TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vividly remembers the day when the politically charged phrase nichibei domei, or Japan-U.S. alliance, established itself in the official government lexicon.
In spring 2001, Abe, who was serving as deputy chief cabinet secretary for the newly inaugurated Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, was involved in drafting Koizumi's first policy speech to the Diet.
As the discussion turned to diplomacy and national security, Koizumi asked one of his secretaries, who had come from the foreign ministry, which was the stronger phrase: Japan-U.S. friendship or Japan-U.S. alliance?
The distinction was important. In his campaign platform, Koizumi only pledged that "friendship" would be the cornerstone of his foreign policy with the U.S. He did not even mention the Japan-U.S. security treaty. And in a phone conversation with then-President George W. Bush, Koizumi said he would "strive to maintain and develop Japan's friendly relationship with America."
Koizumi's tendency to describe the relationship as a "friendship" perplexed pundits and policymakers on both sides of the Pacific. During the soon-to-be prime minister's campaign, a U.S. government official asked what exactly Koizumi meant by "friendship." Because the term was being used to describe Japan-China relations, did Koizumi's references to it indicate a change in Japan's relationship with America?
Soon Koizumi put an end to speculation. Listening to the explanation of his secretary, he decided right away. "Let's go with alliance." On May 7, 2001, in his first policy speech to the Diet, he dropped "friendly" for the stronger "alliance."
It was a defining moment, marking the first time a Japanese prime minister clearly referred to the Japan-U.S. security treaty as an "alliance," with all its attendant military nuance.
The government's white papers on diplomacy and national defense had frequently mentioned "alliance," and some prime ministers used the term, like Takeo Fukuda in 1977 and Masayoshi Ohira in 1979 -- both during visits to the U.S.
The issue was further complicated when Ohira's successor, Zenko Suzuki, issued a joint statement with then-President Ronald Reagan describing the relationship as an "alliance between the United States and Japan."
Suzuki explained the term had "no military connotation." His foreign minister felt otherwise and resigned in protest.
After that Japanese leaders steered clear of the term, at least in public. Instead, they referred to it as the "Japan-U.S. security system."
Following the Persian Gulf War, Japan widened the scope of operations for its Self-Defense Forces, culminating in a law allowing the SDF to take part in U.N. peacekeeping operations overseas.
While the security arrangement with the U.S. strengthened in subsequent years, it faced new challenges, including North Korea's move to develop nuclear weapons and the rape of a schoolgirl by U.S. servicemen in Okinawa -- an incident that inflamed the public, especially in an area where the heavy U.S. military presence had long been resented.
Critics argued that the alliance was adrift amid the region's uncertain security.
Koizumi's use of "alliance" radically changed the dynamics of Japan's relationship with the U.S., occurring four decades after the 1960 revision to the Japan-U.S. security treaty, forerunner to the current relationship.
Abe was clearly aware of the implications of that word choice nearly two decades ago. There are still a number of nuanced interpretations of the bilateral relationship, but few experts today deny its militaristic connotation.
At the start of the postwar era, Japanese political leaders avoided using "alliance" because of the bitter memories associated with the Tripartite Pact, which established the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis in 1940. This military agreement is referred to as the "three-nation alliance" in Japan and is viewed as setting into motion Japan's march into the devastating war.
These memories served as a strong disincentive for Tokyo politicians to refer to the relationship with Washington as an alliance. They also hindered public discussion about the nation's security policy from a military viewpoint.
It was not until 1997 during Ryutaro Hashimoto's premiership that uniformed SDF personnel began to visit the prime minister's official residence without civilian defense officials.
Some Japanese political leaders before Hashimoto recognized the geopolitical imperative of pursuing foreign policy that included military perspectives. Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone -- Suzuki's successor and himself a former military man -- began to change Japan's security policy narrative by declaring that the country's relationship with the U.S. included military aspects. Nakasone also beefed up Japan's defense capabilities.
Seiroku Kajiyama, a graduate of the Imperial Japanese Army Academy who unsuccessfully ran in the presidential election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in 1998, often voiced concerns about China and the Korean Peninsula, and called for closer cooperation with India to counter China's military expansion. He was jokingly nicknamed "military officer" during his run for the LDP presidency.
In the late 1990s, Nakasone and Kajiyama explored the possibility forming a coalition with the hawkish New Frontier Party to shore up not only the LDP's power base but also the country's security arrangements with the U.S. amid heightened tensions in East Asia.
Two decades after Koizumi's landmark policy speech in the Diet, politicians have no qualms about the word "alliance." Abe wants Japan to engage in collective self-defense in an effort to bolster security arrangements with the U.S. and expand the operational reach of the SDF around the world.
It was Abe's grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who signed the current Japan-U.S. security treaty on Jan. 19, 1960. In many East Asian countries, 60 is a particularly auspicious age. It means a person has completed one 60-year circuit of the traditional Chinese calendar cycle, and they are entering a new phase of their life.
Now, as Abe prepares to mark the treaty's 60th anniversary later this year, he faces a different world from that of 1960.
He is far from sanguine about the outlook for the alliance going into 2020. U.S. President Donald Trump has said he wants Tokyo to pay more for hosting U.S. forces, with talks over the issue beginning in earnest next year.
In addition, Trump's "America First" agenda and U.S. security interests could clash with those of Japan, whose constitution mandates pacifism. If this happens, Abe will have to decide what is best for the country, even at the expense of his close personal ties with Trump.
In the short term, security in East Asia is in danger, especially since North Korea's return to a provocative stance in dealing with the U.S. In the longer term, Abe and his successors will have to navigate a political and diplomatic minefield posed by the U.S. troop presence in Japan and China's military buildup.
Making matters worse is the proliferation of state-sponsored cyberattacks, which have blurred the line between the military and civilian sectors concerning security.
Prewar Japan made a series of disastrous moves on the diplomatic and military fronts. In the year of the 60th anniversary of the bilateral security treaty, the country is facing the colossal challenge of pursuing a multifaceted foreign policy agenda that covers not only Asia, but also the Middle East and Europe -- the entirety of which will be guided by Japan's firm "alliance" with the U.S.