The U.S.-Japan Alliance in the 21st Century

On Sunday, December 16, 2012, Japan held a general election that determined both the composition of the House of Representatives and the next prime minister of Japan. As many predicted, the result was a sizable victory for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led by former prime minister Shinzo Abe.

On November 13, 2012, just three days before Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced the election, Kenneth B. Pyle (University of Washington) discussed the state of the U.S.-Japan alliance at the 2012 Pyle Center Conference on “Northeast Asia in Transition: New Leadership, New Dynamics.” Drawing on the alliance’s 60-year history, Professor Pyle notes Japan’s desire for greater autonomy, examines what the upcoming leadership change might mean, and offers guidance on how the alliance might be strengthened going forward.



All is not well with the U.S.-Japan alliance. That is nothing new. In both countries there has been continuing frustration and dissatisfaction with its workings for decades. The alliance, now over 60 years old, is a strange and anomalous joining of two nations with vastly different histories and values, thrown together after a bitter and merciless war fought against each other. George Kennan put it well in a brilliant but little-noticed essay thirty years ago when he wrote that events had brought the Japanese and their American conquerors together in an unpropitious way:

    [The Japanese] are a very different people from ourselves, and if the recent War of the Pacific had not intervened, I would have been tempted to say…let us not push an unnatural intimacy too far and too fast. But the war did intervene. We were, as a result of it, thrown into contact with the Japanese in the closest way in the post-hostilities period. And out of this there did come a species of intimacy—an intimacy born of conflict and much agony, particularly on the Japanese side, but an intimacy nevertheless. We learned a good deal about each other, good and bad, in those unhappy years. That is the nature of all intimacies.

The fundamental source of problems in the alliance is that from the beginning both sides regarded it as filling contradicting and opposing needs. For the United States the purpose of the alliance was to ensure that Japan conformed to our global strategy. The alliance was imposed on Japan while it was still occupied by 250,000 American troops. It was the price Japan paid for ending the occupation. It was a means to control Japan and ensure that it did not become neutral or fall into the Communist orbit in the Cold War and that it did not undertake an independent rearmament. [1] During the Cold War, we Americans spun a sentimental tale that the alliance was a partnership in which both countries had the same goals and purpose. Our most famous ambassador, Edwin Reischauer, described it at every turn as “an equal partnership” and in his autobiography wrote, “I knew that the two nations shared common basic ideals of democracy, human rights, and egalitarianism, and yearned alike for a peaceful world made up of truly independent nations bound together by as free and open world trade as possible.” Such sentimentalizing masked reality and kept us from understanding Japan’s real goals and purpose.

For Japanese leaders, the alliance was an unpleasant reality but in order to make the best of it, they decided rather cynically to use it to handle Japan’s security and free them to pour all their energies into economic growth and acquire as much aid, technology, and market access as possible. Postwar Japan’s interest was in recovering its sovereignty, and the large majority of Japanese felt no great stake in the bipolar conflict that preoccupied Americans. In the circumstances of the cold war, the Japanese chose to pursue the only independent path open to them, which was to concentrate on becoming an economic power and leave their security entirely to the Americans.

Using the American-authored constitution as a pretext, the Japanese built a firewall of self-binding constitutional interpretations to limit Washington’s ability to control and manage their foreign policy. I call this firewall the “eight no’s” or “eight negatives”:

  • No overseas deployment of the Japanese self-defense forces
  • No participation in collective self-defense arrangements
  • No power projection capability
  • No nuclear arms
  • No arms exports
  • No sharing defense-related technology
  • No more than 1% of GNP for defense expenditure
  • No military use of space

Japan’s use of the alliance was tactically brilliant in that it allowed the nation to concentrate on becoming an economic power. But the strategy was fundamentally flawed. Japan was ill-prepared for the post–Cold War era when the United States was no longer willing to provide automatic guarantees of Japanese security and demanded greater reciprocity in the alliance. In the alliance there was, by Japanese choice, no joint command of U.S. and Japanese forces as existed in other U.S. alliances, no integration of forces, no interoperability, and limited consultation. Incredibly, the Japanese had no plan and no military doctrines that would allow the government to deal with national emergencies. Japan, supposedly a sovereign country, had in effect no plan for protecting its national security.

