Is Japan becoming the ally America always wanted? As detailed in Walter Lafeber’s award-winning book, The Clash, getting Tokyo to build up its own defenses and think about global security during the Cold War was like pulling teeth for US policy makers. The relationship reached its nadir during the Nixon years, when Kissinger1 and friends got so fed up with what they viewed as Tokyo’s foot-dragging on economic and security relations that the administration completely cut Japan out of the loop on Vietnam and opening relations with China.2 Disagreements made headlines again—particularly in Japan—a couple of years ago when a Japanese prime minister3 prematurely promised to kick the Americans out of Okinawa sooner than both sides had agreed on. He soon resigned in disgrace after inevitably being unable to follow through (turns out it’s difficult to get a force of 24,000 troops to up and leave).
But even that dispute seems to have been a minor blip, and analysts are heralding a new era of Japanese military confidence and diplomatic assertiveness. The last decade has seen Japan’s Self Defense Forces (SDF) help out with military missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya; provide anti-piracy protection off the coast of Somalia; and deliver humanitarian aid to Indonesia and Haiti. That’s quite a turnaround for a military that had barely been allowed to leave its own territory prior to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Then came the triumvirate disaster of the Fukushima earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. Unlike during the aftermath the Hanshin earthquake of 1995 that struck Kobe, when the Japanese government hesitated to deploy the SDF in large numbers, this time the military rose to the occasion. The Diplomat’s James Hardy says the experience was a boon for improving the Forces’ confidence.
Confidence and willingness are two attributes that Washington has been looking for in its ally since the beginning of the alliance. In addition to worldwide disaster relief and combat support, this Foreign Affairs blog post details Tokyo’s willingness to be a good sport in another area: buying expensive American weapons systems, the latest being the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Author Humza Ahmad details the increasing dovetailing of strategic regional interests, which allows the United States to “engage in an arms race with China by proxy.”
Perhaps the new-found confidence is bubbling over into Japan’s diplomacy, too. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, countering the stereotype of Japan as a land of consummate politeness, went “off script" at the recent nuclear summit in Seoul, South Korea, by criticizing North Korea’s failed rocket launch (before the fact). Tokyo deployed SDF anti-missile batteries to shoot down any pieces of the ballistic device had it drifted into Japanese territory, a display that could certainly have displayed the country’s military clout while staying within the limits of its pacifist constitution.4 And if that wasn’t enough to catch Beijing’s attention, Tokyo recently claimed as “national assets" four islands disputed by China and Taiwan near the also hotly contested Senkaku group. It would be quite a turn of events if Washington had to start worrying about restraining one of its long-time allies, rather than the other way around. For now, Japan’s sprouting confidence and assertiveness might be coming just at the right time, with the Obama administration attempting its "pivot" toward Asia while cutting defense spending.
Any help with the burden of collective security, particularly as Europe’s defense outlays stagnate, should definitely be met with praise from the Pentagon and elsewhere. As some predict the end of postwar Japanese “non-coercive” foreign relations, calls of alarm seem few: six decades of pacifism mixed with a defense debt to the US (money Japan would have spent on defense that instead went into building the economy) indicates that it’s time for Japan to play a political role consummate with its strategic importance. For Americans worried about giving up control, the issue is simple: How much money are you willing to pay to keep Japan feeling secure?
The same Henry Kissinger who often derided the Japanese in private as “little Sony salesmen” and complained that the Japanese ambassador always insisted on serving him weiner schnitzel for lunch. Annoying as that may have been, given the Japanese flare for imitation we’re sure it was the best schnitzel this side of Munich. ↩
Not to mention the other “Nixon shock” of taking the United States off the gold standard, in a move intended, at least in part, on cheapening U.S. exports and decreasing the burgeoning trade deficit. However shocking it may have been, the move was considerably less successful than the China card, as the trade deficit really began taking off soon after. ↩