East Asia and the Pacific: The United States and Japan: Allies, Global Partners, and Friends for the Future

Thank you, Merit for the introduction. Thank you, President Sakurai, for having me here today. And thank you all for attending.

I see some familiar faces. I’ve been privileged to live in Japan and work on Japan issues for many years, as Merit mentioned. Actually, one of my professional highlights as a college kid was a stint in the coat check room of the Japan Society working for tips.

But more seriously, a real professional highlight was serving under former Senate Majority Leader and Ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield in late 1980’s. He said many wise things. I can still hear his voice saying: that our relationship Japan was America’s “most important bilateral relationship, bar none,” which I grasped intrinsically. And the “next century (this one) would be the century of the Pacific,” which I failed to grasp. But luckily, I kept my mouth shut.

The Japan Society was founded 108 years ago, at a time of promise, but also of peril.

America and Japan are two old friends – friends who have gone through good times and bad; friends who, in the 21st century, have an unwavering commitment to each other – because we see the world in a similar way; we have similar national ‘profiles’.

I’ll admit there are some cultural differences. In Japan, the mark of hospitality for a guest is to serve them in the formal parlor with the finest tea and settings reserved for such occasions. In America, the epitome of hospitality is to call, “Come on in! The door’s open. Join the family in the kitchen. Grab a beer.”

What do have in common? We’re also both known for our love of cars and cartoons! But in all seriousness, we have so many similarities – the extraordinary productivity of our people and innovation of our companies; reverence of education and invention; esteem for family and honoring our elderly; the belief in a social contract and the egalitarian ideal that each person should have a vote – a say in how their country is run…

And we both believe in what we can do for the world – as active and proactive contributors to peace.

Now, 2015 is a special year – the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the creation of the United Nations, and the beginning of an extraordinary era of stability and prosperity. The U.S. and Japan aim to commemorate this anniversary year in ways that touch the various dimensions of our relationship, and this event is just the first in that series.

Today, I’ll take the occasion to reflect on the amazing progress we’ve achieved; all we’ve done for each other and for the Asia-Pacific region; and our increasingly global partnership that can do so much more in 2015 and beyond.

To fully appreciate the importance of our relationship, it helps to have a little historical perspective. In the 1860s, the end of the U.S. Civil War and the Meiji Restoration marked our two countries’ emergence from internal conflicts, and the beginning of rapid industrialization.

A Japan that had limited outside contact in the previous three centuries caught up with the world in just over three decades. Indeed, the founding of your Society reflected how much the two countries increasingly had in common.

By the beginning of the last century, Japan was already the world’s 8th largest economy, growing fast, and interacting more with the U.S. Japanese immigrants helped build America’s railroads.

Today, the scale of our economic relationship is extraordinary. We are the top two free market economies in the world, and among its largest trade partners. We are anchors and leaders of the global economic system, helping to set standards for the world. PM Abe’s reforms, including women’s economic empowerment, are revitalizing Japan’s economy. And now American workers build, and even export, Japanese-branded cars.

In the early 20th century, our relationship had ramifications for regional security, as the run-up to war and its horrible toll showed.

Today our security relationship is vital – not just to the region, but to the globe. The post-War period of regional peace and stability can’t be taken for granted. Our alliance is its cornerstone.

And increasingly, our joint efforts are needed across the planet to combat threats as diverse as violent extremism, global warming, pandemic disease, and cyber-theft or even cyber warfare.

Our relationship in the early 20th century was important for the advancement of civilization. Japan’s successes included contributions to science, and its art, which was wildly popular and influential, particularly in a Western world unfamiliar with Asia’s rich cultural heritage. We learned from, and admired, each other.

Today, we are two of the world’s top aid donors. Starting just a decade after the devastation of the war, Japan’s own aid program grew to be among the world’s largest.

Our scientists literally bring light to the world—take Shuji Nakamura, who has roots in both Japan and America, and won the Nobel Prize for his energy-saving L-E-D light. And our artists light up the lives and faces of children—think anime. Together, we are curing disease, developing clean energy and other cutting edge technology, and answering the great questions of the universe.

The story that, in my opinion, really shows the closeness of our friendship, is “Operation Tomodachi,” America’s response to the triple disaster of 3/11/11. I briefed President Obama the morning after the tsunami.

