Get Out of Japan

We can’t afford to stay—and Tokyo can defend itself.

Candidate Barack Obama may have charmed foreign peoples, but President Barack Obama unashamedly cold shoulders foreign leaders he doesn’t like. One of them was Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who sought to reduce the number of U.S. bases on the island of Okinawa. The Obama administration worked diligently to frustrate Hatoyama’s efforts, which helped force his resignation barely eight months into his term. It was an impressive performance in raw political power. But it likely was a Pyrrhic victory.

When World War II ended, the U.S. occupied Japan and effectively colonized the island of Okinawa, seized in a bitter battle shortly before Tokyo surrendered. The U.S. loaded Okinawa with bases and only returned it to Japanese sovereignty in 1972. Four decades later nearly 20 percent of the island remains occupied by American military facilities.

The U.S. military likes Okinawa because it is centrally located. Most Japanese like Okinawa because it is the most distant prefecture. Concentrating military facilities on the island—half of U.S. personnel and three-quarters of U.S. bases (by area) in Japan are located in a territory making up just .6 percent of the country—is convenient for everyone except the people who live there.

Okinawans have been protesting against the bases for years. In 1995 the rape o
f a teenage girl set off vigorous demonstrations and led to various proposals to lighten the island’s burden. In 2006 the Japanese government agreed to help pay for some Marines to move to Guam while relocating the Futenma facility to the less populated Okinawan community of Henoko.

But residents wanted the base moved off of the island and the government delayed implementation of the agreement. During last year’s parliamentary election the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) promised to move the installation elsewhere. Prime Minister Hatoyama later said: “It must never happen that we accept the existing plan.”

However, the Obama administration refused to reconsider and threatened the U.S.-Japanese relationship. That unsettled a public which had voted the DPJ into power primarily for economic reasons. Prime Minister Hatoyama wanted to turn the unbalanced alliance into a more equal partnership but the Japanese people weren’t ready. Said Hatoyama as he left office: “Someday, the time will come when Japan’s peace will have to be ensured by the Japanese people themselves.”

Washington’s victory appeared to be complete. The Japanese government succumbed to U.S. demands. A new, more pliant prime minister took over. The Japanese nation again acknowledged its humiliating dependency on America.

Yet the win may prove hollow. Although Hatoyama’s replacement, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, gives lip service to the plan to relocate the Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma within Okinawa, the move may never occur. There’s a reason Tokyo has essentially kicked the can down the road since 1996. Some 90,000 people, roughly one-tenth of Okinawa’s population, turned out for a protest rally in April. With no way to satisfy both Okinawans and Americans, the Kan government may decide to follow its predecessors and kick the can for a few more years.

Moreover, there is talk of activists mounting a campaign of civil disobedience. Public frustration is high: in mid-May, a human chain of 17,000 surrounded Futenma. Local government officials oppose the relocation plan and would hesitate to use force against protestors. Naoto Kan could find himself following his predecessor into retirement if he forcibly intervened. Even a small number of demonstrators would embarrass U.S. and Japanese officials alike.

Moreover, Washington’s high-handedness may eventually convince the Japanese people that their nation must stop being an American protectorate. It may be convenient to be defended by the world’s superpower, but self-respect matters too. Tokyo has essentially given up control over its own territory to satisfy dictates from Washington. That is a high price to pay for U.S. protection. Kenneth B. Pyle, a professor at the University of Washington, writes: “the degree of U.S. domination in the relationship has been so extreme that a recalibration of the alliance was bound to happen, but also because autonomy and self-mastery have always been fundamental goals of modern Japan.”

Yet what is most curious about the issue is the dogged insistence of American officials in maintaining the Japanese protectorate. The world in which the security treaty was signed has disappeared. Admits Kent E. Calder of SAIS, “the international political-economic context of the alliance and the domestic context in both nations have changed profoundly.” There is no reason to assume that a relationship created for one purpose in one context makes sense for another purpose in another context.

The one-sided alliance—the United States agrees to defend Japan, Japan agrees to be defended—made sense in the aftermath of World War II. But sixty-five years later Japan possesses the second-largest economy on earth and has the potential to defend itself and help safeguard its region.

“All of my Marines on Okinawa are willing to die if it is necessary for the security of Japan,” Lieutenant General Keith Stalder, the Pacific commander of the Marine Corps, observed in February. Yet “Japan does not have a reciprocal obligation to defend the United States.” How does that make sense for America today?

Washington officials naturally want to believe that their role is essential. Countries which prefer to rely on America are happy to maintain the pretense. However, keeping the United States as guarantor of the security of Japan—and virtually every other populous, prosperous industrial state in the world—is not in the interest of the American people.