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Politics & Security

'Tell Us What You Need and Don't Back Down': A US-Japan Guide to Defending Better Together

Put simply, the United States needs a Japan Self-Defense Force that can fight a war, and that can fight a war alongside, and inter-linked with, US forces.

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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, right, stands with Japan's Minister of Defense Yasukazu Hamada during an enhanced honor cordon ceremony, upon his arrival at the Pentagon, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

It’s exhilarating that Japanese leaders are talking about spending much more on defense and improving the nation’s defense capabilities. But they are short on specifics, and with the People’s Republic of China out looking for a fight, it’s dangerous to hope Japan figures things out at its own pace.

The Americans, who shoulder the heaviest load in defending the Indo-Pacific region, need the Japanese to do certain things on the defense and security fronts - quickly.

What does Washington need?

Put simply, the United States needs a Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) that can fight a war, and that can fight a war alongside, and inter-linked with, US forces.

For starters, this requires four main things:

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  • A JSDF that is properly funded, equipped, fully manned and able to fight;
  • A JSDF that can operate jointly – or in other words, Japan’s air, sea, and ground forces can operate together;
  • Much better interoperability with US forces, to include a joint Japan-US operational headquarters in Japan – rather than expecting to ‘wing it’ when something happens;
  • The ability to train US forces in Japan (to defend Japan) without undue restrictions.  

The United States and Japanese militaries have, mostly on their own senior leaders’ initiative, made some progress in the last few years. That includes more joint training of a more realistic sort, and much of it in the south where a war is likely to be fought. 

But more is needed, and that requires the Japanese Government – and the civilians who control the JSDF – to direct and ensure the necessary improvements.

Covers of the 2021 and 2022 Defense of Japan (provided by the Ministry of Defense)

Current Improvements Far From Enough

The late-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe deserves much credit for pushing through revised United States-Japan defense cooperation guidelines and reinterpreting “collective self-defense.” These allow Japan to play a bigger role in its own defense and be a more useful ally to US forces – if it wants to.  

But in terms of concrete improvements to both JSDF capabilities and Japan-US operational capabilities Abe came up short. His successors have said plenty of the right things, but their outcomes are lagging.

And there doesn’t appear to be any great urgency – despite the now widely recognized threat from China

Keep in mind that so-called "strike capability" that is now a hot topic in Japan has been under discussion for at least the last 15 years. And building a replacement for the US Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station on Okinawa was first promised in 1998. Almost 25 years later it isn’t close to completion.

One can’t entirely blame the Japanese for not being in a hurry. US alliance managers, civilian and military, have never really pushed things ー and too often preemptively think up reasons why something or other is “too hard” for the Japanese to do.

However, the United States Government has more influence on Japan’s defense policies than alliance managers seem to think. 

In this photo released by the U.S. Navy, the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) and other naval vessels conduct a passing honors ceremony with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) in the Pacific Ocean, Sept. 19, 2021. (Haydn N. Smith/U.S. Navy via AP)
A US Navy, MH-60R Sea Hawk is signaled to disengage its rotors on the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier (CVN 76) (July 2020 - Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Erica Bechard/U.S.Navy via AP)

The Best Advice Ever Received

The US side might usefully recall the advice Japanese leaders offered American officials around 1970 when the Americans wanted to permanently station an aircraft carrier at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan. 

It was probably the best advice the United States ever received about dealing with Japan on defense matters. One of the Americans involved explained to this writer what happened. He described it as a 3 step process.   

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Step One: Defining the Process

Step 1: The US National Security Council decided to homeport a carrier in Japan, but the Tokyo embassy was hesitant and offered up excuses: “never done in a foreign country before,” “LDP is not all-powerful,” “need to wait for the right time,” etc. 

However, a US Navy lieutenant commander assigned to Commander Naval Forces Japan headquarters at Yokosuka brought his big boss to Tokyo in civilian clothes to meet a senior LDP member of the Diet, who also was a former high-ranking defense official. The lawmaker asked several questions. 

The Diet member then told the Americans: 

We hope we are correct that the US wants and needs the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, but Japan’s need is absolutely critical to our security. Thus, when you really want something important, don’t ask our opinion; tell us what you need very firmly and don’t back down.

Joint training of the Ground Self Defense Forces and the US Marine Corps ("Iron Fist"), February 5, 2018, US Marine Corps Pendleton base, California, USA, Sankei Shimbun

Step 2: Carrying it Out

Step 2: Kakuei Tanaka succeeded Eisaku Sato as prime minister. One evening at a reception for the diplomatic community at the Speaker’s Official Residence, the Diet member asked the US ambassador and the deputy chief of mission to join him in a side room.

The Diet member said that Prime Minister Tanaka was a good man who could be decisive, but he did not have a good background on security issues. The Diet member said he had been teaching Tanaka about the critical importance of the alliance for Japan’s security and telling him that the US might have a desire to base an aircraft carrier in Yokosuka.  

The Diet member told the two Americans that, earlier that day, the prime minister had told him that the US Navy did not need to ask Japan’s permission to put a carrier in Yokosuka – but if the US wanted to ask Japan’s permission to do so, Japan would say yes.


Step 3: Giving Up the Credit

Step 3: Much later, when all went well including USS Midway’s smooth arrival in Yokosuka in October 1973, the embassy began to take credit for “its” achievement in persuading Japan.

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Prime Minister Kishida exchanges words with US President Biden (left) in New York on the 21st (provided by the Cabinet Public Relations Office, pool)

Don't Assume They Read Your Mind

Today’s American alliance managers could learn from this, though they also should also bear in mind that the Japanese are not mind readers.

If America needs something from Japan, it should remember that sound advice from 50 years ago, that included: 

Tell us what you need very firmly and don’t back down.

But surely America can’t speak so directly to Japan?  

Why not? When the prospects of regional conflict are at dangerous levels and Washington is offering up its servicemen and servicewomen to die on Japan’s behalf, it had better ask directly for what it needs from Japan to either deter a war or to win one.

Of course, speak politely as you would to a friend, and do it quietly. But be very clear as to what is needed, and by when. This is all about self-preservation – for both nations. And time is running out.

For the record: the US Navy Lieutenant Commander who set things in motion was James Auer, a former minesweeper skipper, who later served as the US Department of Defense Director of Japan Affairs. Later he established the US-Japan Center and as a professor at Vanderbilt University for many years. He remains one of the most respected people involved in US-Japan affairs.

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Author: Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine and a former diplomat and business executive who spent many years in Asia. Find his articles on JAPAN Forward here.

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