The Continuing U.S. Military Presence in Japan

News Abroad

Saito Mitsumasa is a journalist and an editor of To-o Nippo in Aomori. His books include Beigun “Himitsu” Kichi Misawa (Misawa, the “Secret” American Base). He is a winner of the Ishibashi Tanzan Memorial Journalism Award from Waseda University. This is adapted version of an article from Asia-Pacific Journal.

…Is it really possible that the F-16 [Fighting Falcon], which represent[s] the sole aerial attack force of the U.S. Air Force in Japan, [will] soon vanish from the scene?  Seeking an answer, I queried sources in the U.S. departments of state and defense, the U.S. military in Japan, the Japanese ministries of defense and foreign affairs… everyone I know who was connected with U.S.-Japan relations.

But the answer was “No.”  One person connected to the U.S. base in Misawa [in northern Honshū] stated his total denial in the following terms:

At present, we have heard absolutely nothing about such a plan. There is a standing plan to upgrade the aging F-15s at Kadena with cutting-edge F-22 Raptors, but the F-16s are not going to be withdrawn.

Still, news of the plan to withdraw the F-16s caused a sensation.  At the Misawa city hall, which is committed to co-existence and co-prosperity with the base, city officials raised what amounted to screams:  “Withdrawal of the F-16s will impact base subsidies and throw the city’s fiscal planning into disarray.”  “We’ll end up in fiscal ruin, like the city of Yubari in Hokkaido.”

The ministries of foreign affairs and defense tried to quell these fears over the future viability of the city by denying the plan to withdraw the F-16s.  But the news reports left lingering, deep-seated suspicions such as those mentioned above.

Then why did news of such a plan emerge all of a sudden?  One military affairs expert explains the context this way:

I’ve been told that this withdrawal plan was one of numerous options that were prepared as draft proposals.  It was prepared by a government-contracted think tank.  It’s probable that a preliminary proposal like this got into the hands of one sector of the media as a result of a deliberate leak by the previous ruling party—the LDP—and people associated with the U.S. government who had cast their lot with the LDP over the reorganization of American forces in Japan.  The purpose, of course, was to cause a political shock to the DPJ-led government.

At the root of this maneuver was the dispute over the relocation of the Futenma Marine air base, which had become a political problem between the U.S. and the former Hatoyama government and which remains pending.  “The real aim of the leak was likely to get the government to comply with the existing agreement to move the base to the shore along Camp Schwab (in the waters off Henoko in Nago City).”

In other words, do as the U.S. wishes or American forces will pull out of Japan, leaving the country to face North Korea and its ballistic missiles on its own.  The LDP camp and the U.S. were posing this forceful challenge:  Is Japan—the DPJ—prepared to do this?

The F-16s were stationed at Misawa in 1985 as a forward presence in the strategy of containing the Soviet Far East military.  In the event of a conflict, their mission was to destroy Soviet air bases on Sakhalin and Etorofu Island to facilitate U.S. Navy and Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force patrols for nuclear submarines.

After the end of the Cold War, North Korea became the hypothetical enemy.  The F-16s are poised to deliver the first wave of surgical strikes, targeted at strategic installations such as anti-aircraft systems, missile-launching bases, and nuclear facilities.  From the North Korean perspective, they are knives pointed at the country’s throat.

For this reason, the impact on North Korea of the plan to withdraw the F-16s from Misawa cannot be overlooked. Senior Fellow John Park of the government-funded U.S. Institute for Peace offered an analysis along the following lines:  The withdrawal plan could send an erroneous message to North Korea, since the North Koreans watch every move the American make.  If the F-16s are withdrawn, North Korea could mistake this for a signal from the U.S. and see it as a chance to drive a wedge between Japan and the U.S.

Prime Minister Sato Eisaku (in office, 1964–72) once said, “With our constitution, Japan will absolutely never go outside the country.”  He made that statement before the Lower House budget committee in 1969, and at the time it was thought that the peace constitution prohibited the Self Defense Force from going overseas. Now, forty years later, escort ships and surveillance planes from the SDF have unfurled the rising sun flag in the Middle East—the world’s powder keg—and in the chaos of Africa.  The two eras are worlds apart. But some have raised objections to these activities.

Nagoya Gakuin’s Iijima:  

Under the Anti-Piracy Measures Law, the SDF can be sent anywhere in the world in the name of ‘anti-piracy measures.’ Moreover, these can be places where conflict could occur, and the SDF is able to attack first in some cases.”  Iijima points out that the 2001 law that enabled the SDF to provided refueling services in the Indian Ocean in support of the war in Afghanistan and the 2003 law that authorized the dispatch of the SDF to Iraq were both time-limited and specified the period of the troop dispatch, “but under the Anti-Piracy Measures Law, the SDF can be sent anywhere, anytime, at the sole discretion of the government. It has to be said that this is a very serious violation of the constitution.

The U.S.-Japan security treaty is an agreement that requires the U.S. to defend Japan in the event of an enemy attack.  Japan is under absolutely no obligation to defend the U.S.  However, the world situation after the end of the Cold War—or more to the point, the U.S.—would not allow Japan to remain within the narrow confines of East Asia.

