Aya Igarashi has worked for The Yomiuri Shimbun for 18 years, having spent 10 of those covering Japanese politics for the paper. Three years ago, she moved to Washington DC, to take up her current post as a political correspondent. Based in the National Press Building she has been following the presidential candidates around the country since they began their campaigns, spending New Year’s Eve in Des Moines, Iowa, at a party with Hillary and Bill Clinton. She also wrote a column that focused entirely on Senator Clinton’s campaign.
Monocle: You had a column “Chasing Hillary” in the paper, and you know Senator Clinton well. How did you feel when she dropped out of the race?
Aya Igarashi: Back in Tokyo there are so many people who really believed that she would be the next president. But I had a feeling Obama might win the nomination because he’s got huge charisma. I do think that it’s discouraging and disappointing that even women like Hillary can’t break the glass ceiling.
M: Were your readers more interested in Hillary Clinton in the beginning?
AI: Yes. A lot of Japanese people believe that she’s negative and divisive though – they want to know about her whether they like her or not.
M: In “The Daily Yomiuri” diplomat Hisahiko Okazaki wrote that many Japanese are apprehensive about the possible emergence of a Democratic administration. He attributes this to memories of Japan-bashing as a result of the breakdown of trade relations in the early stages of the Clinton administration. Do you think this is true?
AI: I think those kind of emotions are still lingering.
M: Do you think that affects this election?
AI: There are officials from that Clinton administration who are advising Obama – these people conducted those policies in the 1990s so there’s the possibility that that kind of Japan-bashing could happen. But Japan has changed a lot since then, and the alliance has been strengthened. We have to pay attention, especially when we are next to North Korea and China – a rising China.
M: Do you believe that a victory by one party or the other would mean a change in the relationship between Japan and the US?
AI: I have had many conversations with government officials, and they are concerned about a Democratic administration because we have had such good relations with the Bush administration.
M: So the Japanese government would feel safer with a Republican administration?
AI: I think that government officials feel more comfortable with Republicans. But now the Democrats have an advantage, the [Japanese] government is trying to have more access and to establish closer relationships with Democratic networks.
M: What do you consider to be the most important differences in the two candidates’ foreign policies in the Asia-Pacific region?
AI: Actually, I don’t see any difference in the responses of the candidates. For example, when North Korea made its nuclear declaration.
M: Has either candidate impressed or disappointed you with their approach towards the North Korea issue?
AI: There are knowledgeable people advising both candidates. There are ex-Bush, Republican-leaning advisers in Obama’s camp, too. I think North Korea is now getting more attention [than China] among Japanese people.
M: Why do you think that is?
AI: Well, we have a bad memory from the Clinton administration from when Madeleine Albright flew into Pyongyang and danced with Kim Jong-il. Some people are concerned by Obama saying that he is ready to meet dictators like Kim Jong-il without conditions.
M: But he has shifted from that position.
AI: That’s right. The public feeling [in Japan] is that Obama is a star candidate; he’s young, he rocks. He’s a new superstar. They don’t follow his policies yet.
M: Does the fact that a black man might become the next president of the US interest your readers?
AI: Yes, but I’m not sure how many Japanese people are aware of the significance of the fact that he’s going to be an African-American president. Most people don’t know why it was so hard for an African-American to be elected.
M: Do you have a strategy in place for how you’re going to cover the final months of
AI: I don’t have to report everything the candidates say every day from now on! We are preparing a series of articles dealing with broader issues, such as race.
M: Who is going to win this election?
AI: Obama! Actually, as a reporter I wish there would be a close race because it’s more fun. But right now the Democrats look like an unstoppable force.
Japan’s relationship with the US The US-Japan alliance is the lynchpin of America’s security role in East Asia. The US currently has about 56,000 troops stationed in Japan, providing ballast against China and North Korea. The Bush administration has significantly bolstered US-Japan relations: after September 11 Japan sent non-combat troops into Afghanistan in support of Allied forces and this deployment was followed by another in 2004, to Iraq. However, the US’s pursuit of Six-Party Talks – aiming to erase North Korea’s nuclear capability and thereby remove the country from the list of state sponsors of terrorism – has driven a wedge between Washington and Tokyo. Economically, Japan is one of the US’s largest export markets and one of its largest sources of imports.
Yomiuri Shimbun: the facts
Japan is home to the four top selling newspapers in the world. Of these, The Yomiuri Shimbun is the most successful with a combined morning and evening circulation of over 14 million. The company behind it, the Yomiuri Group, also publishes The Daily Yomiuri, Japan’s largest English-language newspaper. The group even owns a baseball team, the Yomiuri Giants, as well as the Chuokoron-Shinsha publishing company, which it acquired in 1999, and it runs the Nippon Television Network. It has 34 bureaux worldwide and an additional 19 “tie-ups” with other news organisations, including The Washington Post, Le Figaro, The Guardian, Asia News Network and The Korean Times. It has three bureaux in the US – in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington.