The United States-Japan Security Treaty at 50

Still a Grand Bargain?

On January 19, 1960, Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi and U.S. Secretary of State Christian Herter signed a historic treaty. It committed the United States to help defend Japan if Japan came under attack, and it provided bases and ports for U.S. armed forces in Japan. The agreement has endured through half a century of dramatic changes in world politics -- the Vietnam War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the spread of nuclear weapons to North Korea, the rise of China -- and in spite of fierce trade disputes, exchanges of insults, and deep cultural and historical differences between the United States and Japan. This treaty has lasted longer than any other alliance between two great powers since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia.

Given its obvious success in keeping Japan safe and the United States strong in East Asia, one might conclude that the agreement has a bright future. And one would be wrong. The landslide electoral victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) last August, after nearly 54 years of uninterrupted rule by the Liberal Democratic Party, has raised new questions in Japan about whether the treaty's benefits still outweigh its costs.

LABOR PAINS

Back in 1952, when an earlier security treaty (which provided the basis for the 1960 treaty) entered into force, both sides thought it was a grand bargain. Japan would recover its independence, gain security at a low cost from the most powerful nation in the region, and win access to the U.S. market for its products. Without the need to build a large military force, Japan would be able to devote itself to economic recovery. The United States, for its part, could project power into the western Pacific, and having troops and bases in Japan made credible both its treaty commitments to defend South Korea and Taiwan and its policy of containment of the Soviet Union and communist China.

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