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Clinton, Miyazawa, and Hosokawa: US-Japanese Relations in the “Lost Decade”

Newly published memoranda of conversations dating from 1993 and 1994 provide a window into high level diplomacy between US President Clinton and Japanese Prime Ministers Miyazawa and and Hosokawa during years of transition in the US-Japan alliance.

President William J. Clinton with Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa in the Garden of Iikura House
President William J. Clinton with Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa in the Garden of Iikura House, July 6, 1993.

The early 1990s were a significant turning point in world politics and for US-Japanese relations. Globally, the Cold War came to an end, followed in quick succession by the collapse of communist regimes across Eastern Europe, the re-unification of Germany, and the dissolution of the USSR. Despite a relatively successful foreign policy record, including leading an international coalition that liberated Kuwait following the invasion by Iraq, President George H.W. Bush lost his bid for reelection in 1992 to Bill Clinton, the first Democrat to win a presidential election since 1976. Clinton’s campaign had focused primarily on domestic economic issues; his winning slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid,” targeted the economic slowdown over which Bush had presided.

Japan also experienced major changes in the last decade of the twentieth century, with long-established political and economic certainties being upended. In 1989, following a 63-year reign, which witnessed Japan’s imperial expansion and invasions in East Asia, defeat in the Second World War and a post-war economic boom, the 87-year-old emperor died in 1989, thus bringing the Shōwa Era to an end. In marked contrast to the boom years of the late-Shōwa, for much of the subsequent Heisei Period (1989-2018) Japan experienced a troubled economic situation. These so-called “Lost Decades” were triggered by the collapse of Japan’s asset price bubble and were marked by low growth rates, a slowdown of lending from troubled financial houses, and high levels of government debt resulting from economic stimulus measures which themselves produced only mixed or underwhelming results.

Japan’s political scene also experienced significant tumult in this period with the end of the “1955 System,” characterized by the domination of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) with the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) as the main opposition. The LDP’s supremacy came to end in 1993 when Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi lost a vote of confidence in the Diet and failed to secure popular backing in the subsequent election. A short-lived coalition government led by Hosokawa Morihiro, which included the JSP as well as newly formed parties that had splintered from the LDP, was formed.

Through the 1980s and 1990s Japan’s economic success, the penetration of Japanese products into the American market, and perceptions that this was explained by Japanese duplicity gave rise to the phenomenon of “Japan bashing” in the United States and a panic regarding America’s relative decline. Notoriously, this resulted in the killing of a Chinese-American man mistakenly thought to be Japanese by two autoworkers, one of whom had recently been laid off.[i]

Whereas that was undoubtedly a tragedy, the public destruction of a Toshiba boombox by members of Congress in front of the US Capitol and in view of the press, was more of a farce.[ii] Tokyo’s sluggish response to the invasion of Kuwait and its provision of financial aid provoked charges that it relied upon “checkbook diplomacy” while other countries made far greater sacrifices.[iii] Such negativity had a corollary in Japan where the press invented the term kenbei – “contempt for America” – to describe the popular mood.[iv]

Clinton engaged in some casual Japan bashing himself shortly after assuming the presidency. He was caught on microphone noting to Russian President Boris Yeltsin that when Japanese say yes, they mean no. When pressed by a Japanese journalist as to what he meant he brushed the incident aside.[v] Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi, laughed off the remark, mentioned the song “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” and noted that, “every language has its peculiarity.”[vi] Miyazawa was in no position to object since he had a record of such gaffes himself, having earlier suggested that America’s economic difficulties were the fault of a lack of a work ethic.[vii] Trade anxieties plunged US-Japanese relations to a very low point by the early 1990s.

A new set of memoranda of conversations dating from 1993 and 1994 that were declassified, in part, by Japan’s Diplomatic Archive in Tokyo and translated into English by Stephen Mercado for the Wilson Center’s History and Public Policy Program, provide a window into high level diplomacy between Clinton, Miyazawa, and Hosokawa during these years of transition. Throughout, we find both sides stressing their commitment to furthering close bilateral ties, and to ensuring that economic tensions not define the entire relationship. The bilateral relationship is described as a three-legged stool; with economic ties being just one leg and the Cold War-era US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, and bilateral cooperation on global political issues being the other two.[viii]

This approach had mixed success and trade frictions had a way of coming to the surface. When Miyazawa and Clinton met in April 1993, Japan was still running a mammoth and growing trade surplus, which would reach $59 bn by the end of the year.[ix] This was in spite of Japan’s own economic difficulties. Miyazawa recognized that this was “embarrassing” and noted that his government’s stimulus plans would deliver a boost in domestic demand, which would, it was hoped, lead to a reduction in Japan’s trade surplus. This fell far short of Clinton’s desire for “temporary quantitative indicators,” but Miyazawa rejected anything that amounted to a goal or an import quota. Instead, a “framework” approach was taken whereby trade negotiations were delegated to specialists and confined to specific sectors, including autos, computers and agriculture. This approach proved to be ill-starred from the beginning and confusion reigned between Japanese and American officials over what exactly were the sectors to be addressed by this framework approach.

Clinton had even less luck with Miyazawa’s successor Hosokawa Morihiro with whom he met in September 1993 and February 1994. In their first meeting, the framework negotiations, previously entered into by Miyazawa, were ongoing and the two leaders bonded over their respective difficulties in passing major domestic reforms - for Clinton, his unsuccessful healthcare plan, for Hosokawa, his reforms to the pension and taxation systems. Their next meeting occurred in the less than positive atmosphere of the breakdown of these trade talks. As Hosokawa explained, he simply did not have the political capital to accept the numerical targets the United States was seeking. Though both sides were at pains to stress that their bilateral relations were too important to be damaged by this diplomatic failure, an atmosphere of tension and of serious disappointment is clear.

