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US Navy Unwelcome: Why is Japan Making Life Difficult for Its Strongest Ally?

Local sensitivities must be weighed against the fact that the US Navy needs access to Japanese ports to mount an effective defense for both Japan and US troops.



Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Rafael Peralta of the US Navy anchored off the coast of Ishigaki Island, Okinawa Prefecture, March 11. (©Kyodo)

A US Navy destroyer, USS Rafael Peralta recently went to Japan's Ishigaki island, between Okinawa and Taiwan. It wasn't exactly welcomed with open arms. The local authorities at first refused permission for the ship to dock — claiming the water wasn't deep enough. They later relented, but the local dockworkers union went on strike to protest the ship's visit. 

Okinawa's Prefectural Government also opposed the visit.

This isn't the first time United States Navy ships have had trouble getting into Japanese "civilian" ports.

Keep in mind that Japan is said to be America's strongest ally and supposedly in "lock-step" with the United States. The US is also obligated to defend Japan — and has been since 1960 when the US-Japan Security Treaty was signed.

So what's going on?

The US military has operational requirements to maintain deterrence and, if necessary, fight to defend Japan. But this runs up against local opposition to military activities and, an even more powerful opponent — the "burden business." The incident on Ishigaki Island is a reflection of this.

First, the operational requirements. 


Why Does the US Military Need Port Access?

The Americans don't send ships to Ishigaki and other Japanese ports to be difficult. 

Rather, to mount an effective defense, the US military wants access to as many ports as possible. And it's important to use them in so-called "phase zero" — peacetime, or at least before the shooting starts.

It helps to be familiar with a location and operating environment (including the local inhabitants) — rather than figuring things out on the fly once trouble occurs.

If you've been somewhere and "done something" it's different than showing up for the first time. A military practices for the same reasons a baseball team or an orchestra does. 

Having more ports to operate from also makes you a harder target. It gives you better odds of surviving a strike on your "main" base and still being able to operate. And that's an obvious vulnerability for US naval forces in Japan — now operating out of a small number of bases. They are easy targets for Chinese missiles.

It's not just ports and the US Navy. The US Air Force, Marine, and Navy aviation units face the same problem of overconcentration on a small number of facilities.

Japan has 100+ civilian airfields, having been overbuilt during the bubble era. Most of these airports are underutilized.

The Japanese should open them up to US military aircraft and to the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) — for the same reasons mentioned above. 


The Americans ought to make an issue of it.

Protesters hold placards in front of a bus transporting crew members of USS Rafael Peralta on March 11, Ishigaki Island, Okinawa Prefecture. (©Kyodo)

Political Reasons for Ship Visits

There's also a political aspect to US Navy ships using civilian ports in the Nansei Shoto (Japan's southern islands) — and anywhere else in Japan.

Under the US-Japan Status of Forces agreement, the Japanese government is obligated to allow US forces access to Japan's ports and airfields. 

For decades, the Americans haven't exercised these rights as fully as they should have. And this "right" has atrophied.

It's important that the Americans get over their self-imposed restraint on doing what's necessary to protect Japan. They also need to increase their own odds of success and survival.

And getting out and about and using ports like Ishigaki is important for setting a precedent. Not to mention demonstrating that both countries will live up to their treaty obligations.

These need to be regular visits — and in many more parts of Japan.

Of course, there's a necessary balancing between local sensitivities and doing what's needed to defend Japan. But things shifted much too far in the wrong direction over the years and haven't shifted back enough.

Some progress is being made — as evidenced by the Iron Fist exercises that recently concluded in the Nansei Shoto. The training between US Marines and Navy and Japanese forces included a landing on Okinoerabu. The island is halfway between Okinawa and Kyushu (Japan's southernmost main island. 


This wouldn't have been possible not so many years ago owing to local opposition and central government over-sensitivity. 

It's a gradual improvement, but there's reportedly still obstruction — both at local and central government levels. And including within parts of the Japan Defense Ministry.

Japanese Opposition

Some of the opposition is principled and is by citizens opposed to all military operations. And given Japan's horrific experiences in World War Two, that's understandable. The protesters are generally elderly and few in number. 

And there is in fact, much support for US and Japanese military presence both on Okinawa island, but especially on the other islands along the Nansei Shoto chain. 

Press reporting seldom mentions this fact.

But aside from local opposition, maybe a bigger impediment is the "burden business."

The "burden business?" Put simply, localities get money from the central government for "allowing" military training nearby. Complain and play difficult and the money keeps flowing. Complain enough and you might even get more money flowing.

Yes, it's a shakedown racket. Bureaucrats go along with it because they always have, and there's the inordinate fear of being criticized. The Japanese military is not in a position to complain.


The Americans grin and bear it, trying to move things forward, but noting privately the absurdity of often having to leave Japan to train to defend Japan.

Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Rafael Peralta of the US Navy anchored off the coast of Ishigaki Island, Okinawa Prefecture, March 11. (©Kyodo)

US Political Considerations?

One would get the impression that only Japanese politics matter.

But consider things from the US public's perspective: Japan is saying,  "We want you to be here to die for us when we snap our fingers. And until then, stay in your cage, or on a short leash."

That's not entirely fair, but that's how it will be characterized — and China's "white" lobbyists in Washington will make that case when the time comes. 

And that could resonate with many Americans — on and off Capitol Hill. 

Given the Chinese threats to Japan (and the United States) we ought not to be dealing with obstructions of the sort USS Peralta experienced on Ishigaki.

If Japan and the alliance can't stand US Navy ships using more Japanese ports — or American aircraft using more Japanese airports – it won't be able to withstand the stress of US servicemembers dying by the thousands for a Japan that didn't let them prepare properly – to defend Japan.

Time is running out.


Author: Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book "When China Attacks: A Warning To America."


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