Since the end of the Cold War, Americans have sought to cajole Japan into an activist role in support of our policies. A report issued in 2000, known as the Armitage-Nye report, described the alliance as “central to America’s global strategy” and urged Japan to take America’s “special relationship” with the UK as a model for the alliance. This was wholly unrealistic, but reflective of American misperception of Japanese goals. At the time of the 9/11 attacks, Richard Armitage, then Deputy Secretary of State, called in the Japanese ambassador and said that he expected Japan to “show the flag,” and when the invasion of Iraq began, Japan was told that the United States expected Japanese “boots on the ground.” For a period of time, especially during the five-year term of Prime Minister Koizumi from 2001 to 2006, the “eight no’s” were modified and the alliance seemed from the American perspective to be moving in a positive direction by providing just enough support for U.S. global strategy to allay American impatience. Nonetheless, the Japanese remained concerned over American unilateralism and, as Henry Kissinger put it, wary of being “invited to share burdens based on concepts devised in Washington and transmitted to Tokyo as received truth.”

When the conservatives fell from power in 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) openly asserted what Japanese had always wanted, namely much greater autonomy within the alliance. The DPJ announced that it would establish a foreign policy independent of American global strategy, create more distance from the United States through the establishment of an “East Asian community” and develop a closer relationship with China. The DPJ’s tenure in power turned out to be clumsy and crisis ridden, and soon demonstrated that the party was utterly unprepared to lead Japan. Americans, impatient with the DPJ’s parade of prime ministers, its inability to make decisions, and failure to meet expectations on base issues in Okinawa, reached a new level of exasperation and hectoring. A new Armitage-Nye report, just issued two months ago, lectures Japan in a paternal tone that if Japan wishes to remain “a tier-one nation” it must “stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States,” meet a long list of obligations, and “move forward with us.”

A succession of policy failures will bring the DPJ to the end of its tenure in the coming months when a new election must be held. The irony is that its agenda for a closer relationship with China was done in by Chinese nationalism and the DPJ is ending its time in power with a foreign policy virtually identical with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The present defense minister, Morimoto Satoshi, perhaps the best and most knowledgeable in the postwar period, holds views wholly acceptable to the LDP with whose leaders he has often worked closely. In sum, there is more of a Japanese national consensus on foreign policy now than we have ever seen in the postwar period. Abe Shinzo and the LDP are almost certain to return to power. Thanks in good part to growing Chinese assertiveness the next government will be more amenable to American policy. Although Abe will be amenable to a more activist role, we should understand that he also will want to assert more autonomy. He is a nationalist who recently visited Yasukuni, regards the war crimes trials as victors’ justice, and cherishes the goal of his grandfather, former prime minister Kishi Nobusuke, to build Japan’s military power such that Japan will be able to return to great power status.

Let me close with three reflections:

First, the U.S.-Japan alliance in the twenty-first century needs to be cast in a fashion more accommodating to Japanese sensibilities. Americans would do well to change our cajoling tone in the alliance. American leaders, especially the alliance managers, generally speaking, sometimes lack self-awareness in addressing the issues of the alliance. We need to remember that mistakes of earlier generations of our policymakers have a large responsibility for creating the bilateral relationship that is today adrift and unsatisfactory to both nations. The alliance is a relic of Franklin Roosevelt’s ill-considered unconditional surrender policy, our idealism in determining to permanently disarm and remake Japan so that it could not again be a threat to anyone, and our imposition of a hegemonic alliance as the price for ending the occupation.

