In a sorrowful but resolute demonstration of solidarity, Japan has joined the United States in mourning countrymen murdered by the barbaric Islamic State terror group. Standing up for the cause of civilization around the globe, Japan offered humanitarian relief for stranded Syrian refugees, and the caliphate answered by killing two innocent Japanese hostages.
Tragic as these events are, they are also a dramatic reminder of the strength of the bond between the United States and Japan. Having stood together throughout the Cold War, the two countries are steadfast as they confront terrorism. And in the economically dynamic, but increasingly tense Pacific region, their partnership forms a bulwark for peace and stability.
In fact, it would be hard to find a more extraordinary relationship than the one America and Japan have forged as we mark the 70th year since the end of World War II.
With legendary resilience and assistance from their former foe, the people of Japan rose out of the rubble, embraced democratic values and built a free market that today is second only to the United States.
For both countries, close ties have left a deep imprint so pervasive that it is generally taken for granted. Americans drive Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans, many of them built by U.S. workers in U.S. factories. We watch the Super Bowl on Japanese TVs and frequent our favorite sushi bars. Our children are entertained and entranced by Japanese cartoon characters.
On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the Japanese people listen to American music and watch Hollywood’s movies and television shows. They have adopted our national pastime with a passion. Americans cheer their baseball heroes; Japanese fans all but idolize theirs.
No relationship can flourish if taken for granted, however. Our closeness with Japan, so crucial for our security in Asia and elsewhere, requires special care and deep understanding.
That’s the lesson I learned as a young college graduate in 1965, when I spent an eye-opening two months in a small village near Osaka. Living with an exchange group of Japanese students, I discovered a unique culture that shares many American values of hard work, strong families and aspirations for peace. I also found that making friends took time and cultivation.
As we look to the future, Japan’s well-being is linked intimately with our own. Japan is a mainstay of stability in Asia, and how well we coordinate with Japan sends a signal to other countries and influences how China, whose economy has now overtaken Japan’s, directs its own regional and global interests.
We have opportunities to help our ally. American natural gas exports could play a significant role in filling the energy gap for Japan after the Fukushima disaster shut down nuclear power operations there. We also have reason for hope the current Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks will remove barriers and improve commerce between our two countries.
But more efforts are needed to insure that we understand each other. The best way is by direct contact. We should expand people-to-people visits, including student exchanges, which have declined in recent years. More business people and academics should spend time in Japan and establish ongoing personal connections, and U.S. and Japanese lawmakers should place a higher value on meeting together.
In this anniversary year, nurturing our friendship with Japan is the keystone to building an alliance in which the strong democracies of the Pacific Rim — the United States, South Korea and Japan — stand together and stand down any future threat to the peace and prosperity.
Former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert represented the 14th District of Illinois from January 1999 to January 2007. He is honorary co-chairman of the Congressional Study Group on Japan.