Politics, No.8  Oct. 1, 2011


From a social thought perspective

Photo : Oshimura Takashi

Professor Oshimura Takashi

The cost of the U.S. military bases in Japan accounts for a large percentage of the cost of the Japan-U.S. alliance. If the essence of the alliance is an asymmetric exchange of manpower and goods, or the exchange of the U.S. armed forces and bases provided by Japan, as Sakamoto Kazuya put it in The Bond of the Japan-U.S. Alliance: The Security Pact and the Search of Mutuality, Okinawa, where more than 70% of the U.S. military bases in Japan are concentrated, provides most of the few things that Japan can provide to the United States.

Even if the economic effects of the U.S. bases in Okinawa are added to the interests of the alliance, it would be no exaggeration to argue that the alliance has reached a point where the public security issue in Okinawa might jeopardize it. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that if there were an ever aircraft crash around the Futenma Air Station, a movement against the U.S. bases might “dismantle the U.S.-Japan security alliance.”

However, the burden for Okinawa has received little relief since the base issue emerged as a pending problem in Japan-U.S. relations in the mid-1990s. During the Liberal Democratic Party regime, there were few major developments other than a plan to relocate the Futenma Air Station to Henoko, despite the realignment of U.S. forces after the end of the Cold War, because the government found no alternative sites or facilities.

Former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio’s plan to relocate the Futenma Air Station to outside Okinawa Prefecture was aborted when he became caught up in a dilemma between Okinawa and the United States. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) concept of “a more equal relationship with the United States” was forced to be toned down after a fundamental fallacy within it was pointed out both at home and abroad.

Major reviews of the entire Japan-U.S. alliance have taken place, primarily encouraged by the United States, including one given in “The Nye Report” and others by the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee. However, discussions within Japan about Okinawa, the bases and the alliance have gotten nowhere. Why is that?

Studying international political thought, I believe that one reason discussions have made little progress is Japanese people’s views, or realism, regarding security; that is, their preference for stability to change, and for the status quo to intent. The declaration of Kan Naoto, who took over for Hatoyama as prime minister, to return to being a realist, quoting Nagai Yonosuke, a scholar of international politics during the Cold War, was a symbolic event supporting my view.

In this article I will focus on the views of the Japanese on security, especially their way of thinking, realism, from the perspective of social thought, rather than military factors or trends of Japan-U.S. relations, in considering why Japanese stop thinking when they discuss security issues and how they could avoid this.

Realism supporting the Japan-U.S. alliance

The realism supporting the Japan-U.S. alliance consists of the following assumptions:

1. Japan has constitutional limits on the use of force and cannot use its defensive force sufficiently against attacks by other nations. Since the end of the Cold War, Japan has made efforts to change the security environment in Asia by nonmilitary means such as development cooperation, technical assistance and support for democratization; but those are not enough. Should Japan be attacked, it might not be able to secure its own survival.

2. Threats to Japan have increased to an unprecedented level, including China strengthening its naval power to expand the marine area under its control and North Korea, possessing nuclear arms, at risk of losing control militarily. To deter these threats, Japan needs to have a reasonable military force, the U.S. nuclear umbrella and U.S. bases on Okinawa, which is close both to China and the Korean Peninsula.

3. If Japan were not allied with the United States militarily, it would have only four options: (1) depend on the military power of countries other than the United States, (2) declare unarmed neutrality, (3) be essentially neutral with moderate arms or (4) establish a collective security arrangement with maritime nations in Asia and the western Pacific. The feasibility of any of these options is very low.

4. Though the above option (3) is relatively less unrealistic, the Japanese people and neighboring countries in Asia are expected to react against the buildup of armaments or increases in armed personnel. If Japan forms an alliance with key countries other than the United States (EU members, for instance), there is no guarantee these countries will help Japan, laying its lives on the line like the United States.

This is a strong argument and not easy to undermine. Refuting the argument requires proving that Japan could protect itself without using force and that it could deal with threats in East Asia and contingencies in the area surrounding Japan if U.S. military bases move overseas.

Suppose it were possible to take the plunge and propose Japan’s security independence. This would require presenting a view that if Japan is moderately armed (armaments are considerably modernized, the military budget becomes around 2% of the GDP and 50,000 members are added to the Self-Defense Forces), this will not create a stir in neighboring countries and the Japanese people will not oppose amending the constitution or increases in military expenditure.

