Tokyo and Washington Celebrate their Alliance — Too Soon

The U.S.-Japan security alliance just had its golden anniversary -- but it isn't time to break out the bubbly just yet.

Mandel Ngan/Getty Images
Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

This week, champagne corks were popped at think tanks in Washington and Tokyo. Celebratory editorials and columns by diplomats and pundits appeared in many of the world’s newspapers. U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama issued warm statements. The occasion? The 50th anniversary of the U.S.-Japan security alliance.

But the revelers got the date wrong, and in so doing they revealed — inadvertently, one hopes — their disregard for the no-longer-hidden reefs that threaten the bilateral relationship.

To be clear, there is much to celebrate.  The bilateral alliance — in which the United States provides the Japanese government and companies access to American markets and technology in exchange for the right to base troops in Japan — has helped deliver stability and prosperity to northeast Asia. The U.S. military presence has enabled Japan to spend little on defense, thereby reassuring its neighbors that Tokyo has fully abandoned last century’s imperial ambitions. There are few more successful or sustained bilateral alliances in world history.

This week’s celebrations were specifically timed to the golden anniversary of the signing of the U.S.-Japan alliance in Washington, a most cozy affair. Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, a former member of Gen. Hideki Tojo’s war cabinet, had made the transition to diplomacy and conferred on the golf course and in the Oval Office with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. They struck a deal in mid-January. All that remained was ratification.

But ratification was anything but a cozy process, for most Japanese had real questions about the pact. Many on the pacifist left wanted to preserve Japanese neutrality in the Cold War, fearing that an alliance with Washington would return Japan to the disastrous road of militarism. Many on the nationalist right accepted the alliance as a bulwark against communism, but also feared it would prevent Japan from regaining great-power status. Both leftists and rightists agreed that allowing American soldiers bases and extraterritorial rights violated Japanese sovereignty.

By May 1960, armed mostly with placards and petitions, tens of millions of citizens had taken to the streets to protest the treaty. Radical students were met by better-armed rightwing thugs, recruited by the government. Blood spilled as protestors literally knocked on the massive doors of the Diet, Japan’s parliament. The tumult that followed a late-night, secret ratification of the treaty in June (Kishi used the police to expel the opposition parties from the chamber) prevented Eisenhower from coming to Japan and toppled the Kishi government. These "security treaty riots" defined an entire political generation of postwar Japanese.

Half a century later, the alliance has more than demonstrated its value. There has been remarkably little fighting in a region filled with territorial disputes, rapidly modernizing militaries, widespread nuclear weapons, and other potential sources of dangerous instability.  Acceptance of the alliance is widespread.

Still, with the U.S. military enjoying exclusive rights to over 115 square miles of land, three quarters of it in a single province, Okinawa, Japanese sovereignty remains a concern to many. Even mainstream conservatives rail against "the base burden" and U.S. extraterritorial privilege. One former defense minister, Ohno Yoshinori, declared "the occupation-era base structure" to be the single most difficult problem for the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance. And defense journalist Ina Hisayoshi reflects the widely held (and less restrained) judgment that the conduct of the U.S. military in Japan "resembles that of an occupying force."

Such feelings undoubtedly contributed to last August’s political thunderbolt, when Japanese voters repudiated more than a half century of single party dominance by the alliance-friendly Liberal Democratic Party and elected the Democratic Party of Japan. The DPJ ran on a platform of thoroughgoing change that included ending Tokyo’s subordination to Washington, and voters responded by granting them an overwhelming majority of seats in the House of Representatives, the Diet’s lower house. Japan’s fabled "one and a half party system" gave way to viable two-party democracy for the first time. And Japan now had in Hatoyama a prime minister who had publicly declared his preference for the end of the permanent U.S. military presence.

Relying on a small but insistent Socialist coalition partner centered in Okinawa, the Hatoyama government began questioning decisions on the realignment of U.S. forces and on the relocation of specific bases immediately upon taking office. U.S. resistance notwithstanding, Hatoyama’s DPJ elevated the sovereignty issue and put more space between Japan and the United States than had heretofore seemed possible.

U.S. officials should not have been surprised. Even if Hatoyama is inconsistent and occasionally incoherent, it has long been clear that Japan would try to find a more effective balance between its neighbors and its security partner. This re-equilibration– a "Goldilocks" strategy to "get it just right"– is now well under way. Japan is figuring out how to hedge against U.S. decline and Chinese aggression, how to hedge against entanglement in U.S. adventures without being abandoned by a partner it still needs, and how to hedge against predation and protectionism in economic affairs.

Japan is openly feeling its way toward a new security posture that protects its citizens and provides for their prosperity simultaneously, preparing for an era in which China is at least as important as the United States. This has generated an active discourse on regional institution building in Tokyo, particularly among those who are attracted to the idea of economic integration but are not yet prepared to walk away from American security guarantees.

Recognition of these developments — and what they portend for the future of the alliance — was the 900-pound gorilla dancing with the anniversary celebrants. Given current concerns on both sides, failing to acknowledge the agreement at all would have invited even more questions about where the alliance is headed.  But by celebrating the right achievement at the wrong time, alliance managers missed the chance to engage real issues and to celebrate the transformation of Japanese politics from one dominated by violent protest to one where policy choices reflect electoral preferences. Had they waited a few months to begin partying, they could have reveled in the knowledge that this positive transformation was abetted by the success and popular acceptance of the U.S.-Japan security treaty. The champagne should have stayed corked until springtime.

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