A succession of laws have expanded the role of the SDF:  the 1999 law on emergency situations near Japan, the 2001 anti-terrorism law, the 2003 Iraq War law, and now the anti-piracy law.  As Iijima says, “Japan has become a country that can dispatch the SDF anywhere, anytime.”  Each step in this process has been taken under intense pressure from the U.S.

One military affairs expert raises the following question, regarding this rapid change in the character of the U.S.-Japan alliance:  “The present security treaty framework has become globalized, far surpassing the two-country agreement on defense cooperation that it was at the start.  It is still undergoing transformation at the present, and I wonder how many Japanese citizens really grasp the status of the security treaty/U.S.-Japan alliance?”

As the Futenma controversy has made clear, the Japanese government will, under pressure from the U.S., muzzle the people’s voice.  This is because it has no options other than the U.S.-Japan alliance to ensure the security that will determine the fate of the country.  At the mercy of successive governments with no vision, it is always the Japanese people who get the short end of the stick.

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Arnold Shcherban - 10/17/2010

First, you statement that the majority of Japanese citizens are content with the presence of the US military bases in Japan is wrong, which was clearly shown by the latest
governmental elections, when the Democratic Party won primarily on the promise to remove the bases.
Since then the new-elected officials backed off on that promise, however, that backfired at them big time, as the wide population support they enjoyed before has evaporated by now.
You've seemingly discarded the entire
meaning of the article of the Japanese author that I presume knows more than you about emotions (that you invoke later in other aspect) of Japanese people on the issue: Japanese governments muzzling domestic majority's voice under the heavy American pressure.

Secondly, I don't discount emotions and stupidity in international relations completely, I just don't ascribe them as much importance in driving the respective developments in the modern civilized world, as you do.
My next point is that, somehow, according to numerous pronouncements of the majority of Western ideologues, if we have to account for those emotions and stupidity we have to do it strictly on one - opposite side of the potential conflict, despite in the course of the last, say, five last decades there were, primarily, Western powers (especially - USA) acting stupidly and emotionally aggressive (or - perhaps - by design?)
And the last point would be that according to numerous pronouncements and analysis of the same ideologues and the leaders of the Western (NATO) world, they themselves ascribe little importance to the details you tried to draw my attention to, which becomes clear from their constant drum-beating about the evil DESIGNS of, say, North Korean totalitarians, somehow never mentioning that potential danger of SUDDEN bursts
of individual emotions.

Plus, don't forget: the more centralized a regime is, the less chance it leaves for individually caused war or other similar cataclysm.
Or was it a Big Lie that everything another evil empire (the Soviet Union) had been doing was preordained in Kremlin?

Lewis Bernstein - 10/16/2010

Interesting and confusing. The majority of Okinawans, if one believes the Japanese public opinion polls and election results, do not want US bases on the island. The feeling is that if the Japanese government wants the US to have bases in Japan the wealth should be shared. In other words, put them someplace else. Understandably, the rest of the Japanese population disagrees with that idea - they are perfectly content to have the bases stay on the island. An interesting NIMBY idea.

As for your other ideas, a good example of the straw man idea. Would the Chinese invade Japan? Why would they if they can get what they want without it. What symbolic purpose does the US presence in Japan and Korea for that matter serve? What does it say to the Chinese?

You seem to believe that relations between states are governed solely by logic and interest. You seemingly discount emotion and stupidity. You also seem to forget that events take on a logic of their own. What one should fear with North Korea is not some deliberate act, but the escalation of an act spontaneously performed by a North Korean general who has to be supported by the government in Pyongyang.

Arnold Shcherban - 10/14/2010

The article's author is correct, in general, but more than controversial on the specifics of the issue in the discussion.
<As the Futenma controversy has made clear, the Japanese government will, under pressure from the U.S., muzzle the people’s voice. This is because it has no options other than the U.S.-Japan alliance to ensure the security that will determine the fate of the country.>
The first sentence is undeniably, though sadly, true.
However, the second part of the quote constitutes a prime suspect.
First series of questions that begs to be asked:
Does US-Japan's military alliance and security the US allegedly provides to Japan and other friendly countries in the Pacific region, in general, really hang primarily on the presence of the US bases on Japanese territory?
It would have been quite silly and grossly optimistic to expect the US in its present and nearest future strategic plans to withdraw its supreme military position and support
for its main economic and strategic partner as Japan just because Japanese government yielded to the pressure of its people majority.
Does any prudent observer really think that the US would leave Japan alone in the face of the real threat coming from China or Japan with or without the bases on Japanese islands? I highly doubt that.
The second series is this:
Do North Korea or China currently, or will they in the nearest future, constitute real and serious threat to Japanese national security?
Despite some occasional exchange of unfriendly and even threatening remarks between those countries of the type that time by time happens between almost any two randomly chosen foreign states, nothing indicates and predicates such a drastic possibility.
Again, does any reasonable observer really believe that say, North Korea, in its present disastrous, in any sense, situation will dare to militarily challenge the interests and principal partners of the single world superpower that can destroy it
practically in hours?
I would say: North Korean leaders, perhaps are crazy, but they are not totally insane and suicidal.