Japan and the U.S.: It's Time to Rethink Your Relationship


Their Cold War-era alliance is outdated. How can they build a security agreement for a new century?

RTR37T6J-615.jpgIssei Kato/Reuters

Fifty-two years ago, the United States and Japan signed the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. Forged just 15 years after a brutal, racially charged war between the two nations, the treaty was an exercise in realpolitik. It was written with an eye toward not only Japan's security but the containment of communism across Asia. The U.S.-Japan alliance is credited with nipping a resurgent Japanese militarism in the bud, providing a backbone of stability for postwar Asia, and giving the United States a base from which to confront China, Russia, and its satellites.

Today, Japan has fully recovered from the war to become the third-largest economy in the world. The threat of communism has evaporated. Yet despite the alliance's past successes, it's hard to conclude that it continues to serve the United States and Japan well. The alliance freezes the relationship in time, forcing both to adhere to antiquated policies. It views the regional security environment through a Cold War lens, distorting how other countries are perceived. Perhaps most importantly, it prevents Japan from evolving into a modern state and accepting the responsibilities that come with it.

It's accordingly time to shelve the old security agreement between America and Japan. Replacing it should be a new agreement in which both countries share equal responsibilities and the Japanese people are encouraged to take on a greater role worldwide. Scrapping the old treaty and replacing it with a new one would make the alliance -- and the security of both countries -- even stronger than before.

* * *

With a single sentence, Article 9 of the Japanese constitution turned Japan into a pacifist country. "The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes." Written by Americans and signed by Japan in 1947, the constitution forbids the island nation from maintaining a military and using force to achieve political goals. In the place of armed forces were "self-defense forces," an organization of essentially civil servants armed with defensive weapons.

Japan's limited offensive capabilities meant it needed the United States for additional support, which came in the form of an official alliance ushered in in 1960. The mutual security treaty cemented a permanent security relationship between the two countries. It's unique among bilateral treaties in that it gives each party separate responsibilities. The United States pledged to defend Japan from the communist threat, and in return, Japan granted it use of Japanese territory as a base for "maintenance of the peace and security of the Far East." Unlike NATO, there is little reciprocity: Japan is not obligated to defend American territory.

The security alliance with the United States is the best strategic decision Japan made since it opened to the West in the nineteenth century. Postwar Japan, restyled as an exporter of consumer goods, signed a security treaty with the one country that could sever -- or guarantee -- sea and air links with the outside world. The alliance with the United States meant flows of raw materials and energy in, and finished goods out, would be unimpeded. Japan was able to concentrate on postwar economic recovery and rebuild from the devastation of World War II with astonishing speed.

The ability to avoid foreign policy issues meant a concentration on political reforms that would prevent the resurgence of a junta. American occupation allowed democracy to flourish in Japan, and perhaps just as importantly, cemented the separation between the military and the state. Civilian control of the Self-Defense Forces has been enshrined in Japanese society to the extent that another military dictatorship is highly unlikely.

The alliance allowed Japan to offload its broader foreign policy concerns -- and commiserate military commitments -- to the United States. Instability in the Persian Gulf, North Korea, even the concept of nuclear deterrence -- things that should have concerned a regional power with few natural resources and nuclear-armed neighbors -- were not direct concerns for Japan. As a result, Japan has been able to live with defense spending capped at 1 percent of GDP, among the lowest of the industrialized world.

The United States, too, was well-served by the alliance. America needed a strong Japan as a regional partner, where it served as an anchor on the far side of the Pacific and a gateway to Asia. Washington was able to station large air and naval forces off the coast of Asia where they were invulnerable to ground attack, and use them to fight communism on the mainland. Without the use of Japanese territory, deterrence of the Soviet Union in Asia, as well as the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia, would likely have been beyond America's ability to undertake.

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Things are different today, and the treaty that used to encourage Japan to grow unfortunately now does the opposite. The treaty caps Japan's political maturation by separating Japan's responsibilities from its interests. A modern state is responsible for all aspects of its own defense, including defense of its allies and interests abroad. When Japan cedes overseas defense responsibilities to the United States, it reduces the scope of Japan's foreign policy accordingly.

This has far-reaching implications. A government disengaged from Japan's foreign interests creates a people uninterested in engaging the outside world. The Japanese outlook is narrowed to a world in which threats are rare and national interests abroad are taken care of by someone else. As a nation reliant on the global system (99.6 percent of Japan's petroleum is imported) to ensure survival, let alone prosperity, an inward-turning Japan is unacceptable.

Japan's reliance on the United States for protection undermines Japanese credibility in the world. It projects the image of an economically strong country that is unable to defend itself. It doesn't matter that Japan finances many of the U.S. forces based in its country, or that it supplies the land. What matters is the fact that Vietnam is fully responsible for its own defense, and yet somehow Japan is not. A country not responsible for its own defense is not the equal of a country that is.

It's not that Japan doesn't have a reason to defend itself. Japan does live in a dangerous neighborhood: three neighbors possess nuclear weapons, with one openly hostile (North Korea) and the other two having long-standing territorial disputes with Japan. As the third largest economy in the world, Japan no longer needs another country to protect it and its interests. Japan has the ability to build a force capable of defending itself, but it chooses not to.

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Kyle Mizokami is a defense writer based in San Francisco.

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