The gulf separating American and Japanese perceptions of the U.S. troops stationed in Japan could jeopardize the alliance between these two important countries. Many Americans see the presence of U.S. troops in Japan as a gracious favor meant to underpin Japan's security. Most Japanese, while fond of the alliance with the United States, would like to see fewer U.S. troops on their soil. A May 1996 opinion poll in Asahi Shimbun found that 70 percent of the Japanese people supported the alliance with the United States while 67 percent favored a reduction in the number of U.S. military bases. This discriminating public preference is reasonable in today's Asia.

The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty was signed during the Korean War in 1951 at the same time as the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which formally ended the Allied occupation of Japan. The security treaty enabled U.S. troops to remain in Japan and opened Japanese facilities as a staging area and logistics base for American forces in the war being waged on the Korean peninsula. U.S. military bases in Japan were seen as essential to containing communist expansion, especially since the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea were considered a monolithic threat.

Today the international environment has changed as dramatically in East Asia as in Europe. The United States and its allies are no longer squared off against the Soviet Union. Indeed, the Soviet Union is no more. Since its collapse, Russian forces in East Asia have become hollow. A comparison of Japan's 1989 and 1997 white paper on defense shows a more than 50 percent reduction in the number of personnel, surface combat ships, submarines, and warplanes in Asia. Most of Russia's warships are rusting in port, leaving only a few submarines and surface ships in the Pacific fleet operational. According to Japanese military analysts, Russian air force pilots fly no more than 20 to 30 hours of training time a year, making the most basic skills difficult to maintain. In Japan, fighter pilots train a minimum of 150 hours a year.

A clear reversal of fortune on the Korean peninsula between the South and the North also signals a drastic change in the strategic map of northeast Asia. While the industries of the north were destroyed during the Korean War, much of the infrastructure survived; with assistance from the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, North Korean industry substantially recovered. South Korea's industrialization, on the other hand, began only after 1965, when the Basic Treaty between Japan and South Korea opened the way for Japanese capital and technology. During the 1970s, the North was still widely thought superior to the South in industrial and military strength.

Today the situation is reversed. South Korea's GNP is at least 20 times that of the North, and its population of 45 million is twice as large. South Korea's strength relative to its northern neighbor resembles the United States' relative to Mexico. South Korea was recognized by Russia in 1990 and by China two years later. It now has trade relations with both countries, while the North is on the brink of economic collapse. Their economic condition is naturally reflected in their respective military strengths.

Japanese specialists estimate that Pyongyang has about 100 modern warplanes, although they get little flying time due to shortages of fuel and spare parts. Seoul has 400 modern fighter planes, tanks, attack helicopters, and antitank missiles. The South's edge is clear. If, however, Pyongyang chooses to act irrationally by launching a desperate attack, no amount of military power can deter it. Deterrence assumes reasonable judgment by the enemy. One way to lessen the likelihood of a senseless strike is to avoid cornering North Korea's leaders and thus driving them into desperation.

Chinese military power has also diminished considerably. The number of combat aircraft has fallen to 3,700 from 5,400 ten years ago. China's submarines have dwindled from 100 to 60, and only three are modern designs recently imported from Russia. Most of their 50 or so surface ships are outdated. Given China's current financial problems, the Chinese army can modernize only gradually.

Some suggest that while the Chinese forces are being reduced in size, its quality, and therefore its combat strength, is on the rise. Be that as it may, military power is relative. Across the strait, Taiwan is receiving 340 state-of-the-art fighter planes, including 150 F-16s. The defense forces of South Korea and Japan are also modernizing, while maintaining their present force levels. Their advantage is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.


Washington justifies the privileges it has enjoyed since World War II by warning the Japanese about what it wrongly claims is an increase in Chinese military power and the threat posed by Nodon 1, North Korea's 600-mile-range missile. Simultaneously, it appeals to its own citizens and other Asian nations by claiming that American troops forestall any Japanese inclination to remilitarize. These arguments no longer acknowledge Asia's reality. Like other advanced countries, from the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, Japan committed the blunder of taking overseas territory through conquest. It paid dearly for this in World War II, but that precipitated changes that led to Japan's prosperity today. The other Asian nations, no longer inhibited by their colonial masters, have turned out to be good trading partners. Japan has no reason to change the status quo. Neither my former parliamentary colleagues nor any bureaucrats or military officers advocate outmoded ideas of expansionism.

