THE AMERICAN PRESENCE IN JAPAN: 60 YEARS IN THE MAKING

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Christian Ayers

Quang Trinh


In 2019 and for the majority of the years following World War II, Japan, as opposed to American allies in Western Europe or the Middle East, has hosted the largest concentration of American troops outside of the US border. This should not come as a surprise, since security lies at the cornerstone of U.S-Japan relations. Given Trump’s “America’s First” rhetoric, the continued maritime dispute between China and Japan, and the escalation of threats from North Korea, it has become increasingly important to examine the American stronghold in Asia. 

A History Revisited: Institutionalizing Peace 

The Constitution of Japan, also known as the “Peace Constitution,” was drafted almost entirely by American officials in 1946 and is best known for Article 9, which stipulates that Japan renounce “war as a sovereign right” and “the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” In effect, the Article calls forJapan to relinquish its military sovereignty as part of its forced surrender following the Second World War. General Douglas MacArthur—the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP)—implemented this plan by leading the American occupation in the years immediately following the War. The aforementioned American intervention in Japanese security became a source of in-party controversy within both the Japan Socialist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party. The steps towards formalizing the arrangement were met with a score of opposition from both political establishments and the populace. 

The first formal treaty between Japan and the US came in the form of the Security Treaty of 1951, in which Japan granted the US exclusive rights to station forces in Japan in the interest of regional and collective security. The treaty in its most fundamental form grapples the issue of military sovereignty. While John Foster Dulles—the Secretary of State at the time—believed Japan could rearm and take up more responsibilities in protecting itself, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida remained adamant in channeling Japanese national resources into economic development and away from military buildup. 

The Treaty would later be revised in 1960 to advance Japan’s autonomy by framing its military relationship with the US in terms of an alliance. However, this change was merely cosmetic as Yoshida’s strategy— formulated into the Yoshida Doctrine—ultimately prevailed: Japan would rely on the US for self-defense in order to build up its economic capacity. In response, political opponents of the Yoshida Doctrine feared that Japan would become entangled in American military adventures if it remained under the US’s wing. Protests ensued upon the Treaty’s final ratification in 1960, when clashes between the police and demonstrators led to bloodshed. Despite provoking these conflicts, the 1960 version of the Treaty remains untouched. A Foreign Affairs article notes how the Treaty marks the longest continuous alliance between two major powers since the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended one of the most destructive conflicts in European history. The alliance is not only a reminder that collective security is a very recent development, but that its maintenance has never been an easy task. 

The Questions of the Present: Sharing Responsibilities 

The issue of dividing Japan’s security responsibilities is salient even today. In November 2019, Trump pushed for Japan to increase its financial contributions toward the upkeep of overseas American troops from $2 billion to nearly $8 billion. This plan is inconsistent with the terms of the Special Measures Agreement, a financial arrangement between the US and Japan wherein the US is expected to shoulder expenses for stationed troops. However, the American case for this adjustment to the Agreement could be compelling. As an arrangement that was established in the immediate post-War period, the Special Measures Agreement did not foresee Japan’s meteoric rise to become the second-largest economy in the world as early as the 1960s. While Trump’s proposal is consistent with his push for American allies to absorb more multilateral military expenses—as in the cases of NATO and South Korea—the restructured security payments could be considered a testament to Japan’s economic prowess. 

Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan, has looked to elevate the independence of the Japanese military. Under his administration, Japan has bought massive stocks of F35 combat aircrafts and operated an aircraft carrier for the first time since World War II. And perhaps understandably so, since Japan has been dealing with long-standing threats from its neighbors that won’t be going away anytime soon. With China relentlessly beefing up its military forces and North Korea always looking to flaunt its nuclear capabilities, Japan might not always be able to rely on its western ally for protection, even after over half a century of relatively amicable relations. For Abe, building up Japan’s military arsenal or expanding the budget will be futile if Article 9 continues to obstruct the establishment of a formal army. However, pushing through a constitutional change is undoubtedly a prodigious task. The public opinion is almost evenly split; according to a Japan Times poll, 54% of the participants oppose making revisions.  Abe faces an even taller order in receiving support from constitutional theorists, and on the legal front, in securing two-third majority consent from the Diet. This constraint creates a seemingly paradoxical situation where it pivots Abe towards the strengthening of the US-Japan security alliance as a means to aggrandize Japan’s military might. Earlier this year, the Prime Minister remarked on the 60th Anniversary of the US-Japan security alliance: “We have elevated the relationship to one in which each of us, the US and Japan, protects the other,” espousing an ever stronger sense of equal footing among two nations. 

Standing in Abe’s path are certain pockets of the Japanese population that have remained cynical of the American presence. In Okinawa, home to more than 20,000 American troops, the islanders have elected governor Denny Tamaki, who campaigned to evict the local American military forces. One motivation is resentment, due to countless crimes—including sexual assault and murder—committed by American servicemen against the local population. Another concern is environmental, since the local populace fears that the construction of new military bases would devastate the fragile coral reefs and maritime life within Henoko Bay. However, the Abe administration has sustained its military-focused agenda by choosing to uphold the relocation plan of the Futenma Air Base. The Supreme Court backed the Prime Minister in a decision in December 2016 to uphold the construction of the base. Such a commitment seems to indicate the government’s priority in maintaining a robust security alliance with the US. 

What Does the Future Hold? 

Although much uncertainty underlies Japan’s relationship with the US, we mustn’t discount the fact that Japan has been a case of relative success for the US in a post-conflict settlement. As much as the US has struggled to make similar achievements in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, it is still noteworthy how the US’ security arrangement with Japan has helped pave the way for Japan’s integration into the liberal international order. Excluding a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, Japan has achieved considerable influence in a variety of global financial institutions, from the IMF to the Asian Development Bank. In effect, Japan and the US have both reaped rewards from their shared security arrangements: enhancing international prestige for the former and preserving geopolitical influence for the latter. Thus, while managing expenses may lead to occasional friction, perhaps this relationship is undoubtedly a symbiotic one at heart. 

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