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July 3, 2006

Japan-U.S. Alliance Fails to Put Public's Concern at Ease

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor of the Foreign Press Center/Japan)

What appears to be Japan's unlimited commitment to U.S.'s global strategy has left many people wondering how far it can go

Last week, following their summit in Washington, D.C., U.S. President George W. Bush took Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Memphis, Tennessee, where they visited the grave of Elvis Presley, of whom Koizumi is a great admirer.

This gesture, considered a rare personal favor by Bush, may reflect the two men's fondness for each other. But it is really far more than that; it is a highly symbolic event that underscores the perceived importance of the two nations' alliance.

For Bush, Koizumi's unflinching support of the U.S.'s war on terror, especially the Iraq war, has been highly valuable and encouraging, something his administration can point to as its Iraq war policy comes under increasing attack both inside and outside the U.S.

Koizumi has never been apologetic about the supreme importance he attaches to Japan's alliance with Washington. He has spoken loudly about it and acted accordingly, more so than any other prime minister who preceded him.

For the Japanese public, the unusual treatment their leader is given by the U.S. president looks flattering, but it does not square well with their misgivings about what appears to be Japan's unlimited commitment to U.S. initiatives around the globe.

Koizumi, however, either does not pay attention to or intentionally ignores nuances in the public psyche.

Here again, he is an outright fundamentalist, strictly adhering to his own doctrine, just as he does when he refuses to elaborate on the implications of his controversial visit to Yasukuni Shrine.

These two issues - Japan's relationship with the U.S. and the Yasukuni Shrine controversy - have one thing in common: They both hark back to and are consequences of World War II. Matters that have their origins in the war and its consequences are something of which the Japanese people have tended to stop short of demanding a full account.

The alliance with the U.S. has only deepened over the decades. It was imposed on Japan during the trauma of a devastating defeat and has emerged from dramatic changes in international circumstances to establish itself as an unshakable, almost sacrosanct, cornerstone of Japan's strategy for survival in the global community.

With the near demise of the leftist argument, voiced by the defunct Japan Socialist Party, to scrap the military alliance with the U.S., the Japanese people appear to have fully accepted that they do not have any other realistic option. But that does not mean they are free of reservations about a still-deepening alliance with Washington.

Record high

A recent government poll on the Self-Defense Forces and security issues showed that 45% of the public is concerned that the country might go to war. It is the highest percentage on record.

The perception is not directly related to the tightening alliance with the U.S. Nevertheless, it is plausible that many respondents did have that in mind. The survey was taken in May as Tokyo and Washington were finalizing an agreement on a Japan-U.S. "road map for realignment" of U.S. forces in Japan. The agreement is based on a document signed in October 2005 regarding the alliance's "transformation and realignment for the future."

The overriding feature of the May agreement is that it reflects America's ongoing transformation on its global forces. As this post-Sept.11, 2001, adjustment continues to move forward, Japan is bound to immerse itself more deeply in the U.S.'s worldwide military strategy.

Japanese Defense Minister Fukushiro Nukaga has proudly called it "a new stage in the Japan-U.S. alliance." But it is obvious that Japan will be pulled on to this stage to play a supporting role as the U.S. acts out its worldwide military strategy.

This is a dramatic change from the old alliance, which emphasized the defense of Japan. Yet, the Japanese side was more concerned about reducing the burden on Okinawa, which continues to bear the brunt of U.S. military bases in Japan under the security treaty.

What worried many Japanese was an absence of full public debate - particularly in the Diet - on a matter that could have grave consequences and implications for the nation's future. The realignment might even deserve a national referendum, or an election, but it was largely left to ministerial negotiations, with Koizumi not showing any serious interest or leadership.

No debate necessary?

Since the nation is not seriously divided over the alliance itself, Koizumi might have thought that debates were unnecessary. But former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, a staunch supporter of the postwar pacifist policy, was openly critical of Koizumi's apparent nonchalance, revealed by his failure to explain the facts and implications of the new alliance.

Another of Koizumi's mentors, former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, voiced his irritation over what he regards as Koizumi's lack of reflection on the postwar regime to easily depend on the U.S.

By going public, the two elder statesmen echoed a question in the hearts of many Japanese: "How far can Japan's commitment to the U.S. strategy go?"

What disturbs Japanese people is the realization that they have come this far without so much as entertaining a second thought, without asking themselves about the propriety of an alliance that apparently cannot go on unquestionably forever.

While with Bush in Kyoto last year, Koizumi made a remark to the effect that as long as Japan maintains close ties with the U.S. it can rest assured that everything, including soured relations with China, will be fine. Many felt that the comment was alarmingly simplistic, then felt ridiculed as Koizumi refused to go beyond it when pressed for an explanation.

The people's acceptance of the post-WWII alliance with the U.S. includes accepting the American-imposed myth that an evil Japan - militaristic and fascist - was defeated and remade into a democratic, peace-loving nation.

Not a few Japanese disagree with this theory. Their doubt was reaffirmed early in the Iraq war when comparisons were made of Saddam Hussein's Iraq to prewar Japan and of post-Saddam Iraq to postwar Japan. But this is a myth Japan has lived with for the past six decades.

There is another matter that deeply worries Japanese - the realization that their government has scarcely spoken up to Washington about their concern.

That feeling was reflected in a recent Asahi Shimbun editorial, which declared: "There is definitely grave danger inherent in the Bush administration's unilateralist global strategy. Iraq is merely a case in point. Japan must make it perfectly clear to the U.S. that sharing the same strategic goals does not necessarily mean unconditionally siding with the U.S. all the time."

(Originally appeared in the June 26, 2006 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission. Rephrased slightly to cope with the events already occurred last week.)

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