FEATURED | U.S. - Japan Strategic Relationship : Past, Present and Future
IndraStra Global

FEATURED | U.S. - Japan Strategic Relationship : Past, Present and Future

By IndraStra Global Editorial Team


After its unconditional surrender to the United States (U.S.) in 1945, stripped of military capabilities, Japan has had only the U.S. to rely on for national security. Since Article 9 of the largely U.S.-written constitution declared that Japan would never again maintain “land, sea or air forces or other war potential,” a Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security was reached in 1952 to ensure Japan’s safety from foreign threats, stipulating that the U.S. would help defend Japan against external enemies, while a Japanese defense force would handle internal threats and natural disasters.

The treaty allowed the U.S. to have military bases across Japan in order to preserve regional security. There are currently around 50,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in 23 military bases across Japan. During the Vietnam War, Japanese bases acted as strategic and logistical posts for American troops. More recently, the U.S. has used the bases to deploy long-distance surveillance drones over China and North Korea. Japan’s constitutional constraints on military action, combined with the pacifist sentiments deriving from the still-anguishing nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have led to the rejection of any measure that might alter the status quo. And the rhetorical and tangible security commitments that U.S. has made to Japan has warded off threats, leading to 70 years of peace.

The Past - "It was all about Okinawa":

The first annexation of Okinawa by the Japanese government ended with the Battle of Okinawa—the only ground battle fought in Japan[1] --in June of 1945. This battle ended in the death of 25 per cent of the Okinawan population. Twenty-eight thousand Japanese soldiers and civilians in the military and 94,000 civilian residents made up 61 per cent of the all the deaths on both sides.[2] The death toll paints a grim picture of how many human lives the Japanese military was willing to sacrifice in order to stay in the War even though defeat was imminent.  

Image Attribute: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen reviews Japanese Self-Defense Force troops during a welcoming ceremony at the Ministry of Defense in Tokyo, Japan, July 15, 2011. Photo: Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley / U.S. Navy / Wikimedia

During the days of desperation towards the end of the battle, Japanese soldiers stole Okinawan civilians’ food and drove them out of their homes and hiding places in caves and tombs, saving their own lives at the expense of the people. The Japanese army forced civilians to commit suicide so the would not be captured by the U.S. military.[3] The memory of the Battle of Okinawa that still haunts the island’s conscience, and has made many opposed to militarism, symbolized today by military bases and the thousands of servicemen stationed in Okinawa.

The American Occupation post World War II also brings into question whether Japan valued Okinawa as a part of the nation or as leverage in international relations. U.S. Occupation officially ended in 1952, but only on the mainland and the larger islands; Okinawa remained under the U.S. military jurisdiction for an additional twenty years.[4] The Japanese agreed to keep military bases in Okinawa despite the people’s aversion to war and militarism because it was distant from the Japanese mainland. This arrangement allowed the Japanese to comply with America’s wishes but still remain minimally affected by the presence of the U.S. military.[5] The U.S. was and still is interested in Okinawa because its proximity to Korea, Southeast Asia, and Russia has made it even more valuable since the Cold War began.[6]

Japan has used its control of Okinawa as a way to prove its dominance in Asia and deference to the West while neglecting to incorporate Okinawans socially and culturally. The construction of a Japanese national identity that does not include Okinawans has put them in a place where they must adopt and/or emphasize Japaneseness and deemphasize Okinawanness in order to be incorporated into the mainstream and avoid inferior social status.

Seventy-five per cent of U.S. military facilities in Japan are located in Okinawa, and bases occupy 20 per cent of the land on the main island. American Occupation and the continuing presence of the military bases has led to Okinawan organizing and advocacy for equitable treatment and more sovereignty in political affairs. The movement to actively claim civil rights and better conditions from the U.S. military and Japanese government cannot be divorced from the construction of Okinawan identity.

One major grievance about the military bases is that they are ruining the environmental conditions for citizens. Warfare and later the construction of military bases and hotels have destroyed beaches, ancient shell mounds, and old graves.[7] Okinawan culture places a very strong importance on the honoring of the dead, and the sacredness of the graves and shell mound sites were violated in order to accommodate military. The Japanese government also proposed a heliport in Nago, a city in the northwest part of the main island. The construction of the heliport would endanger a coral reef and threaten the dugongs, sea animals that inhabit the coast of Okinawa. The city council immediately passed a bill against the heliport, and a referendum ended with 78 percent of voters opposing the heliport. A campaign calling for a stop to the construction was organized and reached Parliament in Tokyo. However, the organizing efforts were not successful, as the expansions to the base have continued in the same area.[8]

Another major problem for Okinawans is the restructuring of the economy to support the bases. In order to accommodate the huge influx of servicemen, the Okinawan labor market changed dramatically. More administrative and service industries emerged in order to cater to the needs of the bases. Brothels and prostitution also increased in popularity with the advent of US military forces.[9] Okinawa has also been created into a popular vacation destination, complete with beautiful beaches and seaside resorts. In order to stimulate the economy and encourage tourism, Prime Minister Hashimoto celebrated the 25th anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan by creating a free trade zone system that helped corporations and duty free shops and simplifying visa regulations and initiating tax incentives. Many infrastructural and public works projects sponsored by the government have been implemented to aid the tourist industry. Like the construction of military bases, the development of resorts and commercial business has also violated the natural landscape.