He was visibly moved, and reacted immediately, saying “We will do everything and anything to help!” He directed that America would respond as one` to our ally in its time of need. In the hours and days that followed, 24,000 American service members took part in the Tomodachi relief effort.

Our best scientists worked night and day to help contain the dangerously damaged Fukushima reactors. And countless thousands more Americans, including members of the Japan Society, sent supplies and money and anything else that was needed.

We are close in times of need because we are close all the time. I see this in my own experience. Polls show that the public agrees. And our partnership continues to have that rarest of political commodities, bipartisan support … in both countries.

And we’ve come full circle in another important way: from Hiroshima and Nagasaki – to a drive for a world free from nuclear weapons. To quote President Obama, “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.” And I know that as the only country to have endured the use of nuclear weapons, Japan has a special desire to act.

The U.S. and Japan have both embraced our responsibilities in all these areas over the last 70 years. Building on the indestructible base of our bilateral partnership, we have helped facilitate the “rise of Asia,” and provided leadership in an uncertain world.

So where are we headed bilaterally, regionally, and globally? I’ll take them in order.

Bilaterally, we’re nurturing and tending to the foundation of our relationship in many ways.

Look at the tens of thousands of students who make the journey between our two countries each year, and the life-long friendships that come with it. But as you may know, those numbers are down for Japanese students from their peak in the 1990s. And while they’re up for Americans going east, the absolute numbers are still low.

I’m grateful to the Japan Society for sponsoring fellowships. But as someone who went to Japan as a student, this is personal for me. So today, I ask you to do even more, as a Society and as individuals, to boost exchanges back up.

Encourage young Japanese to share the joy of hanami with young Americans on the shores of the tidal basin in Washington. And if your kids are Yankees fans, encourage them to try a semester in Japan and check out Tanaka’s original team, the Rakuten Eagles.

People-to-people ties are one pillar of our bilateral relationship. Another is our security alliance, which we are modernizing through investments in new capabilities. We are also revising the 1997 U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines to further ensure Japan’s security, improve interoperability, advance our cooperation with other partners, and enhance our contributions to peace and security.

And President Obama, in his visit to Tokyo last April, reiterated the rock-solid commitment of the United States to Japan’s security.

We each place a high priority on transparency and on working with our partners in the region. Because of that, the U.S. and Japan are explaining our plans both domestically and internationally. This includes publishing an interim report on the new guidelines for public review.

We in Washington also welcome Japan’s national discussion on the issue of collective self-defense, as should the rest of the region.

Another pillar is our economic relationship, which we’re enhancing both bilaterally and regionally, by negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP.

The agreement is essential to President Obama’s top priority of creating good jobs in America—it will lower tariffs and bring high standards to an area covering a third of the world’s trade and 40 percent of its GDP. And it will help increase trade with a region that already supports nearly a million New York jobs.

The TPP has 12 members, of which the U.S. and Japan are the largest, and it will help promote exports, growth and job creation in all member economies. It will reflect the importance we both place on open markets for goods, services and investment, and on innovation, fair competition, and protecting core labor and environmental standards.

Through TPP, our two countries are helping lead the region to higher standards for trade. But to achieve these ambitious goals, we need to resolve the remaining bilateral issues between us, principally related to the agriculture and automotive sectors.

Prime Minister Abe is working on structural reforms, the “third arrow” of his domestic economic recovery program, and he has made clear that TPP is important to his economic vision for Japan.

Now, as U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman has said, it’s “time for bold vision to be translated into concrete progress at the negotiating table.” Our negotiators have made a lot of progress on the talks in recent months, and we believe the end of the negotiations is coming into focus.

Reaching beyond economics, TPP is central to President Obama’s rebalance to Asia. Concluding and ratifying this agreement is the single most important thing we can do this year to strengthen our relationships around the Pacific Rim for many, many years to come. The President has made his commitment to TPP clear. Secretary Kerry, Secretary Lew, Secretary Pritzker, and other Cabinet members are right there with him and Ambassador Froman; whether it’s engaging in the region, with Congress, or with domestic stakeholders.

