U.S. Forces in Japan: Should I stay or should I go?

“Why are we paying for this?” – You know who

When I was in Kagoshima, I noticed some military presence, including contrails from fighter jets and this.


Likely Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, basically written by the U.S., states:

Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international dispute.

However, the SDF was developed largely as a response to the Korean War, and as a force to protect Japan’s mainland while the U.S. focused on external threats. Since the Korean situation has not yet been resolved–North and South are still technically at war–it’s stuck around, and recent developments, specifically North Korea’s nuclear program and China’s assertiveness at sea, have reinforced the perceived need for it.

These days it looks like the SDF is moving towards what is a regular military. Last year the Diet (Japan’s legislature) passed legislation allowing for Japan to aid allies (rather than just the other way around) in a time of war. Mitsubishi, the developer of the famous Zero fighter series, recently debuted a stealth fighter, making Japan one of only four countries to have done so. And in February, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed amending Article 9 (and it’s worth noting the Japanese Constitution has never been amended). And I don’t think many people know this, but Japan actually deployed troops (for humanitarian purposes) to Iraq at the request of the U.S.

That’s a pretty plane. And it cost a hell of a lot less than the F-35. Screw you, F-35.

So it’s hard to see why Trump is complaining about Japan when they have already been stepping up efforts to defend themselves. But then, we have to look at America’s side.

The basis for the U.S.-Japan alliance is the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, which apparently is the longest “alliance between two great powers since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia.” Basically allowing for this.


The most contentious of which (but also the most strategic) are in Okinawa. Just this past week a U.S. Marine was arrested for the murder of an Okinawan woman, and people are, naturally, pissed.

Trump contends essentially that Japan is a free rider in this agreement. But the numbers don’t show that:

Including personnel costs, the U.S. is set to spend roughly $5.5 billion on its Japan presence in the year beginning Oct. 1, 2016, according to President Barack Obama’s budget proposal released in February…

Japan’s budget for the year that began April 1 includes ¥192 billion ($1.7 billion) in direct support for the bases. Tokyo covers more than 90% of the cost of the 25,500 Japanese nationals working at the bases and most of the utility costs. In addition, it pays for other costs arising from the U.S. presence such as rent for private and public land used by the bases as well as noise abatement and other measures to help people living nearby. Altogether, the Japanese budget includes ¥450 billion ($4 billion) of base-related expenses.

And in the words of the former head of the U.S. Pacific Command,

Japan . . . provides over $4 billion in host-nation support — the most generous of any U.S. ally — and remains steadfast in supporting its share of the costs of alliance transformation.

The argument, then, is more philosophical/strategic in nature. What are we getting for this? The benefits to Japan are clear: A security guarantee and the ability to focus its spending on other things, especially improving its stagnant economy. And while increasing defense spending might provide a boost to the economy, Japan’s problems in that area appear much more structural (a post on Japan’s economy later). In any case, about 70% of Japanese approve of the alliance and U.S. presence.

With the U.S., it’s not as clear. When the U.S. government more or less forced its will on Japan in the 1940s and ’50s, it was doing so largely to increase its influence in Asia and as preventative measures–preventing trouble from Korea, China, the Soviets, and Japan itself, as Article 9 demonstrates. The question now is whether such a threat is now gone. Communism is no longer the force it once was. The Soviet Union is not a thing.

But North Korea and China are proving aggressive, in different ways, and while they won’t pose a threat to the U.S.–and I mean the U.S. specifically, not its myriad allies–in ten years, we don’t know about twenty. The lesson of World War II was that we ought to take steps to prevent large-scale conflict and that there is a high price for instability.

It could be argued that Japan could defend itself, a modern country with advanced technology, and a history of doing so–I don’t think any country has successfully completed a land invasion of the main islands of Japan, even the Mongols.

But at a time like this, it’s important to take note of those who share our values and identify themselves as friends.

Roughly two-thirds of Americans trust Japan either a great deal (26 percent) or a fair amount (42 percent), according to a new Pew Research Center survey. And three-quarters of Japanese share a similar degree of trust of the United States, though their intensity is somewhat less (10 percent a great deal, 65 percent a fair amount).

Seventy years later, maybe it’s worth revisiting the way we handle Japan’s security. But that doesn’t mean there should be less emphasis on that security. Though I appreciate the questioning of the status quo, there’s probably more to be gained from working together than Trumping it alone.


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