A third grievance held by Okinawans is the prevalence of crimes committed by American servicemen. The classic case cited by writers who study Okinawa and the “base problem” is the rape of a 12 year-old Okinawan girl who was kidnapped, beaten, and raped by three American servicemen in 1995. The incident became an international crisis. The crime was made into a symbol of the US exploitation of Okinawa, and galvanized citizens to actively oppose the US military presence. However, although servicemen have been involved in gruesome and disturbing crimes, the proportion of crimes committed by American military is actually smaller than their proportion of the total Okinawan population. Crimes committed by servicemen, particularly those of African American descent, are the ones that are covered most often in the media.[11]

Okinawa has not had sovereignty for over 100 years, and now it is being made to accommodate the interests of two governments interested in maintaining a strong presence in international affairs. The multi-pronged maltreatment of Okinawans inspired the reversion movement to pressure the U.S. to return Okinawa to Japan, which began as early as 1951. Though the Japanese did not do a thorough job of incorporating Okinawa culturally or socially, Okinawans were willing to support reversion to Japan at the cost of the absence of the United States military. Anti-base activism is a means for Okinawans to a) reclaim their space by restricting the construction of bases, b) reshape the job market by de-commercializing and de-industrializing the economy, and c) influence the population’s demographics by decreasing the sexual interactions between Americans and Japanese. Anti-base and anti-American military sentiment puts many people of Okinawan and American parentage in an uneasy position because they can see and understand the problems caused by the bases and simultaneously acknowledge that they are alive because of the U.S. military presence.

The Present - "It's all about Abe":

Again, despite analysts calling the defense relationship a “mutual” one, the U.S.-Japan alliance has always hinged more on support from the U.S. than from Japan. [12] In 1990, the lack of involvement of Japan’s military forces in the Gulf War was widely criticized by the U.S., when Japanese assistance to Kuwait was limited solely to cash because of domestic opposition to military deployment. 

A decade later, however, Japan deployed 600 soldiers in humanitarian capacities during the Iraq War, a decision that attracted fierce domestic opposition and numerous unsuccessful lawsuits. Sending the first foreign deployment of Japanese troops since World War II to build water purification facilities in Iraq would seem to have little connection to Japan’s self-defense, the only constitutionally acceptable reason for military activity. But as Gavan McCormack, a professor at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University, wrote in 2004, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made his decision not because he supported President George W. Bush’s regional agenda, but because he needed to ensure that the alliance that guaranteed Japan’s security was upheld.

Abe, The Game Changer

With the commencement of Prime Minister Abe's second term. he sought to revise or broaden the interpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution in order to permit Japan to maintain de jure military forces. He had stated during his first term that "we are reaching the limit in narrowing down differences between Japan's security and the interpretation of our constitution".[14] and during the same period as prime minister he upgraded the Japan Defense Agency to full ministry status. 

On July 1, 2014, the Japanese government announced that it had devised a policy dubbed "collective self defense" that would allow it to use armed force to defend allies. Abe had originally proposed to give the military even more leeway, but resistance from lawmakers in both parties of the governing coalition led to the softening of the language.  With Abe's coalition a majority in both houses of parliament, the language was expected to be passed into law later in the year 2015 and which eventually happened.

Lifting the ban on collective self-defense, or the right to defend an ally under armed attack even if Japan itself is not, was long considered banned by war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution. So instead of formally amending the Constitution, which was considered politically unfeasible, Abe simply had the government’s long-standing interpretation of Article 9 altered to allow collective defense.

Abe has argued that the Japan-U.S. alliance would be critically damaged if Tokyo refused to defend the U.S. during operations aimed at protecting Japan. Under the Japan-U.S. security treaty, the U.S. is obliged to defend Japan in a contingency but Japan does not have to defend the U.S. Instead, Tokyo is obliged to grant Washington routine use of military bases in Japan.