It is egotistical for Americans to believe that the United States has done Japan a favor by defending it all these years by stationing its forces within the country. U.S. forces in Japan numbered 260,000 during the 1950s, 47,000 in 1990, and today stand at 37,000. Whenever more American soldiers leave, the Japanese see it as more good news.

The U.S. army stations only 1,500 personnel on Japan's main islands, primarily for supply and communications duties. Japan's land defense is left to its own forces, which include more than 1,000 tanks and 150,000 soldiers. From Tokyo's point of view, American forces have not really stood in harm's way. U.S. ground forces in Japan consist of only 14,000 marines based on Okinawa, one of the islands least vulnerable to Soviet attack during the Cold War. The Japanese are aware that the marines are standing by for possible deployment elsewhere in the region, namely the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

Since 1959 Japan's air defense has been entrusted to its own air force, which today has a powerful fighter fleet of 200 f-15js and 100 improved f-4es as well as 13 early airborne warning aircrafts and 26 Patriot air defense batteries. In addition, the ground self-defense force has a large number of medium- and short-range surface-to-air missiles. The U.S. Air Force's 54 f-15s, which are intended mainly for the defense of Korean air space, are safely tucked away on Okinawa.

For more than half a century the U.S. Navy's unchallenged superiority has benefited many countries by ensuring unmolested maritime traffic for all commercial shipping. The U.S. Navy has not, however, had the responsibility for protecting the Japanese commercial fleet. The defense of Japan's maritime commercial lanes was assigned to its maritime force, which today has nearly 60 escort ships, 16 submarines, and 100 p-3c patrol aircraft.

From the Cold War until today, the U.S. Navy has contributed indirectly to the prosperity and defense of Japan. The navy stations the Seventh Fleet flagship, a communications ship, an aircraft carrier and its nine escort ships at the Yokosuka port in Tokyo bay, and six other ships, including four amphibious vessels, at the Sasebo naval base on western Kyushu. But these warships were not exclusively for Japan's defense. They have been deployed in the western Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the Persian Gulf. Before 1990, however, it was clear that had the Soviet Union attempted to invade Japan, several U.S. aircraft carriers would have moved into Japanese waters and interdicted Soviet sea routes.


Nuclear deterrence is a different story. Both Russia and China, while weak in conventional military power, hold enough nuclear missiles to destroy Japan. It is legitimate to ask how Japan would counter nuclear blackmail. Tokyo, which accepted unconditionally the permanent extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1995 and renounced development of its own nuclear deterrent, has no choice but to depend on the nuclear umbrella of an ally. It is in the interest of the United States, so long as it does not wish to see Japan withdraw from the npt and develop its own nuclear deterrent, to maintain its alliance with Japan and continue to provide a nuclear umbrella. The United States is aware that Japan is its largest creditor, with a GDP close to 70 percent of its own. Moreover, it is no small advantage to U.S. foreign policy to maintain an alliance with a country that has a strong economic influence in Asia.

From Japan's perspective, friendly relations with the United States, the only remaining military superpower, are vital. Even if all common threats disappeared in the next century, the alliance would still be in Japan's interest. In line with this reasoning, if the U.S. Navy returns the two naval bases at Yokosuka and Sasebo to Japan, it should still be able to use Japanese ports and maintain its sea power in the western Pacific.


As the common threat presented by the Cold War diminishes, it is natural for the Japanese people to be skeptical of the U.S. military presence. The American military bases cost Japan $4 billion annually. If forgone rent and other revenues are included, Japan's annual burden jumps to $5 billion, at a time when the Japanese government faces a serious financial crisis. In terms of cost-sharing, Japan bears the largest burden among U.S. allies for maintaining U.S. forces, with Germany and South Korea paying $60 million and $290 million, respectively. By a 1995 Special Measures Agreement, Japan is committed through the year 2000 to pay the salaries of 24,000 civilian employees at the bases, the utility costs, including energy, water, and communications, and most of the construction expenses. This burden to Japanese taxpayers hangs like a darkening cloud over the future of the alliance. Japan should honor the 1995 agreement but put America on notice that it will not renew the agreement in 2000.

It is the business of statesmen, not bureaucrats or generals, to plan for the future. The U.S. military presence in Japan should fade with this century's end. The time has come for the leaders of Japan and the United States to discuss an alliance fit for the next century.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now