Pacific Postcards

Japan and America’s Complex Relationship (Grimaldi)

Japan and America’s Complex Relationship

Japan, underneath the United States, is the second-largest global economy. The close-knit, lucrative relationship between the two countries promotes great prosperity for them both, however, they didn’t always have a great relationship. Japan and America’s relationship has been a complex back and forth between a need for each other and a hatred for one another. How did the two countries get there after Japan’s removal of self-isolation in 1853 and how did they persist to be economic superpowers? Their relationship is a complex metaphor for the modern-day economic standings and the juxtaposition between need and self-sufficiency.


To first establish the quick rise to the top of Japan’s economy, one must look at how the United States played a part in its beginning. In March of 1854, Matthew C. Perry led a posse of ‘Black Ships’ into Japan’s isolationist era. After a 200 year, “no one may leave” policy under Tokugawa Lemitsu, he convinced the leader of the nation to sign a treaty with the United States which established formal diplomatic relations. Other countries began to form their own treaties with Japan within the next 10 years, but the United States obtained theirs first. Japan was a self-sustaining power in this previous era, but as one may see, they begin to falter from this origin. Upon the introduction of American society to the once hidden Japenese came the beginning of a ‘father’ and ‘son’ relationship. Jeffery Keith in his article about their relationship speaks of this idea “ In their telling, the Americans wanted to bring the Japanese toward civilization and into their family. The crewmen therefore cast themselves as paternal and strong while portraying the Japanese as childlike and in need of guidance.” (Keith) This fundamental idea of the Japenese people began the beginning of intense racial hierherchy that comes up even in the modern day. 


From the time the Japanese were introduced to American culture, even persisting through the mid-1900s, the U.S. and Japan had a pretty strained relationship. In 1924 the Immigration Act of 1924 excluded all Asians, not previously covered in the Chinese Exclusion Act, from immigrating to the United States. This strained relations with Japan and furthered some intense propaganda movements happening around this time (Anderson). To further this tension, in 1937, the USS Panay incident happened. Right before WWII officially began, Japan bombed a U.S. Navy gunboat and three oil tankers on the Yangtze River. The Japanese accepted responsibility for this action but claimed it was a mistake. A couple of years later, in 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and several other Pacific claimed U.S. territories, furthering the destruction of their relationship with the U.S. In 1942, “President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, calling for the evacuation of all individuals of Japanese descent from the West Coast” (Lee, 22). This punished the Japanese while also prompting a racist ideology by the Americans. Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps because the U.S. feared they were spies of other nations. Over 100,000 people were moved from their homes and forced into these areas. After the end of WWII, America occupied Japan and reshaped the nation into a democracy. They didn’t pay as harshly for the second World War as Germany did. Years of reconstruction began and the recent enemy became an ally to the U.S. Japan began to promote its economy by manufacturing devices and electronics (Taylor).  


In the 1980s America feared being overthrown as being the economic superpower. They have always tried to establish themselves as superiors to the rest of the world. When they originally met the Japenese, “The Japan expedition’s crewmen also considered America’s republican government as a sign of their civilization’s supremacy”. (Keith) America undermining their culture happened then and now.  They also feared the way Japan’s relationship was shaping with the Pacific. While Japan and the U.S. were locked in a mutually beneficial relationship with Japan sending exports and the U.S. sending basic materials back, the U.S. struggled to sell in Japan and match the way in which Japan was exporting. There is a certain way Japan’s economy is set up that makes this the case. Japan has keiretsu, long-lived relationships with suppliers and consumers. This dedication makes it so the people on top stay on top without fear of removal. The U.S. has this illegally, compared to cartels, but they don’t do it the same way Japan does. This idea makes it hard for insiders to get into Japan’s top economy and therefore has America as a constant outsider. In a session of Congress in 1986 claimed that “Japan [has] the largest current account surplus in the world.” (pg. 10) In this meeting, the congress discussed the fears of the reliance Japan had on other countries. They make claims about this being the eventual downfall of the entire nation. Within the two-day conference, they discussed many ways in which they hoped they could help Japan even out their import/export ratio. To be exact, to help Japan be “less dependent on large export surpluses” (pg 16). Japan makes its money by being a surplus nation, it relies heavily on other countries' needs and benefits from them. There is also a sense of fear in the way this is shaping Japan with America not benefiting as much as they used to, “Since 1980, exports to the U.S. from Japan have risen by 82% and have more than doubled from the NICs while U.S. exports have remained flat to Japan, and have risen only 9% to the NICs”.( pg 15) This reliance on other nations is something new for Americans. A very common 1950s/60s sentiment was the idea that everything was practically made in the backyard. This loss is now a dependence on other countries. In 1991, “Japan’s economy crashed and didn’t recover until 2002.” (pg 16). 


While Japan and America’s relationship has been a considerable back and forth for years, there’s no doubting that the world would be different today without its existence. The modern economy has switched from countries being able to be self-reliant to countries needing each other in order to survive. The strained relationship between Japan and America reflects this complex idea in the sense that they both compete and rely on each other to get by. In the last 200 years, the U.S. has gone from begging Japan to trade to kicking out their people from the U.S. to once again, begging Japan to trade. 


Anderson, Emily. "Anti-Japanese exclusion movement." Densho Encyclopedia. 8 Oct 2020, 17:02 PDT. 5 Nov 2021, 22:50 <>.

“Capitalism in Japan: Cartels and Keiretsu.” Harvard Business Review, 31 Aug. 2021,

“Japan and the United States in the World Economy.” PIIE, 31 Aug. 2018,

Koginos, Manny T. The Panay Incident: Prelude to War. Purdue University Press, 1967.

Relations, Symposium on U.S.-Pacific Rim. “Symposium on U.s.-Pacific Rim Relations Hearings before the Joint Economic Committee, Congress of the United States, Ninety-Ninth Congress, Second ...” HathiTrust,

Taylor, Alan. “Japan in the 1950s.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 12 Mar. 2014,

“U.S. Relations with Japan - United States Department of State.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, 14 Apr. 2021, 

Keith, Jeffrey A. “Civilization, Race, and the Japan Expedition's Cultural Diplomacy, 1853-1854*.” Diplomatic History, vol. 35, no. 2, 2011, pp. 179–202., 

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