OPINION: The Necessity of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty

Loadmasters assigned to the 1st Special Operations Squadron look out over Mt. Fuji from the back of an MC-130J Commando II during a flight over Japan in support of exercise Resolute Dragon, Dec. 9, 2021. The 1st SOS conducted an airdrop in support of RD21, demonstrating their long range joint resupply capabilities. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jessi Monte)

Japanese and American interests have often been shared, and a special friendship, much akin to that of the United States and Britain, has helped both countries see each other quite favorably as a result of the Japanese-American Security Treaty. Despite world war setbacks, Japanese and American cooperation in world affairs has a long history of mutual benefit and success. From Japan’s initial opening to the world, Japan and the United States cooperated closely on their foreign policy objectives. The United States’ diplomatic support during the Russo-Japanese war allowed Japan to cement itself as a regional superpower in East Asia, and Japan’s involvement in the Eight-Nation Alliance granted Japan the legitimacy akin to a European nation.

Despite rapid conquests and interests in American territories, the increasingly imperialist Japan was still favorable to the United States throughout the 1920s. Prior to World War 2, Japanese and American relations were still friendly, only after the death of two model Japanese statesmen and the takeover of the jingoistic Japanese military. The Allied victory established a permanent American military presence in Japan, even as relations improved.

But the presence of American troops has been disruptive. From community disturbances by military training operations to violent crimes by American troops, calls for American withdrawal have been a repeated talking point of the Japanese left-wing political opposition. Moreover, Okinawans shoulder much of the burden of American military bases, which account for 62% of bases in Japan and a quarter of Okinawa’s land. Most crimes and incidents involving the United States occur in Okinawa.

While routine disruptions and serious incidents involving U.S. servicemen in Japan must be addressed, the presence of American troops and continued cooperation with Japan as part of the Security Treaty has allowed for regional stability and rapid joint-operations on military deployments and ecological disasters and does not merit a complete withdrawal. The deployment of American troops in Japan and close cooperation with the Japanese government have allowed the United States to conduct operations in East Asia. Japan’s ports provided the staging necessary for the Inchon landings, without which South Korea would likely not exist. Japanese bases housed and supplied American troops involved in Vietnam, and in 2011, American troops conducted operations to mitigate the damage caused by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which caused significant nuclear radiation.

Mutual Defense and Western Force Projection

During the Cold War and into the modern era, U.S. bases in Japan helped extend the U.S.’ reach into East Asia and address the national security concerns of first-world allies in the region. Japanese bases helped the U.S. maintain a bulwark against communist states such as China, North Korea, North Vietnam, and the Soviet Union. The U.S. bases in Japan, alongside coordination with the Japanese government, allowed the Inchon landings to occur. Without the Inchon landings, South Korea would almost certainly not exist, North Korea having overrun the Korean peninsula. Japanese involvement in the Korean War also allowed the U.S.’ intelligence agency to reach Sino-Soviet and North Korean developments by employing Japanese intelligence agencies. This helped the U.S. spy in a region their own intelligence agencies could not reach well. U.S. bases in Japan were also responsible for much of the supply of American troops in Vietnam.

Japan has continued to aid the U.S. from a foreign policy perspective, even in the modern era. Recently, Japanese politicians have renewed interest in discussions with Taiwan, whose defense is currently the responsibility of the United States. Politicians announced the establishment of a “Taiwan project team” to discuss policies related to the island and Japanese-American coordination in the security field. Such actions show support for the United States’ foreign policy by the Japanese government.

The Japanese Security Treaty has also helped maintain Japan’s national security, develop a robust post-war economy, and coordinate operations dealing with foreign and natural crises. In efforts to prepare Japan for an active role in the Cold War, the U.S. helped the Japanese rebuild their economy, helping to position Japan to become one of the strongest economies for years to come. U.S. aid has averaged $178 million annually, and war in Korea helped kickstart Japanese factories from a dangerous recession. The United States renegotiated the Security Treaty to allow for the Japanese Self Defense Force and has helped Japan develop a technologically advanced army in lieu of nuclear deterrents.

