Tokyo and Washington celebrated the 60th anniversary of their security partnership on Jan. 19, honoring a bond that has let Japan find prosperity in the aftermath of World War II. But the rise of inward-looking nationalism worldwide could threaten this relationship. Now is the time to reevaluate the alliance and discuss the course the two countries should take in the coming years.
The protection of its citizens is one of the most important duties for any nation, which makes bolstering defensive capabilities a priority. But Japan, the only country to experience a nuclear bombing, does not have the option of taking up nuclear arms itself. Japan can do only so much on its own, and the country would be far more secure with others on its side.
Amid amicable relations with the U.S. and U.K., modern Japan defeated Russia in the 1904-05 war and joined the club of global powers. But later, after Japan allied instead with Germany and Italy, it suffered a devastating defeat in World War II.
The original security treaty in 1951 retroactively authorized the American occupation of postwar Japan. The current treaty, signed by then-Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi in 1960, laid out the security roles for Tokyo and Washington. Japan chose to embrace a joint security strategy with the U.S., while the pro-neutrality, anti-military Socialist Party faded away as it failed to gain the electorate's support.
Still, it would be too simplistic to praise the ruling Liberal Democratic Party for its decisions back then. Even though about 90% of Japanese citizens today support the existence of the country's Self-Defense Forces, many were concerned several years ago that the role of the forces could expand without limit when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave the green light for the limited use of collective self-defense. Some of those voices came from LDP partner Komeito.
These concerns share the same roots as the Socialist Party's arguments a half-century ago: that Japan would become ensnared in U.S. wars because of the security treaty.
Bullish LDP members say the Japan-U.S. treaty would help repel China by force. But that does not necessarily reflect Japan's public opinion. The American military likely would not wish to be involved in a Sino-Japanese conflict, either.
U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly hints at the possibility of withdrawing American forces from Japan. This is often dismissed as a bluff designed to make Tokyo shoulder a greater financial burden for the military presence, but a growing number of Americans think that the U.S. no longer can protect other countries. This issue likely will persist even after Trump leaves office.
Japan and the U.S. must focus on developing an alliance that is equally profitable for both sides. The two countries should not lean on each other too closely, but they also should avoid distancing themselves. They cannot permit their 60-year-old bond to lose substance.