Regional prosperity goes hand-in-hand with security, so we work together to address threats, like North Korea’s banned nuclear and missile programs, and to lower tensions in the East and the South China Sea. And we work to build an effective regional architecture, including through institutions like ASEAN, the East Asia Summit, and APEC.

We do this because these institutions work for principles of fairness and rule of law, and against the notion that might makes right. We know they are essential to the peace and prosperity of all countries, large and small alike.

And beyond our bilateral and regional work, we’re strengthening our global partnership. This is exciting because even though we’re doing so much, the potential for even more collaboration is huge. Japan has been a leader in the U.N. system for many years – and today, with the U.S., is a vital, proactive contributor to peace around the world in a lot of ways:

To counter violent extremism, Japan has played a vital role in the global coalition against ISIL, and provided very generous humanitarian assistance across the affected area. And Prime Minister Abe’s trip to the Middle East this week will further advance Japan’s engagement on this issue.

We are two of the biggest contributors to the Green Climate Fund to help developing countries counter climate change. Japan has pledged $1.5 billion, and the U.S. pledged $3 billion.

On Ebola, Japan has donated about $150 million in the last year, and worked to alleviate health challenges and poverty across Africa and the world for many years before that. Together, we support African women entrepreneurs to foster trade, investment and development in sub-Saharan Africa.

To deter Russian aggression in Ukraine in the last year, Japan has supported strong sanctions. And for a long time before that, Japan has stood proudly with us in support of human rights and democratic principles around the world.

Japan’s largest troop deployment since World War II was just over a year ago… to help victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The list goes on.

The breadth of these actions reflects Japan’s status as a true partner in global leadership.

I mentioned this year is the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and founding of the U.N. Perhaps the most delicate challenge we face together, in this year of remembrance, is addressing the sensitive legacy of the last century.

We welcomed Prime Minister Abe’s New Years’ remarks, which started 2015 on a positive note. I believe firmly that all have an interest in working together – in handling commemorations this year in a way that truly promotes reconciliation.

The fact is that Americans should care deeply about Japan’s relationships with its neighbors. All of us have a huge stake in cooperation in Northeast Asia.

That’s why I’m glad that my Japanese and Korean colleagues work closely together, including on a trilateral basis with the U.S. These two democracies, free-market economies, and U.S. allies mark 50 years of diplomatic relations in 2015.

And I was in Beijing with President Obama last November when PM Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping met for the first time and took a step forward that we all hope will foster improved ties.

I have also been impressed by Japan’s activist diplomacy in recent years. I was just in New Delhi, where my Japanese counterpart joined me in talks with the Indians. Before that I was in Australia, where PM Abe met with President Obama and PM Abbott.

Japan’s activism in Southeast Asia, particularly with ASEAN, is matched by its engagement with the Pacific Island nations, which benefit from Tokyo’s valuable development assistance.

For the past six years, President Obama has made the Asia-Pacific region a strategic priority based on the recognition that America’s economic future and security depend on this dynamic area. Secretary Kerry has energetically advanced our rebalance in numerous ways.

Since American engagement in this region is so clearly in our own interests, you can be confident of continuity in this policy, regardless of personalities or political parties.

And you can be equally confident that Japan will remain our indispensable partner in shaping the regional and the international system. Just ask yourself: what big challenges face the world? What challenges require innovation? …require resources and compassion?… or require the moral authority of nations that uphold universal rights and freedoms? Wherever these challenges arise, you will find Japan and the U.S., side by side, meeting them together.

I have great hope for and confidence in the future of the US-Japan relationship. I feel this way partly because of all the commonalities and areas of cooperation I’ve laid out, and partly because of my own personal experiences.

They show me that the connection between Japan and the U.S., between our cultures and our peoples, yields more than just the gains from trade or security cooperation; that the whole of our relationship is greater than the sum of its parts.

When Time magazine asked Secretary Kerry last Thanksgiving what he was most thankful for, he said, a world that proves that near-miraculous change is possible.

As we enter this anniversary year, let’s give thanks to a partnership that has embodied miraculous change and is progressing ever further. The benefits of this partnership in the next 70 years will be greater than we can imagine.

So let me thank, once more, the Japan Society, and each of you, for your help in making our relationship blossom.

Keep up the good work in 2015 and beyond.