Obama in Tokyo: Initial Reactions

For someone like myself whose main point of reference of U.S.-Japan relations is the postwar occupation (1945-1952) and the later 1960 Security Treaty (or Anpo), there is something a bit giddy about watching Air Force One touch down in Tokyo.

(Perhaps it is the recollection of my own triumphal arrival in that city in 1987 as an impressionable and wholly smitten boy soprano, bringing Gershwin and Nordic vowels from Minnesota, but that is a story for another time.)

Obama is neither a conquering and supremely arrogant MacArthur, nor is he a frustrated Eisenhower, turned away by tumult in the streets and on the tarmac.  In other words, things could be much, much worse.

On the other hand, they could be better.  The base controversy in Okinawa is bubbling up, and more than 20,000 people protested the U.S. base at Futama on Okinawa; naturally this was the first question at the press conference (which is continuing as I type this).

I suppose there is a way to grab this after the fact on YouTube, but in old-fashioned style, I stayed up all night to catch this press conference, which started at about 4 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, evening in Tokyo.  I recall displaying the same dedication in Beijing’s Houhai area in 2006 to watch an immortal Germany-Portugual World Cup consolation match with a couple of very intelligent university students who were home on holiday from university studies in Japan.

Quite naturally for them, they expressed their despising views toward the Japanese while cheering on Schweinsteinger‘s immortal World Cup hat trick.

To the press conference!

Mandate-grippers at the NYC Waldorf-Astoria, General MacArthur's old haunt, on 23 Sept. 2009

Note on opening statements by Hatoyama and Obama: The Japanese P.M. is true to his reputation.  He manages at once to come off as academic, repetitious, and somewhat cautious.  He’s no Koizumi, but perhaps this is a good thing.  Hopefully he will be in place two years from now, as Japanese prime ministers tend to have a fairly short shelf life.  Obama’s opening remarks included a nod to the fact that his daughters are studying Japanese culture in school, which is why they couldn’t come to Japan.  Obama as Confucian father figure!  Good stuff.

The joy of the press conference’s beginning was apparent in the helter-skelter multi-pronged question lobbed up by a Fuji TV reporter, the first at the press conference.  A classic multiple-questions-within-a-question question, the reporter managed to evoke the Okinawa controversy, call out Hatoyama on his declarations of equality with his heavily-armed partner, provoke everyone’s senstitivies by asking Obama if the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified in 1945, imply that the President needs to visits peace memorials in those cities, and throw up up the North Korean issue for good measure.

After Hatoyama did his thing, recalling that he had campaigned in part on the reduction of the American presence in Okinawa, and raising the will of the Okinawan people themselves, Obama got his turn.  He went straight for the base realignment issue, obviously anticipating the question.  On Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he seemed a bit off-guard, but wisely slipped away down the memory hole, that is to say, he avoided reprising Harry Truman.  On Okinawa, I realized afterwards that he could always bring up his time in Hawai’i in expressing a kind of understanding for Pacific security issues or proximity to American air bases, but that this, too, carries certain political liabilities in the U.S.

The reason I say “joy” in this question is that nothing of the sort will make its way into Xinhua’s densely screened queries in China.  Can you imagine a Chinese reporter going after Obama about MacArthur’s decision to cross the 38th parallel in August 1950?  But perhaps the students in Shanghai, the decendents of the 反美扶日 (“oppose American revival of Japan”) protestors of 1948, will have something sharp that departs ever so slightly from the Huanqiu Shibao nationalist line.  Like: how are you going to bring the gavel down on Sarkozy to lower auction-house prices on our nation’s precious looted cultural artifacts?

Both Fox News and MSNBC very wisely let their cameras roll for the extended exchange with which the press conference began.

Then their anchors cut in, and why?  Well, the War on Terrorism of course!  Khalid Sheik Muhammed and Eric Holder.  Not so much as a map of Okinawa hit the screen, much less any discussion of this particular island or why it seemed to be chafing up the press conference.  Apparently we haven’t had enough reminders lately that there’s a jihad afoot and that non-state actors acting individually are just more important than nation-states that are our allies (Japan) or those with whom we lack diplomatic recognition (North Korea, who now Obama says “has a pathway, a doorway,” making them sound sort of like Joe Wilson’s illegal immigrants).

The White House is video-blogging the Asia trip here, but they are already behind!

No photos at whitehouse.gov of Hatoyama, but fortunately we are reminded that the President cares about education in Wisconsin and that this man now has a job:

this man's next pavement job may be on Guam, but then again, he's probably unionized

Who said Obama wasn’t thinking about the next election?  Maybe he’ll even bring home a couple of automobile plants.  Then again, maybe he won’t.

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