Is the US-Japan defense relation in a quagmire?


Adviser of JFSS/ Special professor at Reitaku University Yoshihisa KOMORI

 On 19 September, the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA convened a lecture meeting in Washington D.C. for early-career researchers and government officials in the field of the US-Japan defense relation. There JFSS's Advisor KOMORI Yoshihisa gave a keynote address on this topic in English. (JFSS Office)


 Thank you for inviting me. 

 My foreign correspondent career as a Japanese journalist started in Vietnam. Then it took me to the United States, Britain and Western Europe, Angola in Africa, Eastern Europe, China, and back to the United States. Reporting in all of these locations made me think about how Japan deals with its own security.

 For this short kickoff presentation, I would like to focus on US-Japan security issues alone and will address the Asia Pacific situation later in our free discussion.

 If you are committed either academically or professionally to the pursuit of the US-Japanese security relationship, I welcome you to the swamp. Not just the famous one here in Washington DC, but in American - Japanese overall relations, 


Unbalanced Security Treaty

 Although security and defense are perhaps the most visible and important components of our bilateral relations, under the surface these seemingly straightforward issues are beset with contradictions, and sometimes even fictions. 

 To begin with, the respective American and Japanese postures toward national defense are structurally and conceptually very different. We don't have the commonalities that are often considered prerequisite for a military alliance among nations. 

 For one thing Japan doesn't have a military as such, only the Self-Defense Forces. We cannot exercise the right of collective self-defense, which is considered inherent and self-evident by all other sovereign nations, including the US. 

 Furthermore, Japan has a nebulous security principle called “defense only,” which again other countries do not have. 

 Even the terms of the US-Japan security treaty are unique in that its Article 5 obligates both parties to move to common defense in case of an armed attack against only the territories under Japanese administration. This means that Japan has no obligation for common defense in the event that American forces operating just one mile outside Japanese territories, land or water, come under attack, theoretically even when the US forces are engaged in the defense of Japan. 


Lacks Reciprocity

 For the United States this is the only military alliance with other nations that so demonstratively lacks reciprocity. In contrast, the US security treaty with South Korea, for example, stipulates that the Republic of Korea will come to common defense with the US when the US comes under attack anywhere in the Western Pacific. 

 Some of you might think of Japan's 2015 enactment of Peace and Security Legislation. For the first time the legislation allows Self-Defense Forces to use their power outside Japanese territories to defend an ally if the survival of Japan is threatened. This caveat, however, would make it practically impossible in an emergency for Japan to exercise the right of collective defense outside its own territories in a timely fashion. 

 Despite these differences and gaps, Japan and the US have come a long way, building a solid alliance and effective deterrence. Nevertheless, the problems remain, and the real strength of the alliance has yet to be tested.

 Just to show you the tip of the iceberg of these remaining problems, let me tell you a little of my own experience.


Reischauer Revelations

 When I first came on board studying the issues of US-Japan defense relations many years ago, I was disheartened by a great fiction regarding the bilateral nuclear issue. While doing research on the issue at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as a senior associate, I interviewed Edwin Reischauer, a former US ambassador to Japan, who had just retired from Harvard University as a professor. 

 To my questions on the bilateral security issue, he revealed that American naval vessels carrying nuclear weapons on board had been sailing through Japanese territorial waters and visiting Japanese ports for years, despite the Japanese government's public pronouncement that this would never happen because of Japan's “3 non-nuclear principles.” 

 These principles which are a result of the 1976 National Diet resolution prohibit Japan to possess, produce, or introduce nuclear weapons. 

 The third pillar is not to introduce the weapons into Japanese territories, including both land and water. As a result, the successive Japanese governments continued to declare that no American ships with nuclear weapons on board would ever enter Japanese waters and ports.

 Mr. Reischauer stated to me, however, that this had not been the case. The US side interpreted the word “introduction” only to mean landing the weapons on the ground, and that the Japanese government all along knew the discrepancy but kept it secret, he said.    

 Therefore, it has been a great fiction to claim that US nuclear weapons would never be introduced into Japanese waters.