In short, those who object to the Japan-U.S. alliance are forced to fight an uphill battle from the start. If you stand on logic other than the above, you run the risk of being stigmatized as an idealist. Those ashamed of this stigma tone down their arguments, getting closer to realism, or distance themselves from the debate.

Those who believe the U.S. military bases in Japan will protect them fail to think. They are increasingly less concerned about security and afraid that a review of the alliance and the downsizing of U.S. troops in Japan will bring additional burdens. Meanwhile, the question of U.S. military bases in Okinawa is beyond the control of Japanese politicians, who want to do something to reduce excessive burden on the people of Okinawa, because of the tradeoff between relocation and the United States keeping its strategic bases.

Three traits of realism in Japan

We can look at the mainstream of realism from the “reason of state” theory in Italy in the sixteenth century to political realism in Germany in the nineteenth century, or from Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century to Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan in the twentieth century. The mainstream philosophy could be depicted as a strategy to aim at having as many options as possible and pick out the best of them through prudence, which as a main concept of Burke’s philosophy is the opposite of fundamentalism. Prudence is characterized by flexible thought free of common sense and principles.

Compared with the mainstream, realism in Japan tends to narrow down its own options and hold fatalism or a feeling of having no other options. As a result, the main role of realists in Japan is different from that in Europe and the United States. It is not in searching for alternative realistic options but rather exposing the unreality of idealists’ ideals and criticizing those idealists.

Through debates with idealists, realists believe that they have verified the adequacy of their arguments and again focus on one point: The Japan-U.S. alliance is the only realistic option, and U.S. forces must be stationed in Okinawa to maintain deterrence. If we call classic realism in Europe realism based on prudence or strategic realism, we could call Japan’s realism one based on the status quo.

Japan’s realism has a second striking feature. What should be protected in national security is usually defined based on realism in history, which is developed through defeats and invasions of enemy territory. For example, the views of security by France, which was invaded by Germany, by China, which was torn down by the Great Powers, and by South Korea, which was annexed by Japan and invaded by North Korea, reflect past experiences. The possibility of Japan’s militarization, which seems absurd to Japan, is not zero for the Chinese, because they consider it based not only on status quo-based realism but also on history-based realism.

Japan’s view of security post-war reflects the country’s aligning with the U.S. global strategy rather than its memory of invasion. During the Cold War, Japan’s recognition of close threats, which were posed by the Soviet Union, which occupied the Northern Territories, and China, which has nuclear weapons, were almost the same as the recognition of the United States. Under these circumstances, Japan-U.S. cooperation to counter overall threats in the Far East developed, and the foundation of today’s Japan-U.S. security arrangements was laid. In this way, Okinawa, where the U.S. forces built strategic bases, has become the cornerstone of defense.

Some threats pointed out by Japan’s realism may be rooted in historical experience in a way different from realism in other countries. A vague vulnerability stemming from geographical features or Japan’s fate may be a factor. The economic and industrial structure depending on crude oil and resources from far overseas makes Japanese people feel that others allow them to stay alive.

For that reason, the area that Japan should protect, or its economic lifeline, is vast and includes sea lanes. This situation has generated the concept of comprehensive security. The need for forming an alliance with the United States, a maritime nation that can deploy its armed forces around the world, and the importance of Okinawa as a base closest to sea lanes and the Taiwan Strait are obvious.

Japan’s realism has a third characteristic, which is associated with its dependence on large powers. Many countries based on realism in history have a memory of enduring difficult situations, such as European countries that were invaded by Nazi Germany but repelled it. Non-Western countries that experienced harsh colonial rule by imperialist powers must be proud of episodes of driving away enemies, including mythical ones. Those countries’ views of security include blueprints not only for preventing invasion, a first stage, but also for fighting back patiently and fighting off invading enemies, a second stage including defense by citizens.

However, due to lack of memories like those and perhaps also to constitutional limits on the use of force, Japan cannot really consider what and how it should defend if it is invaded. The Japanese might believe that if it allows enemies to invade only part of its territory all will be over.

The Japanese then consider that the only way is to deter enemies in cooperation with the United States, a military superpower, and under the American nuclear umbrella. The Japanese want to cherish their emotional ties with the United States in peacetime as well as in emergency situations. They therefore have to be reluctant to scale down U.S. troops stationed in Japan.

Distinguishing threats from uncertainties

If we change the direction of Japan’s realism, reconsidering its main characteristics and newly incorporating realism founded on prudence and history, how will Japan’s view of security change?

