Mitt Romney's comments Thursday criticizing Japan have U.S.-Japan alliance watchers on two continents worrying that the ultra-sensitive Japanese might not appreciate being the cautionary tale in Romney's campaign stump speeches and that a President Romney might not be a good steward of the decades-long relationship.
"We are not Japan," the presumptive Republican nominee told donors at a $2,500-a-plate fundraiser Thursday. "We are not going to be a nation that suffers in decline and distress for a decade or a century. We're on the cusp of a very different economic future than the one people have seen over the past three years."
Japan experts on both sides of the Pacific told The Cable that Romney's offhand assertion that Japan has been in decline for "a century" isn't a fair characterization of a nation that emerged from the ashes of World War II to build the world's second- (now third-) largest economy on a small island with few natural resources.
Moreover, they worry that Romney is needlessly insulting the face-conscious Japanese and giving them the impression that if he wins in November, his administration won't appreciate the importance of America's top alliance in the East at a time when the United States is attempting a diplomatic and military "pivot" to Asia.
"Romney seems to be on a steady streak of insulting our allies," said Japan expert Devin Stewart, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council. "Japanese are quite sensitive to statements like this. They are constantly assessing the tone of U.S. candidates relative to those made about other Asian countries. Bashing Japan is now quite passé and even tone deaf. Has Romney even visited Japan? Is he aware of the 2011 earthquake?"
Although liberal pundits such as Paul Krugman have also likened America's present economic malaise to Japan's "lost decade," this analogy doesn't hold up, Stewart said. "We aren't Japan -- that's obvious. Unlike Japan we have a growing population, robust immigration, and a fairly healthy level of inflation," he said.
Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer wrote in an op-ed Aug. 7, before Romney's Japan remarks, that Romney had missed an opportunity to embrace Japan when he visited England, Israel, and Poland last month, despite the obvious place Japan could play in a Romney foreign-policy agenda.
"For Romney to have taken an international trip that would matter, there's one place he might've considered going: Japan. Between Japan's economic efforts and its rebuilding after the tsunami and Fukushima disasters, it's an extremely relevant country to U.S. interests that would've welcomed him with open arms," Bremmer wrote.
There's also concern that the campaign isn't taking Japan seriously as it creates its foreign-policy platform. Japan watchers note that the Romney campaign website's page on "China and East Asia" doesn't even have a Japan section and mentions Japan, only in passing, as being threatened by North Korea and as a declining economic power.
"In 2010, after 30 years of dramatic growth, China surpassed Japan to become the world's second largest economy after ours," the website reads.
In Japan, the reaction to Romney's remarks has been muted, however, not necessarily because the Japanese aren't insulted but more because they are getting accustomed to occasionally being used as a talking point for foreign politicians.
"Mitt Romney seems to have a starkly different calendar that mixes ‘decade' with ‘century,'" Tomohiko Taniguchi, a professor at Keio University and former spokesman for the Japanese Foreign Ministry, told The Cable. "His now-well-known loose cannon, however, hits Japanese headlines not in too big a way as to jeopardize the alliance that has lasted six decades, during which many in Japan have gotten used to U.S. campaign rhetoric that means almost nothing."
The Romney campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.