Fifty years have passed since January 19, 1960, when Japan and the United States signed the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. Among other things, the treaty pledges the United States to defend Japan and Japan to provide the U.S. armed forces with bases for the purpose of contributing to the security of Japan and the region. Last month, 50 years to the day after the Treaty was signed, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and U.S. President Barack Obama each issued a statement underscoring the importance of the alliance. Prime Minister Hatoyama committed Japan to working with the United States to further deepen the relationship and said he would "like to present the people of Japan with the results of this work before the end of this year."

Top officials from both sides also issued a joint statement the same day. In it, Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates credited the alliance with playing "an indispensable role in ensuring the security and prosperity of both the United States and Japan, as well as regional peace and stability."    

On my desk in Washington sits a silver cigarette box commemorating the signing of the treaty. It is engraved with the signatures of the Japanese officials involved in the deal: Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, Foreign Minister Aiichiro Fujiyama, and others, including my late father who was then the deputy director-general of the Treaties Bureau. Also appearing are the names of U.S. Ambassador to Japan Douglas MacArthur II and his staff. Cigarette boxes like this are largely a thing of the past, and any commemorative memento made today would, given Japan's growth over the last several decades, surely include the signatures of leaders in Washington as well. And so the box reminds me that Japan has come a long way.

The silver box also reminds me that Japanese-U.S. relations can be compared to a box in three senses. First, much like in a jack-in-the-box, if other countries try to attack Japan, a formidable defender may appear from inside. So long as the United States' commitment to Japan remains credible, other countries will refrain from attacking Japan. And in order for the commitment to be credible, it is crucial that the partners trust each other. In a security environment with a great deal of uncertainty and unpredictability, it is a widely shared sentiment that the Asia-Pacific region continues to need the presence of U.S. forces. That is why Secretary Clinton's speech in Hawaii in January and President Obama's speech in Tokyo last November, in which they reaffirmed the United States' intention to keep its presence in the Asia-Pacific region, were reassuring to observers across the region.  

The security alliance is like a box in another sense: it forms the exterior framework for the overall security relationship between Tokyo and Washington. And although the basic framework of the Japanese-U.S. alliance has not changed over the last 50 years, its contents have evolved significantly. This reflects the growing capability of Japan's Self-Defense Forces: Japanese-U.S. cooperation now includes such areas as missile defense and the sharing of military technology. Now is the time to deepen the alliance between Tokyo and Washington and make it even more encompassing, as Japanese and U.S. officials agreed in their joint anniversary statement. Furthermore, a firm bilateral alliance should serve as the foundation for enhanced cooperation in areas such as energy, climate change, nonproliferation, and development issues. It should also be noted that last November Japan made a new commitment to the assistance for Afghanistan: up to five billion U.S. dollars over about five years from 2009.

Finally, the security relationship is like a box in that it has many faces. There are many aspects to it--ground, maritime, and air capabilities; intelligence sharing; base cooperation; and others. If each face and each joint is firm, the box is solid. The overall alliance is in excellent shape, but one element--base cooperation--is constantly being tested. Yes, U.S. forces are indispensable to the region, and the contribution of American men and women in service to the peace and stability of the region is appreciated. But the U.S. presence there should not be compared to oxygen as some U.S. scholars have suggested. Bases, in fact, produce noise and other environmental concerns, may cause accidents, and create other burdens to the surrounding people. The host country and the deploying country have to be always mindful of these facts and try to lessen these burdens, especially when bases are situated in congested areas. As for the relocation of the Okinawa Futenma air station, Prime Minister Hatoyama has made it clear that the government will reach a conclusion that will gain the understanding of the people of Okinawa, as well as that of the United States, by the end of May. In January, Foreign Minister Okada reiterated this commitment to Secretary Clinton in Honolulu.

There is an old saying in Japan: "After the rain, the ground becomes more solid." I am convinced that this will be the case when it comes to the relationship between Japan and the United States. This is because there is no alternative for either country. Japan and the United States need each other. They have common security interests in maintaining regional stability, and they are leading developed economies that abide by international rules and norms. They share common values, such as freedom of speech, human rights, and multiparty politics--in short, real democracy. Last but not least, Japanese and Americans respect, trust, and like each other. About 80 percent of Japanese and 80 percent of Americans say they like the other, according to recent opinion polls conducted by Japan's Cabinet Office and Gallup. It is very rare for relations between any two countries to have all these features. And so it is incumbent on leaders in Tokyo and Washington to see to it that these be reflected in reality.

It is my conviction that three "no's" are essential in managing an alliance, and they are all the more relevant when it comes to current relations between Japan and the United States. First, there must be no surprises. Each side must be well informed about the other's intentions. Direct dialogues are essential. Second, there must be no overcomplication and no overpoliticization. Both countries should act discreetly where it is possible and appropriate. Third, there must be no taking each other for granted. Fifty years is a golden anniversary, and old couples can get too used to each other. Strong relationships require constant care.

As President Obama said in his statement on the 50th anniversary of the treaty, now Japan and the United States are about to deepen their alliance for the twenty-first century. May the next 50 years be as successful as the last.

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