05/01/2012 01:54 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2012

Reaffirming Tokyo's Leader in Washington

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's April 30 visit to Washington arrived at a time in which the stakes have never been higher in Tokyo. This was the first summit in D.C. since the devastating 3.11 disaster in 2011 and since the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) swept to power in 2009, ending the almost continuous 54-year rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Japan closely watched for indications of the health of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Beijing's recent domestic scandals and provocations from Pyongyang have re-emphasized the importance of Washington to Tokyo. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the importance of Japan in U.S. foreign policymaking circles that continue to be consumed by crises of the moment in the Middle East.

Coming from the land of consensus that abhors political dramas on the international stage, Mr. Noda did not demand or let on publicly how desperately he needed the support of Washington to accomplish his ambitious agenda back in Tokyo. The son of a soldier who once trained with the American military and a virtually unknown political figure before he became prime minister in September 2011, Mr. Noda is a decidedly non-elite politician. He has, however, already proven his willingness to champion politically unpopular but necessary reforms, and if he can accomplish even half of what he has set out for Japan he may prove to be Washington's greatest asset.

While the first DPJ prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, tried to draw Tokyo closer to Beijing at the expense of Washington, and the second, Naoto Kan, showed little initiative in this regard, Mr. Noda has ambitiously rebalanced Japanese foreign policy, re-emphasizing the U.S.-Japan alliance. It began with his administration's commitment to solving the perennial Okinawa basing problem by offering to cover the relocation costs for American military forces to Guam. A new basing agreement announced a few days before the visit, contingent on congressional consent, was a major advance in U.S.-Japan relations, something not seen since the rise of the DPJ. Having already broken the old taboos of defense export controls and sensing the importance of the Trans-Pacific Pact for Japan's economic future, Prime Minister Noda has become Washington's unlikely champion despite the political headwinds in Tokyo. Mr. Noda has emphasized the very real necessity of re-opening at least some of Japan's nuclear power plants even in the face of populist outrage over 3.11's Fukushima nuclear disaster. Lastly, he is determined to increase the consumption tax in order to keep Japan fiscally solvent. His pragmatic and determined approach, even to issues considered by many in his own party to be political suicide, is admirable.

Analysts give Mr. Noda a slim chance of surviving the year; therefore, the impulse may be to downplay his visit. However, this would be a missed opportunity for Washington. Noda's failure will be far more consequential than that of any of the seven previous one-year prime ministers that Japan has rotated through since Junichiro Koizumi. Erratic behavior on the part of former prime ministers and their weak political convictions in the face of greater bureaucratic and structural impediments has been highlighted over the past seven years. 3.11 narrowed Mr. Noda's policy options and led to greater convergence between the two major political parties. Both now lean toward a consolidated U.S.-Japan security partnership, and pro-growth and pro-globalization economic policies. However, this "reluctant consensus" is disputed both within and between various political factions, meaning that necessary reforms will not be implemented without leadership at the top that can facilitate compromise and cooperation.

Despite the 3.11 disaster Japan remains remarkably stable in the face of economic and political upheaval elsewhere in the world. As the world's third-largest economy, and one of the oldest democracies in Asia, it continues to boast an open yet mature society. Stability and strong human ties, or what Japanese call kizuna, remain a driving force for the country's recovery. Japan's economy and society appear much more stable than those of Europe, and it is less socially or politically polarized than the United States. It is precisely because of its stability that Washington's focus is too often on everywhere else but Tokyo. However, it would be shortsighted not to focus on, and reward, Japan with tangible concessions at this critical juncture. The Obama administration has hosted state dinners for China, India, Israel, and the United Kingdom, the lack of Japan on this list is a conspicuous omission. Hosting one for Japan would have gone a long way in solidifying the current leanings in Tokyo towards Washington. Relatively painless cooperation on Okinawa and encouragement of Mr. Noda's leadership was a small price to pay for setting one of America's closest allies firmly on the right course. It is ultimately not only in Tokyo's long-term interest, but also in Washington's short-term interest.

Bold and steady political leadership is necessary for Japan to pursue such a path. As a historic ally with convergent interests in almost every area of the world, Japan rarely requires special treatment and can often be taken for granted. However, on the heels of 3.11 and the domestic political uncertainty in Tokyo now is precisely the time for Washington to reaffirm its commitment to the principles laid out by the Noda administration. In isolation, neither 3.11 nor Mr. Noda have changed Japan. Yet in different ways both have exposed the Japanese state's shortcomings by contrasting the resilience of its citizenry with the impotence of its government. In one of the most hostile political climates in the entire world, Noda has lived up to his hardworking and "relentlessly uncharismatic" reputation. It is precisely for this reason that now is the time for Washington to reaffirm its appreciation for a new type of leader in Tokyo even after he leaves town.

Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow at the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.