 Incidentally, I reported the former ambassador's on-the-record remark to my former Mainichi Shimbun colleagues with Mr. Reischauer's approval. The newspaper reported the story as a major revelation and the news caused a series of heated debates in the National Diet, eventually resulting in the resignation of the prime minister. 

 The more unfortunate outcome of Reischauer's revelation is that the core of the issue remains unresolved and ambiguous to this day.

 After all, this may be the kind of fiction that was deemed necessary to fill or hide the gap between the two countries for the sake of smooth functioning of the alliance.


Abnormal Country

 So overall Japan is an anomaly when it comes to its posture toward its own defense. This is something I took to my heart as my exposure to defense policies of other nations, including the US, widened and deepened.

 In a nutshell, an unusual degree and breadth of self-constraint are the features of Japan's posture toward its own security. And this is pretty much what I meant as the “swamp” I mentioned earlier.  


Shinzo Abe's ‘Normal Country' Effort

 Japanese institutional constraints on defense are direct results of its pacifistic and American drafted Constitution. The Japanese public's postwar anti-military sentiment has also been a major factor. 

 If our goal is to build a stronger and more equitable alliance, these Japanese constraints and anomalies must be reduced, if not totally removed. 

 One person who did his utmost in this regard to make Japan more normal is the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. His efforts for this purpose were often misconstrued by critics, sometimes intentionally, as a plan to bring back Japan to the pre-war type of an aggressive military power. But in reality, they were quite the contrary (opposite). His undertakings were intended to fill the gaping holes in the Japanese national defense mechanism. 


Defense Budget, Constitutional Change

 To my pleasant surprise in this respect, Japan currently seems to have started moving in that direction. Just recently the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has pledged to increase the defense budget to the level of 2% of GDP. This is a major change, given the fact that the previous policy of confining the defense expenditure within 1% of GDP had long been considered sacrosanct. That policy was adopted as a Cabinet decision in 1976. 

 The LDP also now calls for a new policy for Japan to acquire the capability of launching missile at the potential targets across the sea that might potentially be used to attack Japan. This “counter strike” capability would be also a departure from the longstanding interpretation of the “defense only” principle. 

 Some LDP members have also started discussing the idea of “nuclear sharing” adopted by some NATO nations in Europe.

 The LDP also has recently renewed its longstanding pledge to revise the Constitution to make the nation's defense undertaking fully legitimate and normal. Among the non LDP political parties, support for Constitutional revision has expanded. At present in both Houses of the Parliament, the number of those in favor of the revision seems to go beyond the two thirds of all the members, which is the requirement for any Constitutional change initiative. 


Public Support

 Public support for these new defense measures shows an even more phenomenal change. Poll after poll over the recent year or two shows that a clear majority of the Japanese people support increasing defense expenditure, acquisition of longer-range missiles, and Constitutional revision - including changes of the controversial Article 9. 

 This is an amazing change. Especially to longtime observers like myself, it is almost hard to believe. Whether the current Japanese public opinion will stay steady as it is or not, of course, remains to be seen. But the current surge of support for stronger defense is truly overwhelming.


Chinese Aggression

 The other question naturally is what has brought these changes in Japan. Obviously, China's aggressive actions and threatening statements seem to be the primary cause. 

 Chinese armed vessels invade Japan's territorial and contiguous waters around Senkaku Islands almost daily now. North Korea launches missiles into the Sea of Japan frequently, at least 16 times in the first half of this year alone. The hermit nation also boasts the development of nuclear weapons and threatens to use it against Japan.

  The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the latter's valiant resistance clearly impressed many in Japan, boosting awareness of the need for self-defense of one's own country. Russia's war games around Japan have also been noticed by the Japanese public.


Kishida Government

 And lastly, what will the Kishida government do?  Fumio Kishida has never been known as an advocate of strong defense. In fact, his political record shows very little in the areas related to defense and security. He also grew as a politician as a member of the faction within the LDP known for its advocacy for economic supremacy (economy above anything else). 

 Therefor I for one do not have great expectations for Mr. Kishida's own initiative for the issue of defense. Yet, I do not foresee him going against the tide.

 This is just about all I feel I should report to you. And I would open the floor for discussion. Thank you for your attention.