international analysis and commentary

US-Japan relations after the earthquake: opportunity rising from disaster


Since the March 11th earthquake and tsunami, US personnel has systematically conducted relief operations in cooperation with Japanese civil society and the Self-Defense Forces (SDF).

Assistance from other countries should not be downplayed, but bilateral exercises and training in civil-military operations between the SDF and the US military have made a real difference. Servicemen from both countries joined hands in transporting goods and materials to disaster-stricken areas and conducted joint search-and-rescue operations for missing people. All this happened within hours of the earthquake.

The US operation, named tomodachi – Japanese for friend – may have helped to redefine the way Japanese view the stationing of almost 50,000 US military personnel on their territory.

What used to be seen as the unnecessary stationing of US troops on Japanese soil, turned out to be a lifesaver for Japan. The Japanese have long had an ambivalent attitude to the US military presence on their soil. On the one hand, it has been the strategic bedrock of the bilateral alliance. On the other, the stationing of US military personnel has been one of the greatest causes of friction between Washington and Tokyo.

The host nation support otherwise known as “solidarity budget” amounts to more than $2 billion a year for the Japanese taxpayer. Furthermore, cases of petty crimes, rape and fatal accidents reinforce negative stereotypes of US troops stationed in Japan. By right, US servicemen benefit from extra-territoriality allowing them immunity from prosecution.

The biggest troubles have come from the military bases in Okinawa – where the US houses almost half of its contingent – and in particular Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. Since 1996, Japanese governments have been negotiating the relocation and closure of this airbase. Some progress has been made, such as an agreement to move some troops to Guam. In reality, however, not much has changed.

Two political victims in the last year show how complex the bargaining for the relocation has been. In the first instance, Japan’s former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was forced to resign in June of 2010 after failing to deliver on his promise to move the Futenma airbase. Hatoyama, Chairman of the Democratic Party of Japan, had come to power with a landslide election on a platform to redefine US military presence in Okinawa. However confronted with internal political squabbling, opposition from long-standing bureaucrats and reticence from the US, he was forced to back down. 

The US government didn’t do much better. The day before the earthquake and tsunami struck, Kevin Maher, Director of Japan Affairs at the State Department, was fired after his inappropriate comments towards the Okinawan people were leaked. Maher had described the Okinawan people as “masters of manipulation and extortion” during an off-the-record lecture in Washington.

These episodes highlight the frustration and anxiety towards base relocation issues for both sides of the alliance.

The March earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis offer a chance to redefine the scope of civil-military cooperation between the US and its host nation. US military participation in Japan is defined by the US-Japan Treaty of 1960 – which, incidentally, does not require the US to carry out rescue activities when natural disasters hit Japan.

The decision to conduct joint relief efforts reflects the mutual trust both countries have forged over many years, a bond enhanced by Hillary Clinton’s visit to Tokyo in mid-April. She solemnly declared, “The US is helping Japan because this country means a great deal to many Americans […]. The US and Japan are friends.” Beyond the rhetoric, this is a widespread sentiment in the US – something not fully understood in Europe.

Japan was equally welcoming towards the US, allowing the Secretary of State a rare chance to meet Emperor Akihito and his wife Empress Michiko. The show of solidarity was epitomized by the announcement of measures to rebuild Japan, such as the creation of a public-private partnership for reconstruction to be jointly managed by the US Chamber of Commerce and Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation). Furthermore, for the medium-long term restoration of Japan’s economy, the US will support Japan in the multilateral negotiations for entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, a free-trade area essential to boost Japan’s crucial export production.

As normality slowly resumes, the Japanese public will remember the efforts and hard work of US service personnel stationed on their island. This is not to say the negotiations over relocating airbase Futenma in Okinawa or moving US troops to Guam will be resolved any quicker. But this terrible natural disaster has displayed the friendly and adaptive nature of the US-Japan alliance.