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USJI Voice Vol.33

The future of the Japan-U.S. relationship in light of the two nations’ domestic politics

December 06,2017
Satoshi Machidori
Professor, Kyoto University

U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Japan has ended without major mishaps. The two nations reconfirmed their commitment to maintaining an amicable and solid relationship. However, can this be taken at face value? This article will discuss the outlook for the relationship between Japan and the U.S. by examining the state of domestic politics of the two nations and how this relationship may be affected by domestic politics.

1. The state of domestic politics in Japan

The Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, Komeito, together won at least 300 of the 465 seats in the October 2017 lower house election, gaining an overwhelming victory for three consecutive elections. Moreover, the governing coalition, in a 2013 upper house election, rectified the so-called “twisted Diet,” in which opposition parties had more strength in the upper house than the ruling camp. Therefore, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should be institutionally well positioned to advance whatever policy goals it wants to achieve.

However, it does not appear that the results of the recent election will accelerate the Abe administration’s policy implementation. This is due to two factors.

One factor is that the governing coalition’s victory was aided greatly by a division within a major opposition party. Immediately before the lower house election, the Democratic Party, the largest opposition camp, was essentially divided into two parties. Prior to the split, the party, even though it had struggled in public opinion polls, still managed to gain votes from those discontent with the Abe administration. The ruling coalition, thus, benefited from this party split. Even so, the coalition probably did not feel that it gained a voter mandate matching its strong election showing.

The other factor is that the Abe administration, after the election, does not have the same level of popular support as it once did. Approval ratings for the Abe administration used to far exceed disapproval ratings following its December 2012 establishment, although the administration’s popularity dipped temporarily during the summer of 2015, when opposition grew against revisions to the nation’s national security law. However, the administration’s disapproval ratings began to occasionally exceed its approval ratings in the spring of 2017 after a political scandal related to school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution began to surface. Despite the governing coalition’s overwhelming victory in the lower house election, the support level for the Abe administration remains low, with approval ratings and disapproval ratings now vying against each other.

Japan’s politics may remain stagnant as a result. The governing coalition has won the lower house election, with no other major elections such as an upper house election scheduled in 2018. Under normal circumstances, therefore, the Abe administration would be in a most advantageous position to aggressively pursue its policy goals. However, it does not appear that Abe is set to propose any novel policies, other than constitutional revisions in which he has indicated a strong interest. Consequently, the nation’s social and economic structures are unlikely to go through any major transformation.

2. The state of domestic politics in the U.S.

Donald Trump became president in January 2017 and grabbed the world’s attention after his unexpected election win in November 2016. Trump’s achievements, however, do not seem to be all that impressive when it comes to domestic politics.

Particularly worrisome is his standoff with the Congress. The nature of the U.S. political system is such that aggressive policy implementation requires cooperation between the two branches of government—the executive branch and the legislative branch. In recent years, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party have become particularly combative in advancing their respective ideological agendas—one conservative and the other liberal—thereby further widening the rift between the two. From this perspective, the executive branch and the legislative branch should find it easier to cooperate with each other under a “unified government,” in which the party holding a majority in Congress is also the party of the president.

The Trump administration has such a unified government since the Republicans hold a majority in both houses of Congress. Under normal circumstances, therefore, Trump would be in an advantageous position to implement his policies in light of the relationship in recent years between the two branches of government and between the two political parties. However, ever since his inauguration as president, Trump has not had a smooth relationship with those in the mainstream of the Republican Party, such as Congressional Republicans. The situation remains the same to this day. Although Trump is operating under a unified government, there has been a growing standoff between the two branches. This conflict could become even more pronounced depending on the development of a recent scandal involving Russia.

The U.S. politics will probably remain immobilized for the time being as long as the current situation persists. When government branches remain at odds with each other under the principle of separation of power, the policy process becomes stagnant and makes policy implementation difficult. As mid-term elections near, there have been some attempts among Congressional Republicans to establish a cooperative relationship with the Trump administration as they seek to deliver demonstrative results. Nevertheless, it is not certain whether the Trump administration will respond positively to their overture.

3. Outlook for the Japan-U.S. relations

As has been discussed so far, the chances are high that domestic politics in Japan and the U.S. will both remain stagnant. This could influence diplomatic ties and send ripple effects to the relationship between the two nations. It is not that there are any pressing concerns with respect to the relationship between Japan and the U.S. The two nations have a long history of amical ties, which include cultural exchanges. Therefore, to say that politics of the two nations will remain stagnant may be equivalent to saying that there will be no major obstacles to the two countries’ relationship. Prime Minister Abe and President Trump also have a strong personal relationship. The two leaders’ close bonds, which they demonstrated at a recent summit meeting, are not superficial. The relationship between Japan and the U.S. will probably not deteriorate in the foreseeable future.

Still, one should not be overly optimistic. There are three potential risks to the relationship between Japan and the U.S.

One potential risk relates to economic and trade policies. It is difficult to imagine that the U.S. will return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) accord or that Japan will suddenly become all too eager to engage in free-trade agreement (FTA) talks on a bilateral basis. There are forces within Japan and the U.S. that oppose FTA and TPP, respectively. It would not be easy for either country to pursue trade talks with the other by overcoming such opposition. It is also difficult to imagine that the two countries’ administrations will take up such a challenge anytime soon. All this may prevent the two countries from deepening their relationship. This will become a negative factor, particularly for Japan in 2020 and thereafter, when domestic demand related to the Tokyo Olympics peters out.

There is another potential risk related to this issue. One cannot rule out the possibility that a trade friction similar to one that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s may surface since the current situation remains unchanged. The past trade frictions occurred in part because Japan and the U.S. had failed to implement the necessary domestic measures to maintain an amicable relationship. Instead, the nations were constantly assigning blame to each other. A similar situation could occur if Japan and the U.S. remain in the present condition and fail to develop adequate capabilities to transform themselves.

Third, there could arise an attempt to achieve short-term objectives in the area of national security and defenses with respect to North Korea and others if the present situation is seen as a stalemate in terms of domestic politics or external economic relationships. In the U.S., policy experts within the Trump administration, except for those in the area of military affairs, tend to have weaker influence than those of the previous administrations. Thus, policy predictability tends to be lower. As for Japan, what requires attention is a tendency among some people to overestimate military threats from North Korea and China. However, it is obvious that Japan and the U.S. are not the only parties to this debate. Moreover, common sense indicates that there is virtually no possibility of military conflict in East Asia. Even so, it should be recognized that the risk is higher than ever before that excessive provocations may lead to unforeseen circumstances.


Satoshi Machidori
Professor of political science at the Graduate School of Law, Kyoto University. Specializes in comparative and American politics. Professor Machidori earned his Ph.D. at Kyoto University. He has served as a visiting scholar at the University of California, San Diego, and taught at institutions such as Osaka University, before accepting his present post in 2007. His major works include America daitōryō-sei no genzai (The Contemporary American Presidency), Daigisei minshushugi (Representative Democracy), and Seitō sisutemu to seitō soshiki (Party Systems and Party Organizations).


The USJI Voice is a policy-related opinion paper produced by researchers at USJI-affiliated universities. The USJI Voice is written for experts in areas connected to U.S.-Japan relations. Please share with us your opinions and suggestions related to your areas of interest.

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