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July 8th, 2008
Japan's About-Face
Audio: The U.S.-Japan Alliance

WIDE ANGLE recently spoke with Richard J. Samuels, founding director of MIT’s Japan Program and author of Securing Japan: Tokyo’s Grand Strategy and the Future of East Asia (2007).

We asked Samuels about the relationship between the U.S. and Japan, beginning from World War II when the two countries were pitted against each other as enemies. Samuels traces the formation of a strategic alliance that has come to define the 60-year relationship, and discusses the potential of a more militarily-independent Japan.

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Interview Transcript: Richard J. Samuels

From WWII enemies to close strategic allies

The U.S. and Japan transition from enemies to allies was due to the standard forces that move international politics. The world changed and so did the alliances. Within three years, really, after the end of the War, these two countries found themselves on the same side of a new divide in international politics – which was the Cold War divide. And so the United States and Japan found themselves not only with the same enemies, the same adversaries, but also the same set of interests – both in the economic sphere and also in the political and diplomatic sphere. And, with evolving common values, the United States worked very hard during the occupation to generate democratic norms and democratic values in Japan. The Japanese worked equally hard, many Japanese worked equally hard to do that – and the result was great success.

Japan’s pacifist constitution

The United States wrote for Japan during the occupation – and imposed upon Japan during the occupation – a new constitution that was modeled on the American Constitution. Actually, it went further then the American Constitution because it included an equal rights amendment – it gave women the right to vote, it did things that were really quite progressive for the time. In any event, Japan had little choice but to accept this new constitution, in which was what remains a very controversial clause. It’s called Article 9 of the Constitution and it declares that Japan forever renounces war as a means for settling international disputes, and goes further, I mean that’s not so unusual – the Italians, the Germans have that kind of clause as well. But they go further and they say that they would never maintain land, sea or air forces, now that’s where the controversy, really, was joined. The interpretation of that Constitution over time has changed, but the Constitution itself has been impossible to change.

An asymmetric alliance

The United States pledged to defend Japan should it come under attack – that’s the deal. In exchange for that, Japan has provided the United States with access to bases on the archipelago. The Japanese are not required by the terms of this treaty – by the terms of this alliance – to defend the United States. So, this asymmetric at its core. In fact, as recently as 1981, even the use of the word “alliance” by a Prime Minister forced the resignation of his Foreign Minister. So, there were times even in living memory – very recent living memory – when you couldn’t even use the word in Japanese, the word in Japanese is “doumei.” Now the word is used, but the alliance structure hasn’t changed. That said, both countries benefit. The United States benefits from having a reliable ally in the Far East that allows it to position its forces far from the American Mainland – forward deployed – with the ability to use those troops where it wishes. So it has what has often been referred to as “the unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Far East,” that’s an enormous benefit from U.S.-Geo strategic perspective. It was particularly an important benefit during the Cold War. Japan benefits in a different way, Japan benefits by getting a cheap ride on its national security, that is, it’s not spending, and has never spent nearly enough to defend itself on its own. They will not, Japan will not be able to stand on its own without the United States until it becomes a nuclear power, and its not going to become a nuclear power until, and unless, the United States, in my view, makes the mistake of failing to demonstrate its commitment to Japan’s defense. Standing on its own in a nuclear armed world, in a region, in fact, where there are two nuclear powers that don’t belong to a non-proliferation treaty is dangerous business.

