With Hillary Clinton's decisive victory over Bernie Sanders in California, the contest in November's U.S. presidential election is all but decided. Barring some last minute madness at either of the conventions, it looks to be Trump vs Clinton. Hardly anyone would have imagined such a match-up one year ago, yet here we are. The most recent polls show Clinton with a commanding lead, possibly due to Trump's crass response to the Orlando nightclub shooting. However, if the last year has taught us anything, it is that writing off Trump too early is a mistake.
To be clear, I am not a Trump supporter. The point of this piece is not to argue that a Trump victory would be good for America, but rather that it could have some positive side effects for Japan. A vote for Clinton is, in many ways, a vote for the status quo. If you like the way things have been going under Barack Obama and you want more of the same, then she is your candidate. There is certainly a compelling argument for such a vote.
By contrast, Trump is basically a wild card; no one really has any idea what he will do once in office, probably not even Trump himself. His election would force both major parties to re-evaluate their identities. A large percentage of his supporters want him to win simply because they are sick of the Washington establishment and just want to throw a monkey wrench into the current political machine for better or for worse.
And herein lies the opportunity for Japan. Trump is essentially a reset button for Japanese-American relations. Clinton likely has not one new thought or concern about Japan. Trump, however, given his comments on trade and foreign policy, clearly sees everything as negotiable. As far as Japan and America's relationship goes, nothing is off the table.
Consider Trump's economic populism. If he fights the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement and seeks to renegotiate trade terms, it may force Japan to re-evaluate some of its protectionist policies. That could lead to a boon for Japanese consumers. Recall that this year marked the first foreign acquisition of a major Japanese electronics company when Sharp was bought buy Hon Hai, a Taiwanese company.
Whether Trump's efforts lead to more protection of Japanese industry or more free trade, either path will shake up corporate earnings and hiring across a number of industries. Depending on how good of a deal-maker Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is, a new arrangement could help Japan get out of its chronic economic doldrums.
But Trump's economic views are not the biggest potential avenue for change in Japan. Trump has publicly criticized the Japan-American security treaty. He even suggested that Japan should have nuclear weapons. Trump's “America First” vision clearly suggests a belief that Japan ought to do more for itself. He sees Japan as a wealthy country taking advantage of America's good will. As a businessman, he wants to renegotiate a better deal that takes some of the weight off of America and puts it back onto Japan.
This could lead to a massive political transformation in Japan. It would be the first time that an American president has strongly pushed for a more independent Japan. It could be just the push needed by Abe and his party to get traction on changing the constitution to re-establish Japan's military sovereignty. It could also lead to a powerful backlash that emboldens Abe's opposition and ends up helping to preserve the constitution as is.
In other words, Japan may have to fish or cut bait. Either fight Trump to keep America as Japan's protector, or go along with it and move toward a more militarily self-reliant identity. It is a debate worth having – one that could help galvanize an electorate with consistently low voter turnout. In a society where the young in particular are often disengaged from the political process, such a debate could help get people to pay attention.
As homogeneous as Japanese culture may seem, there is real division on a number of political and social issues. There is the anti-war faction that wishes above all to prevent Japan from becoming militaristic again. There are the globalists and progressives who wish to see Japan adopt more Western cultural ideas – more worker protections, gender equality, same-sex marriage, diversity, etc. Then on the other side are nationalists and conservatives. The latter want to “keep Japan Japanese,” and preserve the culture, while the former believe Japan needs to rebuild its military might to claim a larger role on the world stage. Finally, somewhere in the middle, are all the moderates, independents, and libertarian types. They represent a wide range of viewpoints on all different issues.
Though the future of Japan will not belong to any one political faction, the cultural shakeup a Trump presidency might instigate could rearrange the balance of power. There is a lot of uncertainty in such change, and Japan's status quo is pretty great compared to a lot of countries around the world. I respect the view that a Clinton presidency that leaves well enough alone may be the better bet. Nevertheless for those who wish for change Trump could be just the thing to help make Japan great again.© Japan Today