high economic growth and had plunged into the bubble economy. In those days, “there was a lot of confidence on the Japanese side.”


Russel pointed out that the war generation played a major role in Japan-U.S. relations then. “In those days, so many of the senior business leaders had personal experience of World War II. All of them had experienced the devastation, the poverty, and the suffering of the late war years and the postwar years.”


Did they have resentment toward America? Russel doesn’t think so.


“Quite a few of them had gotten their first big chance in business traveling to the United States. Later in life, as they were more successful, they tried to repay as friends of the U.S.”


“I remember being struck by the fact that, even though some of these senior people – they were then in their 60s or 70s – had experienced terrible suffering as their homes in Tokyo were destroyed by fire bombings and food rations were insufficient, there was no bitterness toward the United States, just a really enthusiastic embrace of the U.S.-Japan relationship.”


“U.S.-Japan relations are “in great shape – better than they’ve ever been”


In 2013, Russel became Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and helped formulate the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” policy.


Regarding President Obama’s foreign policy, Russel said the administration has strengthened relations with Japan and South Korea and focused on international frameworks like ASEAN, APEC, and the G-20.


Turning to U.S.-Japan ties, Russel said relations are “in great shape – better than they’ve ever been,” citing Prime Minister Abe’s speech to the U.S. Congress in April 2015, President Obama’s trip to Hiroshima in May 2016, and the two leaders’ visit to Pearl Harbor.


Nonetheless, China’s activities in the South China Sea and North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile development haven’t ceased. President-elect Trump is making the situation even more unstable.


Tensions with China suddenly spiked after Trump had an unprecedented telephone conversation with the president of Taiwan even though he has not yet taken office as U.S. president. During the presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly made “America-first” statements, hinting that he would withdraw the U.S. military from Japan and South Korea and permit Japan to have nuclear weapons.


This appears to be very different from the “focus on allies and international frameworks of Obama’s foreign policy.” How will ties between the United States and Asia develop in the future?


Using the case of Japan’s DPJ to think about the Trump administration


After recognizing that the new administration will have its own thinking, Russel pointed out that “even though the president of the United States will change, the interests of the United States – the national security and economic priorities of the United States – don’t change by and large.” Citing the case of the change of administration when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took office, Russel said: “Things didn’t go so smoothly in some areas, but gradually the DPJ government was brought back into the mainstream. The basic relationship and the basic alliance were preserved.”


He went on to say: “Right now we can collect clues and data points, both from what candidate Trump did and said on the campaign trail and what president-elect Trump says and does in the transition period. But ultimately what matters is President Trump post-January 20 (when he will be inaugurated as president).”


There was a change in policies and statements before and after inauguration in the case of President Obama, as well. In other words, it remains to be seen how many of the extreme statements Trump makes before assuming office will be adopted as actual policies after he becomes president.


“It is urgent that Japan utilize women”


At the end of the interview, Russel was asked as a longtime friend of Japan for his advice for Japan going forward. He spoke in Japanese here.


Sore wa muzukashii [That’s a hard question],” he said in fluent Japanese with a wry smile.


“When I came to Japan in the 1980s, I was often told that ‘Japan is a country that has no natural resources.’ Today, though, human resources are the most valuable natural resources in any country.”


“Women make up half of Japan’s population. I’m wondering if Japanese society, businesses, and politics are fully utilizing women. My personal advice is that Japanese companies should hire female employees with the intention of turning them into CEOs. I hope that the government quickly implements such measures as establishing more daycare centers (which would help women participate more in society).”


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