Japan’s re-militarization

Japan has slowly, and very deliberately, sliced away at the constants on its re-militarization. I wouldn’t say it’s remilitarized in a way that would allow it to confront a great power, but it certainly has taken a number of steps to try to create options for itself over time. And should it decide to become more independent, it would have the options to do so – I don’t think it’s there yet. But this has been a very slow and very deliberate and very strategic move on the part of the Japanese, and I think that’s what the movie gets at. First, the deployment of Japanese forces under U.N. auspices to peacekeeping operations in Cambodia, the Golan Heights – very small numbers. I mean, the Chinese today send ten times the number of peacekeepers around the world than the Japanese do. But, the Japanese are sending them – they sent minesweepers to the Persian Gulf after the First Gulf War, they expanded their national security doctrine from purely homeland defense to regional security and then, after 9/11, took what were really very dramatic new steps. First, in agreeing to participate in Operation Enduring Freedom by providing tanker support for U.S. and British forces in the Indian Ocean that were actually flying military sorties into Afghanistan. And then, of course, in 2004 Japan actually put “boots on the ground” in Iraq during a war – they were doing humanitarian missions – but there they were, in uniform, in a war, in a war zone. So, these are changes that were inconceivable ten years ago, 15 years ago, so over time there has been an evolution toward, moving from a regional security role to a more global security role – one more commiserate with its size and with the benefits that it gets from the global public goods that are created by countries like the United States.

Changes in the U.S. relationship with North Korea

Japan’s reaction to the willingness of the United States to take North Korea off the list of terrorist states was one of real concern. The Japanese have made quite an issue of what are called the “abductees” – these are the young men and women who were kidnapped by North Korean agents through the 70s and into the 80s, and taken to North Korea to teach, forcibly to teach, colloquial Japanese to folks who were being trained as secret agents who were going to infiltrate Japan. It was really a despicable act, and it was one that the Japanese wanted answers to – they wanted to know what happened to their children. What seems to be a partial list of those “abductees” was released to the Prime Minister, Koizumi, when he visited Pyongyang in the early fall of 2002. That only stimulated greater concern among the Japanese public because the list was so clearly incomplete and the perfidy so clearly enormous. So, for domestic political purposes, conservative politicians, in particular have used the “abductees” issue for political gain and for reelection and so forth. They also worked very hard, and they had thought to greater success, in convincing the Americans to take up the “abductees” issue during their negotiations with the North Koreans – both bilaterally and in the context of the six-party talks. The United States, however, has judged the non-proliferation problem to be far greater than the “abductees” issue. From the American perspective, the concern with North Korea is about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And so the United States went forward and made a deal with the North Koreans, has agreed to de-list North Korea and to resume aid and so forth. The Japanese are quite agitated over that, but have very little, I think very few degrees of freedom and they are just having to accept it.

Threats to the alliance

There are, of course, always threats to any alliance. The dynamics in an alliance are always shifting. When an alliance partner gets too close to another alliance partner, they run the risk of being entangled in that alliance partner’s wars. For example, Japan, if it got too close to the United States, could get dragged into one of the many American wars over the last 50 or 60 years – it avoided getting that close. But if it gets too far away, it runs the risk that the other alliance partner no longer needs it, and abandons it. So this entrapment-abandonment dynamic is always there, and that’s always a problem. There are other issues, issues of sovereignty in Japan, the persistence of U.S. troops… U.S. forces on Japanese soil wrangles both the left and the right in Japan. There are many folks in Japan who think it is time for the Americans to go home and for the Japanese to step it up and to be able to defend themselves. That’s not the mainstream view, but, you know, there is that view. And should the United States prove to be an unreliable partner or, conversely, should Japan prove to be an unreliable partner in the event of a conflict, you could expect the end to the alliance. You know, this is always a problem. It’s hedging, as well – Japan is hedging against a risen China by maintaining its alliance with the United States, and it’s hedging against American protectionism by expanding its economic options through new kinds of regional economic blocks in East and Southeast Asia. So, Japan, at the end of the day, has been a reliable partner, but one that has kept its head down and has tried to avoid getting too entangled in international security affairs. The United States has wanted Japan to do more, and has wanted Japan to do more for a long time. And Japan’s response has been to slowly, slowly increase and enhance its capabilities, but not at the rate the United States has wished. They should continue to nibble away at the constraints, they should play a greater role in global security – and to do so I think they should be honest about what they are doing, honest to themselves and transparent with their neighbors and so forth, which means reinterpreting their constitution.

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