Japan: The Quandary of Depending on Foreigners for Security

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Japan aspires to a prominent position on the world stage in accordance with it eminent economic power. But is economic clout by itself sufficient to gain its desired standing?

Japan, composed of the four main islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku, is the world’s third largest economy. Japan’s territory, however, is far more encompassing. From the tail end of Kyushu stretches a semi-tropical archipelago southwest across the Pacific Ocean until the northeastern tip of Taiwan. The Ryukyus archipelago is commonly referred to as Okinawa, as Okinawa is the main island of the chain.

To the east of the Ryukyus is the Ogasawara archipelago, where Iwo Jima is situated. The island has iconic status in US military history as the site of the Battle of Iwo Jima where Joe Rosenthal’s triumphant photo of the raising of the Stars and Stripes was taken.

Shortly after the Battle of Iwo Jima, the US dropped two atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Pacific phase of World War II drew to a close. Japan was defeated.

The US occupied Japan after the war until 1952.  Okinawa, however, was held by US military until 1972. Some might argue that it is still under US occupation.

For a country to enjoy sovereignty, it must exert control over its entire territory.

— Ecuadorian deputy defense minister Miguel Carvajal speaking at the International Conference for the Elimination of Foreign Military Bases, 5 March 2007

About 20 percent of the land mass in Okinawa is reserved for the US military. The militarization of the island has consequences for the environment, access to beaches, noise pollution, and conflicts between military personnel and local citizens. Poor relations came to a monstrous head in 1995 after a 12-year-old Okinawan girl was kidnapped, beat, and raped by three US servicemen. Admiral Richard Macke, commander of US Pacific forces was forced to resign for callous comments he made surrounding the crime.

The tensions remain, and Okinawans continue to demonstrate against the US bases.

Gavan McCormack described the frustrations and interplay Okinawans find themselves caught in: between US military objectives on the island and the political machinations among political representatives in municipal, prefectural, and a remote central government in Tokyo.

The ongoing friction among the parties exposes some key contradictions.

First, the US military occupation imposed a pacifist constitution on Japan. Article 9 was a cornerstone of the 1947 constitution.

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

In general, the Japanese people support the pacifism of the constitution, but in later years the US has pressured Japan to take a larger militaristic role outside of Japan. Such measures are unsupported by the Japanese people. The government under right-wing prime minister Shinzo Abe has nonetheless tried to provide for an expanded Japanese military role.

Second, a crisis of democracy is revealed. Clearly, the anti-militaristic resolve of Japanese people is being trammeled by militarists and politicians. As well, the aspirations of the Okinawan people are being dictated by outsiders. Democracy is being shunted aside in deference to military prerogatives.

Third, in marginalizing the sovereign will of the Okinawan people to US military base demands, Japan’s appears to undercut its own sovereignty claims. How does this play against Japan’s outstanding territorial issues with Russia over four Northern Territories, with South Korea over a small island (Dokdo in Korean/Takeshima in Japanese) in the sea between the two countries, and with China and Taiwan over some islets near the Ryukyu chain (Diaoyu in Chinese/Senkaku Shoto in Japanese)?

Historically the Ryukyus were independent, paid tribute to China, and later paid to tribute to Japan before becoming annexed by Japan.

Is Japan harming its own sovereignty? By continuing to host US bases, by rejigging the core tenets of its US-imposed constitution when the US demands, and by disregarding the will of a section of its population—in so doing, Japan casts the appearance of undermining its own sovereignty.

Finally, the drift toward militarism raises questions. Japan skirted the intentions of the pacifist constitution with its Self Defense Forces and their later participation in overseas missions. Recent proposed constitutional amendments to allow for greater Japanese SDF cooperation with the US, however, have been stymied by Japanese public opposition.

Since the state’s purpose is to defend the territory and the citizenry, is it not a contradiction to victimize the people they are sworn to protect? The Japanese citizens of Okinawa are being victimized for security.

Japan openly covets a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Yet as long as Japan continues to rely on the US for defense and relinquishes control over parts of its territory, its independence is, at least, partially compromised. This is hardly reassuring to other permanent UN Security Council members whose votes Japan must secure for its own membership, such as China and Russia who do not appreciate Japan serving as an offshore military base for the US.

  • First published at American Herald Tribune.
  • Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at gmail.com. Read other articles by Kim.