Though both sides stressed the importance of the US-Japanese alliance, it had not yet been re-purposed for the post-Cold War era. This would only come in 1997 with the issuing of new operational guidelines. When these meetings took place in 1994, North Korea’s accelerating nuclear program presented the greatest threat in the region. Unfortunately, any mention of North Korea has been completely redacted in these releases.

Cable No. 1459, Ambassador Kuriyama to the Foreign Minister, 'Japan-United States Summit Meeting (Working Lunch, Separate Telegram 2: North Korea)

Any mention of North Korea and its nuclear program in the 1994 US-Japan talks was withheld by the Japanese Foreign Ministry when it released the records of the meetings.

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Access to these conversations would grant a fascinating window into the extent to which the US viewed Japan as a key ally and partner in an area of critical importance to Japan’s security, particularly given that Washington was soon to conclude an Agreed Framework with Pyongyang. How much were the Japanese told of these negotiations? Were their opinions sought after, and, if so, what did this amount to? These questions are, for now, unanswerable.

In terms of cooperation on global issues, the most pressing issue of the day was providing support for Boris Yeltsin’s tottering regime in post-Soviet Russia. After expressing gratitude for what Japan had already done, US officials asked Miyazawa to do more. There was no sense of irony that Japan, which had been criticized in the United Sates for its “checkbook diplomacy” during the Gulf War, was being induced to do more of the same. The US side also sought Japanese cooperation in a number of environmental initiatives, on which Vice-President Al Gore took the lead. Clinton promised support for Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, an ambition that has remained unfulfilled almost twenty years on.

Even with the glaring omission of North Korea, these memoranda provide a fascinating window into a significant diplomatic relationship at a time of domestic, bilateral, and global tumult. Despite the best efforts of the officials involved, economic concerns dominated. This was perhaps inevitable given the size of Japan’s trade surplus and because trade frictions had become live political issues in each country. However both sides, rhetorically at least, sought to underscore the importance of the totality of relations between them. Befitting a time of transition however, exactly what the alliance was for and to what ends the two should cooperate on issues of global concern were ill-defined. These would continue to be a challenge for Washington and Tokyo in the years and decades since.


[i] Andrew C. McKevitt, Consuming Japan: Popular Culture and the globalizing of 1980s America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 80-81.

[ii] ‘The Nation: “Japan Bashing” becomes a Trade Bill issue,’ New York Times, Feb. 28, 1988, acc. Apr. 12, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/1988/02/28/weekinreview/the-nation-japan-bashing-becomes-a-trade-bill-issue.html. Three Republican members of the House took sledgehammers to a Toshiba boombox in protest at the indirect sale by Toshiba of sensitive technologies to the USSR. Other countries or their corporations involved in similar transactions, including France and Norway, were not singled out in the same manner.

[iii] Kōji Murata, “The 1990s: From a Drifting Relationship to a Redefinition of the Alliance,” in The History of U.S.-Japan Relations: From Perry to the Present, ed. Makoto Iokibe, trans. Tosh Minoharu (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 215-216.   

[iv] Murata, “The 1990s: From a Drifting Relationship to a Redefinition of the Alliance,” 220.

[v] William J. Clinton, “The President's News Conference with Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa of Japan,” Apr. 16, 1993, Public Papers of the Presidents, The American Presidency Project, acc. Apr. 12, 2021, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/219737.

[vi] William J. Clinton, “Exchange with Reporters Prior to Discussions with Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa of Japan,” Apr. 16, 1993, Public Papers of the Presidents, The American Presidency Project, acc. Apr. 12, 2021, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/219732.

[vii] Michael Schaller, Altered States: The United States and Japan since the Occupation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 258; “Miyazawa’s Words,” New York Times, Feb. 8, 1992, acc. Apr. 12, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/1992/02/08/opinion/miyazawa-s-words.html; Kokkai Kaigiroku Kensaku System [Record of the National Die, Retrieval System], 123rd Diet, Lower House, Budget Committee, Feb. 3, 1992, no. 167, acc. Apr. 12, 2021, https://kokkai.ndl.go.jp/txt/112305261X00219920203/167.

[viii] Secretary of State Warren Christopher used the metaphor in a press briefing and it was also used in background briefings. Hosokawa spoke of the same features but described them as “pillars” in his talks with Clinton in September 1993.

William Jefferson Clinton, Press Briefing by Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Counselor to the President David Gergen, July 6, 1993, Public Papers of the Presidents, American Presidency Project, acc. Apr. 12, 2021, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269153. Background Briefing by Senior White House Officials, June 8, 1993. National Security Council, Office of Press and Communications, and Philip "PJ" Crowley, “Japan [4],” Clinton Digital Library, acc. Mar. 18, 2021, https://clinton.presidentiallibraries.us/items/show/48544.

[ix] Trade in Goods with Japan, 1993, U.S. Census Bureau, acc. Apr. 12, 2021, https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c5880.html#1993.

About the Author

Fintan Hoey

Public Policy Fellow;
Associate Professor of History, Franklin University, Switzerland

Fintan Hoey is an Associate Professor of History at Franklin University Switzerland and the author of Satō America and the Cold War: U.S.-Japanese Relations, 1964-72 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). In 2019 he was a Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

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History and Public Policy Program

The History and Public Policy Program strives to make public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, to facilitate scholarship based on those records, and to use these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs.  Read more