Japan Can Defend Itself

Why is Japan still being protected by American marines?

World War II ended 65 years ago. The Cold War disappeared 21 years ago. Yet America’s military deployments have little changed. Nowhere is that more evident than on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

Okinawans are tired of the heavy U.S. military presence. Some 90,000—nearly 10 percent of the island’s population—gathered in protest at the end of April. It is time for Washington to lighten Okinawa’s burden.

An independent kingdom swallowed by imperial Japan, Okinawa was the site of a brutal battle as the United States closed in on Japan in early 1945. After Tokyo’s surrender, Washington filled the main prefecture island with bases and didn’t return it to Japan until 1972. America’s military presence has only been modestly reduced since.

The facilities grew out of the mutual defense treaty between America and Japan, by which the former promised to defend the latter, which was disarmed after its defeat. The island provided a convenient home for American units. Most Japanese people also preferred to keep the U.S. military presence on Japan’s most distant and poorest province, forcing Okinawans to carry a disproportionate burden of the alliance.

Whatever the justifications of this arrangement during the Cold War, the necessity of both U.S. ground forces in Japan and the larger mutual defense treaty between the two nations has disappeared. It’s time to reconsider both Tokyo’s and Washington’s regional roles. The United States imposed the so-called “peace constitution” on Japan, Article 9 of which prohibits the use of force and even creation of a military.

However, American officials soon realized that Washington could use military assistance. Today’s “Self-Defense Force” is a widely accepted verbal evasion of a clear constitutional provision.

Nevertheless, both domestic pacifism and regional opposition have discouraged reconsideration of Japan’s military role. Washington’s willingness to continue defending an increasingly wealthy Japan made a rethink unnecessary.

Fears of a more dangerous North Korea and a more assertive People’s Republic of China have recently increased support in Japan for a more robust security stance. The threat of piracy has even caused Tokyo to open its first overseas military facility in the African state of Djibouti. Nevertheless, Japan’s activities remain minimal compared to its stake in East Asia’s stability.

Thus, Tokyo remains heavily dependent on Washington for its security. The then opposition Democratic Party of Japan promised to “do away with the dependent relationship in which Japan ultimately has no alternative but to act in accordance with U.S. wishes.” The party later moderated its program, calling for a “close and equal Japan-U.S. alliance.”

However, the government promised to reconsider a previous agreement to relocate the Marines Corps Air Station at Futenma elsewhere on Okinawa. The majority of residents want to send the base elsewhere.

The Obama administration responded badly, insisting that Tokyo fulfill its past promises. Only reluctantly did Washington indicate a willingness to consider alternatives—after imposing seemingly impossible conditions.

Still, the primary problem is Japan. So long as Tokyo requests American military protection, it cannot easily reject Washington’s request for bases. Thus, Okinawan residents must do more than demand fairness. They must advocate defense independence.

Who should protect Japan? Japan. Tokyo’s neighbors remain uneasy in varying degrees about the prospect of a more active Japan, but World War II is over. A revived Japanese empire is about as likely as a revived Mongol empire. Both Japan and India could play a much larger role in preserving regional security.

Many Japanese citizens are equally opposed to a larger Japanese military and more expansive foreign policy. Their feelings are understandable, given the horrors of World War II. However, the most fundamental duty of any national government is defense. If the Japanese people want a minimal (or no) military, that is their right. But they should not expect other nations to fill the defense gap.

Moreover, with an expected $1.6 trillion deficit this year alone, the United States can no longer afford to protect countries which are able to protect themselves. Washington has more than enough on its military plate elsewhere in the world.

Raymond Greene, America’s consul general in Okinawa, says: “Asia is going though a period of historic strategic change in the balance of power.” True enough, which is why East Asian security and stability require greater national efforts from Japan and its neighbors. Regional defense also warrants improved multilateral cooperation—something which should minimize concerns over an increased Japanese role.

The other important question is, defend Japan from what? Today Tokyo faces few obvious security threats. For this reason, many Japanese see little cause for an enlarged Japanese military.

However, North Korea’s uncertain future and China’s ongoing growth should give the Japanese people pause for concern. East Asia might not look so friendly in coming decades. Richard Lawless, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs in the Bush administration, claimed: “observers perceive a Japan that is seemingly content to marginalize itself, a Japan that appears to almost intentionally ignore the increasingly complex and dangerous neighborhood in which it is located.” Nevertheless, only the Japanese can assess the threats which concern them rather than Washington. And only the Japanese can decide how best to respond to any perceived threats.

Moreover, so long as Japan goes hat-in-hand to the United States for protection, Washington is entitled to request—or, more accurately, insist on—bases that serve its interests. And Tokyo cannot easily say no.