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Politics & Security

Japan Has a Security Policy Independent of the US, Thank You



Vice President Mike Pence aboard USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) in Yokosuka, Japan April 19



(Part 1 of 7)

Although the literacy and mathematical competence of the Japanese public are very high by global standards, many citizens think they know little or nothing about national security issues.  


I think such a feeling is not unusual among citizens of democracies, especially in peace time. Thinking about national security issues, especially the possibility and dangers of war, is not a pleasant topic that busy people would want to contemplate outside of their work and family responsibilities.


Because of this, however, Japanese people are sometimes persuaded by false arguments from the liberal media or from domestic or foreign critics. I have identified, and shall attempt to debunk, seven myths about Japan’s national security policy.



Myth 1: Japan has no national security policy, and Tokyo only blindly follows the United States.  


It is, of course, true that Japan has allied itself with the United States from the time Japan regained its sovereignty in 1952 at the end of Allied Occupation. It is also true that, if Japan had not agreed to a security relationship with the US, the Occupation would not have ended when it did.  


But Japan could have refused to do so, taken a chance, and the Americans would have eventually relented.


Following the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, however, it became clear: an unarmed Japan would be vulnerable to proximate hostile forces across the Sea of Japan, just as South Korea was threatened by communist forces in North Korea supported by the Soviet Union and China.



Japan’s only defense prior to 1952 was a small National Police Reserve (keisatsu yobitai). It was equipped with aging US Army munitions, which alone would not have been capable of defending against any attack from Japan’s neighbors. Thus, an alliance with the United States made common sense and, as a bonus, contributed to American willingness to end the Occupation.


Japan’s next choice came in 1960, when the Japan-US Treaty became the Japan-US Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security (Nichibei Ampo Joyaku) of today. At the time, many Japanese perceived that the United States could effectively deter an attack upon Japan from any of Japan’s communist neighbors (remember at that time the majority of the USSR’s non-nuclear forces were in European Russia).


So the Japanese government, led by the Liberal Democratic Party from 1955, felt that the number of US forces in Japan could be reduced without danger to Japanese security. LDP leaders also felt that if a more balanced treaty is in place, then it would weaken the credibility of charges made by the Japan Communist and the Socialist Parties that Tokyo was merely taking orders from Washington.  


The US agreed to reduce its forces in Japan, based on the following conditions:

  • Japan would agree to increase its own defense efforts (since 1954 Japan has maintained Ground, Maritime, and Air Self-Defense Forces).
  • The US would consult with Japan before any major increase or decrease in US forces.
  • The treaty would continue for a minimum of 10 years.  


Japan could have refused these conditions, but, had it done so, the original treaty with less Japanese prerogatives would have continued. Although there were large demonstrations against the treaty on the streets of Tokyo when the Kishi Government submitted the treaty to the Diet, the decision to do so was a Japanese decision rather than one insisted upon by Washington.  


In 1970 Japan could have decided to end the treaty with the US by providing a one year notice. Washington would not have been happy, but it would have reluctantly removed its military forces and its bases from Japan.  


But by then Japan’s economy was beginning to recover, having taken advantage of Japan’s well-educated work force, which was stimulated by US procurement during the Korean War. The Cold War was increasing in intensity, the Soviets were increasing their strength in their Asian military districts, and Tokyo increasingly wanted to insure that the decreases in US military strength, negotiated in 1960, would not continue to dangerously low levels.


The US stood by its commitment to consult with Japan. In exchange for Japanese promises to increase their self-defense power, Washington agreed that US forces would not be dangerously reduced.  



The nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan


In a precedent-setting move, which was welcomed by Japan, the US Navy in 1973 homeported in Yokosuka an aircraft carrier – a predecessor of the nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan based in Yokosuka today. No other US aircraft carriers have ever been based outside the United States. The presence of the USS Midway from 1973 and its successors, including the Ronald Reagan today, has had a powerful real and psychological impact on strategic deterrence.


The charge that Japan blindly followed the United States became increasingly untrue during the Cold War. Today, Japan continues its relationship with the US.  The US positively evaluates its alliance with Japan, but the alliance continues because both sides want it.



JAMES E. AUER is the President and Director of the Auer U.S.-Japan Center [AUSJC] and Emeritus Professor of Vanderbilt University.  The AUSJC hosts Japanese researchers annually at its offices on the Vanderbilt campus, conducts the annual U.S.-Japan (Defense/Dual Use) Technology Forum for American and Japanese businessmen in Nashville and, since 2004, an annual U.S.-Japan Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) Forum in Washington, D.C.

He served in the U.S. Navy from 1963 to 1983 in a number of positions including visiting student at the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Staff College (equivalent of the U.S. Navy War College) in Tokyo and serving as executive and commanding officer of guided missile ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. From April 1979 until September 1988, he served as Special Assistant for Japan in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.


He holds an A.B. degree from Marquette University and a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. In December 2008 he received the Japanese Government’s “Order of Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon.” 

In December 2015 he was named as the first foreign recipient of the annual “Sound Opinion (Seiron) Grand Prize” by the Fujisankei Communications Group.


This article was first published at Seiron Magazine 4, 2016