Realists based on the status quo would not be able to be positive about change or reform because they consider reality at any given time to be stationary and have the illusion that reality hardly changes. The level of threats Japan faces now may be high. There must be substantial evidence of the high level of threats.

However, realism based on history tells us that after World War II, national boundaries redrawn by force have rarely been maintained, and hardly any country has remained subordinate to another country. In contrast, a number of multiethnic states recklessly built up armaments and invaded by force in a bid to distract their own people from dissatisfaction, and as a result collapsed. There are also a number of examples of countries demonstrating territorial ambitions, prompting their neighbors to build a net of vigilance.

The advantage of realism founded on history is that it allows realists to take a step back from the threats in front of them, control their fear and feeling of vulnerability, and evaluate real threats. Only if you evaluate threats accurately can you distinguish attacks on the Japanese mainland from threats to obtain resources near borders (also a matter of life or death in a different way) and attempts for a true military invasion from external provocations designed to distract a domestic audience from its dissatisfaction. Accurate evaluation also allows you to determine how to deal with problems calmly, in accordance with timing and circumstances.

If you mistake threats at the highest level for a normal situation because of a feeling of vulnerability and fear, you will not be able to get rid of anxiety or even to discuss what should be defended, even if Japan has its own military force and the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

If U.S. forces in Japan are cut back considerably when the Japanese are in such a mental state, an argument for an extreme arms buildup is at risk of emerging, because of a sense of vulnerability and a sense of loss. Japan going astray after the termination of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance would not be completely unrelated to this assumption.

What we should recall in this context from the perspective of realism based on history would be the threat of China during the Cold War. China successfully conducted a nuclear test in 1964. I assume that the Japanese people’s fear of two nuclear powers in the communist block was far greater than the fear of the Senkaku Islands dispute. Murata Ryohei, a former vice foreign minister and former ambassador to the United States, said that driven by fear, a small circle in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Sato Eisaku discussed developing nuclear weapons.

The Japanese government then considered the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union (and China) to be a stationary pattern. However, serious rifts, including the worsening relations between the Soviet Union and China, had emerged within the communist block by 1967, and China was open to a rapprochement with the Washington. Taking office in 1969, President Richard Nixon, with Henry Kissinger, made radical changes to the U.S. global strategy. President Nixon visited China in 1972, and U.S.-Chinese relations improved.

If Japan had regarded China’s nuclear test as evidence of a stationary threat and had considered only easing fear based on the logic of the balance of power and deterrence, Japan could have made a mistake. One of the lessons to be learned from here is that it is important to control fear and a sense of vulnerability, detect changes behind reality, and distinguish what is stationary from what is uncertain.

Even today, the Chinese government has ambitions to control the adjacent waters and uses anti-Japanese sentiment as a political means. Japan might become embroiled in contingencies in the area surrounding Japan, including the Taiwan Strait. In the circumstances, Japan cannot eliminate its anxiety and protect itself should there be an attack against it, merely by relying on the United Nations or “trusting in the justice and faith of the peace-loving peoples of the world” (the preamble to the Japanese Constitution).

However, if you look at the world from the perspective of another type of realism that tells you that changes are also part of reality, you can see that U.S.-Chinese relations are improving. Washington is welcoming the rise of China at least from an economic standpoint and is considering incorporating China in international regimes under international law. The United States is seeking to build a friendly partnership with China on the condition that China becomes part of international regimes.

China-Taiwan relations have been changing for the past ten years as far as economic matters are concerned, and a win-win relationship is emerging. We could not say that these dynamic changes are the result of a balance of power and deterrence that the United States has built to maintain the status quo. The changes allow us to consider the threat of China to be an uncertainty but make us hesitate to regard the threat as a stationary state.

Changing the question of bases

Realism based on the status quo has made the Japanese consider that the intention of the United States does not change and see things more like Americans than Americans do. This attitude might have made changes difficult.

The Japanese government has been concerned that a difference between Japanese and U.S. views of security would reduce deterrence and has striven to bring its recognition of threats in line with that of the United States. Meanwhile, the U.S. recognition of threats and its global strategy stemming from the recognition have been updated over time with changes in administrations.

Washington is said to be seeking different kinds of military cooperation, given the difficulty in setting up and maintaining bases in other countries and reflecting on its invasion in Iraq. The United States has promised to provide military aid and weapons to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act. President Obama has emphasized allied nations as the preceding administrations did and has set out a direction of securing the cooperation of a maximum number of countries and international organizations for each strategy or operation.