Incidents and Disruption

Many people see American troops as a disruption and danger to society in Japan. These concerns are understandable, as living next to an airbase or having daily commute/routines disrupted by training exercises can be difficult. Moreover, the political fallout from incidents such as the 1995 Okinawa rape incident can create justified widespread unrest and demands for American withdrawal. Citizens of Okinawa, which the United States occupied for many years after the Second World War, carry an exorbitant amount of the alliance’s burden. Despite making up less than 1% of Japan’s territory, Okinawa accounts for 75% of American military installations in Japan. 1/3rd of Okinawa’s land is used for American bases. The majority of violent crimes perpetrated by Americans have occurred on Okinawa, and the island has been a delicate subject in American-Japanese relations,

While there is no excuse for the actions of American troops and the impact upon daily life bases have on civilians, a withdrawal scraps one of the 20th century’s most important alliances and continued partnerships. Japan and the United States must continue to pursue their foreign policy goals, and American troops stationed in Japan are crucial to both nations’ national security. Efforts and funds should be diverted to mitigating impact and raising awareness on the purpose of American troops in Japan. For transparency, U.S. soldiers stationed in Japan should be subject to increased cultural training and background, much like diplomats are, to ensure peaceful community integration. Actions taken by Japanese and American military officials, especially in Okinawa, should be focused on thoroughly reforming the American presence in Japan.

Oftentimes, an American withdrawal becomes a talking point of political opposition. Yet the presence of U.S. troops mustn’t be used as a partisan rallying cry, and efforts to explain Japan and the U.S.’s shared interests should be conveyed to all of the Japanese political spectra. While concerns raised about the impact of American troops are justified and crimes should be pursued with severity, politicizing an issue of national security is a dangerous path for Japan to embark.

Moreover, the Japanese Security Treaty has benefited the Japanese citizenry by contributing to socio-economic growth and crisis management. The Japanese economic miracle was fueled by U.S. and allies’ demand for mechanized parts (motors, engines, etc.), which drove an industrialized, technologically advanced economy. Japan’s economic miracle propelled the comparatively small island nation into the second-largest economy in the world for many years, even when dwarfed in population and size by neighboring China. Moreover, U.S. troops stationed in Japan have contributed to crisis management during natural disasters in Japan. The 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake response was supported by “Operation Tomodachi,” a U.S. military intervention using troops stationed in Japan to save lives and mitigate damage. Additionally, the United States aided Japan during the dangerous subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, supplying researchers to help monitor radiation and working to decontaminate the region.

Contemporary Practicality

Other critics claim the U.S.’ support is no longer needed to preserve Japan’s national sovereignty. The Cold War is effectively over; the Soviet Union has collapsed, and China has gradually transitioned from its Maoist regime. The argument can be made that American troops in Japan are not necessary for the continued defense of Japan and that Japanese and American interests can be continued with a withdrawal. Many Japanese citizens favor a reduction of American troops, and it is no secret that the CIA spent millions to support conservative governments in the 60s. Though somewhat justifiable in the lens of the Cold War, such actions by the United States are nonetheless encroaching upon a close ally and seeking to influence free elections.

While a Chinese or Russian invasion of the Japanese mainland would be costly and unrealistic in a contemporary setting, ongoing territorial disputes over islands in the South China Sea or the Sakhalin islands threaten the sovereignty of Japanese territory. Moreover, the United States cannot risk losing Japanese ports and military installations, as though the Cold War has ended, China and Russia remain powerful rivals to democracy abroad, and the United States will be hard-pressed to supply nations such as Taiwan and South Korea from its pacific isles/California. The growing threat of jingoistic North Korea presents a danger to denuclearized Japan in recent years. Japan has no deterrent against nuclear states in the East Asian region without nuclear weapons and must rely on an advanced yet outnumbered army. The United States, as an ally with troops in Japan, projects force to Japanese adversaries.

The U.S.-Japanese Security Treaty must continue through the 21st century, and American troops should not withdraw from the Japanese islands. Serious efforts must be made to decrease the impact and disruption resulting from American bases and ease the burden of the Okinawan people. Yet the Japanese and American Security Treaty has brought together both nations, with 67% of Japanese citizens viewing the United States as favorably and 81% of Americans viewing Japan favorably. Such a deep trust and cultural exchange between the two nations is no coincidence; the United States has been crucial to Japanese national security and vice-versa. Moving forward into the 21st century, Japan and the United States must seek to preserve their alliance and friendship, with the military bases on Japan remaining key to the cooperation of both nations in East Asia and beyond.

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