The alliance has always been elite-managed but today the role of mass opinion in Japan has much greater play than ever before. Japan is going through something like a delayed democratic revolution and our alliance managers would do well to change their style. It might start with small steps like a recent proposal to allow the use of our air base at Yokota for part-time civilian use to relieve congestion at Narita and Haneda. Operation Tomodachi was useful. A presidential visit to Hiroshima would lay to rest a long festering wound and set a new tone. I am speaking of a visit of respect, not an apology. I can think of nothing that an American president could do to win the hearts of ordinary Japanese people than such a visit. Like President Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg cemetery in 1985, it would take courage to face the inevitable criticism from many quarters. Changing the tone of the alliance could have great influence in reassuring the Japanese.

A second reflection: The alliance is a relic of the 20th century international system. In the emerging 21st century world order, Asia is undergoing a major power transition that we all know about. This new order in Asia is likely to create much greater congruence between American and Japanese purpose than in the past 60 years when, as I have indicated, our goals were contradictory and often at odds. The interests of Japan and the United States, the two great status-quo powers of the region, will be the ones most challenged by the imminent great-power change. Broadly speaking, U.S. and Japanese interests regarding China are similar. Both seek to engage China to encourage a smooth integration of China into the international political and economic systems, even as it builds its national power and becomes more assertive of its interests. Aligning the approaches of Tokyo and Washington offers substantial rewards. Parallel approaches also increase the possibility of working together in other areas, such as helping to shape the future of Korea and Taiwan. Accordingly we need to loosen our grip on Japan. Japan needs to be allowed greater autonomy, some breathing room to become a normal nation. “It will be natural,” as Mike Armacost has said, “for Japan to gradually take on additional responsibilities for its own defense and for the military footprint of the United States in Japan…[to] diminish over time.” [2] We should continue to move the alliance into a more multilateral context and to encourage and not feel threatened by Japanese engagement with Asian countries.

Third and finally, as I argue in my last book, the dominant pattern of Japan’s strategic style for the past two centuries has been an adaptation to fundamental changes in the international system. For deep structural reasons, Japan has always adapted to the demands of the external environment. I believe Japan will move as it always has, cautiously and fitfully, but it will adjust to what is clearly going to be a new order in Asia, and for that reason I believe it is on the threshold of a new era. Weakened as it is by economic sluggishness, domestic political uncertainties, the challenges of an aging society, and recovery from the triple disasters of March 2011, Japan will likely move cautiously, reinterpreting the constitution by means of legislation that will permit the exercise of collective defense in areas surrounding Japan. This will be carefully prescribed, but it will be a highly significant change of policy which we have long sought and will indicate a growing congruence of interest in the alliance.

In this further evolution of policy, it befits us to bear with Japan. As Kennan concluded when he wrote about what he called the “unnatural intimacy,” both sides must take responsibility for overcoming the mistakes of the past and facing reality. There must be, he said,

    a common recognition that … the mistakes of earlier generation…have thrown us in each other’s path; that the effort to work things out in opposition to each other has proven worse than useless; that we have no choice but to contrive to do it together. The responsibility lies most heavily on us Americans; for it was we who defeated the Japanese; we who asked, through the formula of unconditional surrender, for a total power (and thus a total responsibility) over their affairs; we who somewhat brashly undertook to show them how to live, in this modern age, more happily, more safely, and more usefully, than they had lived before. You could hardly assume a greater responsibility than this.


[1] The top U.S. Marine Corps General in Japan, in 1990, told a Washington Post correspondent that U.S. troops must remain in Japan at least until the beginning of the twenty-first century in large part because “no one wants a rearmed, resurgent Japan. So we are a cap in the bottle, if you will.”

[2] For example, an NBR study done three years ago by Richard Lawless and Michael Finnegan proposed that Japan gradually be given primary responsibility for the defense of Japan itself. See Managing Unmet Expectations in the U.S.-Japan Alliance