From Operation Tomodachi to Hiroshima visit, exiting Obama viewed favorably in Japan
By ERIC JOHNSTON | Japan Times, Tokyo | Published: November 7, 2016
TOKYO (Tribune News Service) — On Tuesday, the whole world will be watching as Americans choose their next president.
This year’s election has been one of the most bitter and controversial ever, with opinion polls showing that a majority of voters strongly dislike both Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican Party nominee Donald Trump. But while many Americans will also not miss departing President Barack Obama, he will leave office as a fairly popular leader in many parts of the world, including Japan.
How do Japanese today generally view Barack Obama?
When Obama was elected in 2008, there was great excitement in Japan, especially in the town of Obama, Fukui Prefecture, which shares his name.
There, the election was broadcast live and local merchants created T-shirts and other goods emblazoned with the face of their town’s namesake. Despite a number of ups and downs over the past eight years, public opinion polls consistently show Obama remains liked in Japan.
A survey of 1,000 Japanese conducted in April and May by the Washington-based Pew Research Center and released last week said 17 percent of the respondents had high confidence in Obama to do the right thing regarding world affairs, and that 61 percent had at least some confidence. Only 2 percent said they had no confidence at all in the president.
The Pew poll is conducted annually, and since 2009, between 60 and 85 percent of the respondents have expressed confidence in Obama. His least popular period in Japan, according to the survey, was in spring 2014, when 36 percent of the respondents said they had little or no, if any, confidence he would do the right thing.
That was when Sino-Japanese tensions over the disputed Senkaku Islands had many Japanese wondering if the United States would back Japan. Obama visited Tokyo in April 2014 and said for the first time that the U.S. would defend Japan if the isles, long administered by Japan but claimed by Taiwan and China, come under attack.
By the spring of 2015, however, the Pew Center found that two-thirds of those surveyed had confidence in Obama and that 29 percent had little or none.
While those numbers were not as impressive as when the president first entered office in 2009, when 85 percent of the respondents express confidence in his abilities, it indicates a majority of Japan approves of what he has done regarding U.S.-Japan relations.
What is likely to be remembered in Japan as Obama’s most significant accomplishment?
Without doubt, it will be his trip to Hiroshima in May, the first ever made to that city by a sitting U.S. president. Japanese media polls held after the visit showed that anywhere between 80 and 90 percent of the public approved of what they saw as a historic moment in Japan’s relations with the U.S.
The assistance the U.S. provided during Operation Tomodachi after the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and triple core meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was considered a high point in U.S.-Japan relations under Obama’s presidency, especially in the Tohoku region.
What are some of the controversial issues regarding Obama’s legacy in Japan?
While the Hiroshima visit was appreciated for its historical value, the fact that Obama did not formally apologize for the atomic bombing disappointed some. In addition, the fact the U.S. continues to deploy nuclear weapons and, along with Japan, voted late last month against the United Nations starting negotiations on a new treaty to ban nuclear weapons angered and disappointed those who have long campaigned against them.
In late October, a U.N. General Assembly committee voted to launch negotiations on a new treaty next March to ban atomic weapons, one that would supersede the nearly half-century-old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Japan was pressured by the U.S. to vote against the proposal. Many Japanese felt that Obama, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for advocating a world without the nuclear weapons, should have worked harder to realize that goal.
Another area where Obama raised expectations in parts of Japan but failed to deliver was in trade, via the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Making the free trade pact a pillar of his Asian policy, it was part of an effort by the U.S. to concentrate more military and commercial power in Asia. Obama has spent the last few years lobbying hard for the TPP and still hopes for its passage by Congress before the end of his term.
But with both Clinton and Trump opposed to the agreement, at least in its current form, and with U.S. polls showing that pro-TPP senators are losing to anti-TPP challengers in several key states, the TPP appears unlikely to be completed before Obama leaves office in January, and its future under a new president, and new Congress, is uncertain.
Obama will also be remembered for his jerky relationship with Yukio Hatoyama regarding the relocation of U.S. bases in Okinawa. Hatoyama said during the 2009 Lower House election campaign that the operations of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma should be moved off Okinawa. Hatoyama became prime minister after the former Democratic Party of Japan took power.
Although he urged Obama to trust him, in the end Hatoyama’s idea went nowhere, prompting an unnamed White House official to describe him as “loopy.” Obama is the third U.S. president to be stymied by the long-stalled Futenma relocation plan.
Compared with past presidents, how does Obama fare?
While Obama may not have had the kind of personal rapport with prime ministers that Ronald Reagan enjoyed in the 1980s with Yasuhiro Nakasone, or that George W. Bush had with Junichiro Koizumi a decade ago, his efforts to forge a closer military and trade relationship with Japan won him applause from Japan’s leadership.
As to his legacy in Japan, that is likely to depend at least partially on who Americans choose on Tuesday to be his successor.
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