For example, we see flexible realism when it comes to strengthening ties with other countries in the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations, a report issued by the Department of Defense in 2009. In Section 6, the report discusses a plan that the United States forces will minimize their visibility in areas where “the direct employment of U.S. forces would be objectionable” and invite “political repercussions” and will assist “friendly surrogates” sharing the United States objectives whether they are friendly nations or not.

Given this, it could be conceivable when Japan and the United States jointly seek to reduce the burden on Okinawa that both countries shift the focus of the Japan-U.S. alliance from a security alliance based on an exchange of troops and bases to a collaborative alliance for peacekeeping operations in post-conflict countries in and around Asia, the setting up of a net of surveillance of terror across East Asia, and the prevention of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, which the United States positions as countermeasures against new threats. In this case, the Japan-U.S. alliance will become closer to an alliance for mutual protection or a Japan-U.S. alliance in the world.

If Japan proposes the shift of the focus, Japan will have to be prepared to deal with problems like the Senkaku Islands dispute that the United States does not recognize as a serious threat, militarily or nonmilitarily, to itself. Japan will also have to clarify a geographical scope in which collaborative relations will apply under a treaty and domestic laws and show its readiness to voluntarily engage in paramilitary cooperation, or contribute something other than bases to maintain the alliance.

Initiatives and intentions accelerate changes in international relations. This applies to the challenge of making changes to the reality in Okinawa. If you think that Okinawa is in a stationary state as a U.S. strategic base and that a review of U.S. forces stationed in Okinawa will have a negative effect on U.S. operational capabilities, then that would not be right politically, whether it is right militarily or not.

Washington’s global strategy is ultimately the result of the political and diplomatic process in the United States. If Japanese politicians and diplomats communicate the plight of Okinawa to the United States and the U.S. public, or if a consensus for the downsizing of U.S. military bases in Okinawa among the Japanese people is communicated to policymakers in Washington, the United States would recognize that as a change in the assumptions.

The relocation of the Futenma Air Station is a plan that took shape after former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld communicated the opinions in Japan and Okinawa to the U.S. government. We do not need to underestimate the ability to change the strategies of the U.S forces, which have a number of aircraft carriers and missiles that could partially replace the functions of bases to deploy troops anywhere in the world within ten days.

The important thing is the United States, as a democratic nation, has to respect the will of a self-determining nation that speaks out. If a political consensus for change is built in Japan, the United States must show its readiness to listen to the demands of Japan and the flexibility to adapt its global strategy to new conditions.

Japan’s diplomacy is determined by specialists. There is a difference between the view on security of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and that of the general public. Looking at the difference, the United States feels that there is no consensus in Japan, and the policy does not need to be changed. If opinions are divided politically, the United States does not hesitate to support the political forces that produce a result favorable to them. Prime Minister Hatoyama’s initiative seeking more equal Japan-U.S. relations might have failed because of an inadequate understanding of this diplomatic logic.

It may be dangerous to link diplomacy and elections and promote diplomacy based on the opinions of common people in Japan. However, the bases that impose inordinate burdens on the lives of Japanese (especially in Okinawa) go hand-in-hand with the alliance, and therefore political parties have to have comprehensive discussions about important negotiations relating to the alliance and include their views in their election manifestos to get support.

If there is a consensus among the people for a revision of the United States-Japan Status-of-Forces Agreement, Washington would regard it as established and would not consider it to be a serious obstacle to U.S. strategies regardless of the asymmetric nature of the alliance and its balance sheets. Nor would the United States consider it a reason for terminating the alliance.

Japan’s challenges would be, in addition to dealing with immediate threats, enhancing its ability to make its own decisions about diplomacy and security and raise people’s awareness of diplomacy and security.

Since the war, Japan has secured its territory, achieved economic prosperity, and won the trust of almost every country in the world, except its neighbors, thanks largely to the Japan-U.S. alliance. However, Japan will not be able to maintain the alliance as it is in the coming fifty years.

The realistic scenario would be that Japan will take the initiative in updating the purpose of the Japan-U.S. alliance, aiming to become a country having assets, such as political will, diplomatic power, the support of the people, and worldwide trust, which will make up for lack of military power.

Translated from the Feature: 60 years of the Japan-U.S. Alliance: “Domei Kichi Okinawa – Naze nihon wa sikou teishi ni ochiirunoka,” Chuokoron, October 2011, pp. 92-99. (Courtesy of Chuo Koron Shinsha) [October 2011]