A Vital Commitment: The United States’ Enduring Military Presence in Japan

Since 1945, when the United States (US) defeated Japan in World War II (1939-1945), the US has had a significant number of troops stationed in Japan. The American military presence in Japan has been largely fruitful: American troops have provided stability in the aftermath of WWII, strengthened the US-Japanese relationship, aided Japan in restoring its international integrity and recovering economically, bolstered the US’ military presence in the Far East, and, most recently, have helped stem China’s rise. Even Japan’s Prime Minister Abe had only praise for the US-Japan relationship when, during a joint press conference with President Obama, he stated, “So we have this partnership and this strong alliance between our two countries. It’s the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in the Asia Pacific region.” There, however, have been problems resulting from the US military presence, but the benefits provided by America’s military presence in Japan have largely outweighed these drawbacks.

After Japan’s defeat, the US constructed a great number of military bases on Okinawa (a Japanese island off the mainland that the US had taken from the Japanese in 1945) and Japan’s mainland. In 1951, the US  and Japan co-ratified the Japan-America Security Alliance, which established the United States Forces of Japan (USFJ) taskforce. Its purpose, as stated in the treaty (provided by the Harvard Institute of Politics), was simple in principle: “The United States of America should maintain armed forces of its own in and about Japan so as to deter armed attack upon Japan.” In 1960, the treaty under went some modifications and became the Status of Armed Forces Agreement (SOFA ).

From a broad historical perspective, the US military presence  has proved fruitful. The USFJ has helped revive Japan’s global image. It was, and still is, a strong link that helps define the healthy relationship between the United States and Japan.

America’s presence in Japan is also unquestionably beneficial for the Japanese economy. A protected and sheltered Japan has been able to develop into a top five world economy that many benefit from today. According to the Harvard Institute for Politics, because of the US’s protection, Japan only has to allocate 1% of its Gross Domestic Product on defense, which indisputably assists Japan in balancing its budget. Furthermore, US servicemen and servicewomen all contribute to the Japanese economy by eating, shopping, and living in Japan.

It has also been useful for the US to have a forward-operating base in the Far East. Since WWII, Japan has served as a place where the US has been able to store weapons and base personnel. During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the bases on Japan allowed the US to more easily operate. Today, the region is again becoming volatile with the looming shadow of China casting itself over Japan. This makes America’s military presence in Japan pivotal. Obama addressed this fact in November of 2009 when he visited Tokyo: “The Alliance between the United States and Japan is a foundation for security and prosperity not just for our two countries but for the Asia Pacific region.”

However, since 1945, small fits of opposition from the Japanese people, mainly in Okinawa, have opposed American forces. This started when the US servicemen were originally granted extraterritoriality, which exempted them from numerous Japanese laws. Extraterritoriality then ended after the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan schoolgirl in 1995 by three US service members.

Yet similar incidents still gnaw at the military’s stability in Japan: the rape of a Japanese woman by two US servicemen just two years ago, the failure to relocate the Futenma Base from an urban to rural area, and the importation of Osprey Aircraft onto the island. These are valid concerns, justifiably addressed and protested by the Japanese population. However, the stakes are simply too high for the current 54,000 USFJ troops (figures provided by the USFJ website) to pack up.

Japan’s latest piece of legislation expands the scope of its military. Although this changes the dynamics, Japan’s military will remain limited in capacity. The US must continue to play older brother in this relationship, supporting a growing Japan, its most important ally in the Far East, and fostering a healthy and fruitful US-Japanese relationship.