The legislation is scheduled to become effective in March 2016. One of the first applications of the legislation was to authorize the JSDF peacekeeping team in South Sudan to aid UN or foreign country personnel under attack in the country. While the legislation is expected to allow Japanese and U.S. forces to work more closely together, such as by forming integrated naval task forces to repel an invasion of Japan, 

The Future - "It's all about China"

Led by nationalist President Xi Jinping, who took over in 2013, China has grown to become the second-biggest military spender in the world. In 2015, it announced that it was boosting its defense budget more than ten percent to $145 billion, almost three times larger than that of Japan’s Self-Defense Force. While the growth of China’s military capabilities can be attributed largely to its economic growth, what truly worries Japanese leaders is China’s increasingly powerful nationalist movement. These sentiments have been indoctrinated into the population by a 20-year “patriotic education” campaign that asserts China’s right to dominate East Asia and vilifies Japan’s “evil” actions during its colonial rule. The atrocities of Japanese colonialism have been used to justify the defense budget increase; as one Chinese official was quoted in Foreign Affairs, “Our lesson from history—those who fall behind will get bullied—this is something we will never forget.” Perhaps what epitomizes the Chinese quest for supremacy in the region is the September 3 Beijing's Victory Day Parade, which was led by 12,000 troops, celebrating China’s victory over Japan in World War II. Xi’s “Chinese Dream” extends far beyond “rich nation, strong army,”.

In response, Japan announced its biggest defense budget ever in January, totaling $42 billion – the third straight year of budget increases after more than a decade of cuts. Jun Okumura, a scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs in Tokyo, told The Guardian that while the budget increases were partly due to concern over increased North Korean belligerency, they were largely in response to China’s dominance: “China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the East China Sea and air space, plus, of course, its overtly hostile actions against the Philippines and Vietnam  in South China Sea certainly have a major influence on the direction of Japan’s military spending, the thrust of its military doctrine and its approach to security alliances.”

In response to U.S. idea of balancing China through Japan has invited strong reactions both from the Chinese Government as well as the media – warning Japan to avoid any tensions. Rejecting the participation of new actors, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded that: “Countries outside the region [U.S. and Japan] should respect the efforts of countries in the region to safeguard peace and stability, and refrain from sowing discord among other countries and creating tensions”. However, the Chinese media’s response came much stronger as Global Times argued that in such circumstances China could declare a South China Sea ADIZ, quickening or expanding land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea or strengthening military cooperation with Russia in Northeast Asia. Similarly, Xinhua specified that Japanese patrols would raise tensions with China and that with Japan’s commissioning of a new surveillance plane, the P-1, with an 8,000 kilometer range, signifies its military capability to conduct these patrols in the South China Sea.[15]


The future course of U.S. - Japan strategic relationship is going to focus more on containing China 's regional-cum-global aspiration and Prime Minister Abe's leadership has already pointed the whole country to that very particular direction, which itself calls for serious security implications in the region. As such a strategic move awaits greater security dilemmas in the China-Japan rivalry. It is likely that with such anomalies, China is going to be more assertive in its actions and that Japan too would take up a bigger role in Asia to counter China. 


1. Asato, Eiko. "Okinawan Identity and Resistance to Militarization and Maldevelopment." Island of Discontent: Okinawan Responses to Japanese and American Power. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, Inc., 2003. 228.

2. Toshiaki, Furuki. "Considering Okinawa as a Frontier." Japan and Okinawa Structure and Subjectivity. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. 29

3. Fieldwork, Okinawa. This information was gathered at the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum.

4. Hook, Glenn D. and Richard Siddle. “Introduction." Japan and Okinawa Structure and Subjectivity. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. 1-18.

5. Higa, Mikio. "Okinawa: Recent Political Developments." Okinawa: Recent Political Developments 3 (1963): 416

6. Higa, ref. 23 above

7. Inoue, Masamichi S., John Purves, and Mark Selden. "Okinawa Citizens, US Bases, and the Security of Asia."Economic & Political Weekly 33 (1998): 264

8. Asato, ref. 20 above, p. 236

9. Inoue, et.al. ref. 25 above

10 Tobe, Hideaki. "Military Bases and Modernity: An Aspect of Americanization in Okinawa." Transforming Anthropology 14 (2006): __.

11 Takeuchi Cullen, Lisa. "Sex and Race in Okinawa." Time Magazine 21 Aug. 2001. Time Warner. 31 May 2009

12 US Power wane as Japan Reboots Military, TheTower.org

13. Otani, Stephanie, Positioning American Japanese in the Context of Japanese and Okinawan Nationalism and Ethnicity, SSJAS, 2009

14 New Japanese Leader Looks to Expand Nation's Military , NewsHour, 20 September 2006.

15 Is South China Sea to be the New Hot-Spot of China-Japan Rivalry ? by Amrita Jash, IndraStra Global