Japan and the United States have maintained a bilateral alliance for almost seven decades through the Japan–US Security Arrangements. Because they have been staunch political, strategic, and economic stakeholders, both countries work together not only on bilateral issues but also on global and regional issues in the Asia–Pacific (Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2019). Occasionally, there have been sources of conflict between the two nations. This article examines how Japanese educators have been influenced by these tensions, for better or worse.
Early in the Meiji era, when Japan was modeled after European nations that adopted constitutional monarchy (e.g., Germany and Prussia), academic and educational interest in the United States was marginal. Although important American political texts and documents, including the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and even Woodrow Wilson’s Congressional Government, were translated into Japanese, they were rarely used in the classroom (Saito Reference Saito1992, 486–87).
In 1905, Japan’s victory in the Russo–Japanese war significantly shifted the balance of power in Asia. The United States was wary of Japan, and Japan disapproved of US meddling in Japanese affairs. In the United States, Lea (Reference Lea1909) wrote The Valor of Ignorance based on the assumption that a war between Japan and the United States was inevitable. The growing tension caused anti-Japanese school segregation in San Francisco; in Japan, pundits published numerous anti-American articles and books (e.g., Uchimura Reference Uchimura1913; Uesugi Reference Uesugi1924).
Concerned by this hostility, intellectuals in the two nations sought strategies to promote mutual understanding. In February 1918, the course titled “Lectures on American Constitution, History, and Diplomacy” was established at the Tokyo Imperial University; A. Barton Hepburn, an American politician, had funded a chair dedicated to teaching American politics to Japanese students. Concerned by the surge of anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States, Hepburn wrote: “[c]hauvinists in both our countries have pictured our nations as inevitable enemies and war as a resulting certainty.”Footnote 1 Hepburn expected the course to enhance Japanese students’ understanding of American politics and to relieve the tension between the two nations.
The Japanese Minister of Education attempted to overturn the decision to establish the Hepburn lecture series, fearing that it would instill American values in Japanese students and further encourage their anti-government sentiment (Yoshino Reference Yosino1918, 109). Inazo Nitobe, a professor at Tokyo Imperial University, confronted the government interference and defended the lecture series. Nitobe’s stance is summarized by the following remark: “We have to learn more about the Americans before we make assertions about them” (Nitobe Reference Nitobe1919, 16).
During World War II, antagonism between the United States and Japan was heightened at unprecedented levels. However, even in wartime, classes on American politics such as the Hepburn lecture series continued, albeit strictly limited. After Japan surrendered and under occupation by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, democratization was urgently needed. As part of this endeavor, the Japan Association of American Studies (JAAS) was established in 1947. Yasaka Takagi, the leading founder of JAAS and a professor who held the Hepburn chair, believed that the most essential action for Japanese educators was to consolidate knowledge about the United States among students and even the general public. However, during this period, educators often were criticized for being too pro-American to have an objective and neutral perspective (Saito Reference Saito, Abe and Igarashi1998, 262–64).
In the 1960s and 1970s, the pendulum swung the other way. The war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal fueled anti-US sentiment and cast serious doubts on American democracy. Publications by Japanese academics focusing on the imperfections and injustices of American politics increased. The topics discussed included racial segregation in the Southern states (Honda Reference Honda1964), discrimination against Native Americans (Shimizu Reference Shimizu1971), internment of Japanese Americans (Matsui Reference Matsui1975), and suppression of women’s rights (Honma Reference Honma1977). These books were used as references in classrooms but occasionally were deemed overly critical of American politics (Kihira Reference Kihira, Abe and Igarashi1998, 62–63).
According to Diamond (2015, 142–44), the expansion of freedom and democracy in the world has come to a prolonged halt, and the average level of freedom worldwide has been deteriorating since 2006. This alleged decline of democratic efficacy, energy, and self-confidence in the West, including the United States, is worrisome for Diamond. To a certain extent, students in my seminar course question President Trump’s demeanor. Many of my students ask if President Trump is causing the deterioration of American democracy. Whereas in some ways, President Trump seems unique and may be altering the American political landscape, it is too early to know whether he is an anomaly. Regardless, Japanese educators should teach basic aspects of American politics to students and maintain a healthy level of interest. There is still much truth in what Nitobe said: “We have to learn more about the Americans before we make assertions about them.”