Tokyo Drift

Japan’s new government wants to transform the country’s foreign policy, including its alliance with America. Will Tokyo and Washington have a falling out?

For but one eleven-month period, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has ruled Japan for the last fifty-four years. During that time the U.S.-Japan alliance has been a mainstay for both countries. But with the overwhelming victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), a fractious amalgam of socialists and former LDP members, Japanese foreign policy could change dramatically. Such a transformation is long overdue.

In August 1945, Japan was disarmed and occupied. General Douglas MacArthur acted as regent, overseeing reconstruction of the Japanese economy and government. As part of that process Japan proclaimed pacifism to be its new foreign policy: Article 9 of the U.S.-drafted constitution stated that "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained."

The unstated political corollary was that Washington would be responsible for Japan's defense. This arrangement seemed logical when the United States, and other nations in East Asia, assumed that a revived Japan was the most likely future security threat. But as the cold war deepened-and especially after Mao Zedong and the Communist Party ousted the pro-American Kuomintang from China's mainland-disarming a nearby American ally was increasingly seen as counterproductive.

Moreover, some Japanese also grew dissatisfied with the "peace constitution," bridling at the assumption that the Japanese people possessed a double dose of original sin. Tokyo established a "Self-Defense Force" (SDF) to maintain the pretense of complying with Article 9. Some academics and politicians debated moving further, but the establishment view, embodied in the LDP, was to leave the heavy lifting in security policy to Washington. Tokyo instead used bilateral assistance and participation in global financial institutions to institute a "checkbook foreign policy."

Along the way, the United States and Tokyo engaged in an oft-frustrating dialogue. Washington routinely asked Japan to do more militarily, but only in following America's lead. In Japan the government resisted Washington's entreaties as pacifists and nationalists battled over even modest augmentation of Japan's SDF and limited involvement in international missions.

Japan has edged towards a more active role in response to China's growing economy and more assertive foreign policy, as well as North Korea's unremitting hostility amid ongoing missile and nuclear programs. Yet Japanese military spending remains anemic and polls suggest that a plurality of Japanese want to cut the SDF budget even further. Proposals to revise Article 9 have gone nowhere. Kent Calder of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced Studies contends that we have "likely seen the high-water mark of Japan's international presence and assertiveness."

What now with a new government taking control in Tokyo? Dramatic change has been rare in this consensus-oriented society, and incoming Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama ran towards the center, terming the U.S.-Japan alliance a "top priority." The DPJ platform calls for a "close and equal Japan-U.S. alliance to serve as the foundation of Japan's foreign policy." Indeed, before the election, Abraham Denmark of the Center for a New American Security argued: "Despite its provocative statements in the past, the DPJ has several reasons to moderate its approach to foreign policy and the alliance." Nevertheless, the DPJ reaches much further to the left than does the LDP. In opposition the party opposed refueling U.S. ships in the Indian Ocean and Ichiro Ozawa, until March party leader, proclaimed that "it will be the age of Asia, and in that context it is important for Japan to have its own stance, to play its role in the region." The 2005 party platform promised to "do away with the dependent relationship in which Japan ultimately has no alternative but to act in accordance with U.S. wishes, replacing it with a mature alliance based on independence and equality." There is broad support for amending the Status of Forces Agreement, cutting host nation support and reducing the U.S. military presence on Okinawa.

The factional battle over the DJP's approach is likely to be complicated, since the spectrum of views runs well beyond socialist pacifists and conservative hawks. Wrote Dan Twining of the George Marshall Fund:

Some DPJ members support a trans-Pacific foreign policy in keeping with American priorities, but want Japan to assume a more equal and capable role within the alliance. Other DPJ leaders define a future in which Japan orients itself toward China and pursues Asian economic integration as its external priority, thereby diminishing the alliance with the United States. The DPJ's political alliance with the Socialist Party in Japan's upper house will pull its foreign and security policy further to the left-and further away from the broad consensus that has defined the U.S.-Japan alliance for three generations.

Over the last half century Japan has changed far more than has the alliance. It is time to adjust the U.S.-Japan relationship accordingly. Some on the Right point out that Tokyo cannot demand equality unless it does more. Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation observed: "Neither country is well served by endlessly repeated bromides of the strength of the alliance as it becomes increasingly apparent that Japan will not fulfill the security role required to address increasing global security threats." However, the real problem is not that Tokyo does too little, but the United States does too much. Japan's security dependence is not in America's interest.