New Emperor, old alliance

Japan is proud of its long history, tracing its imperial line to ancient times. Yet since the country’s devastating defeat last century, its key alliance has been with the United States. Duncan Bartlett asks how long that partnership will endure, given the power shift in Asia

On the first day of May, Japan entered a new Imperial era, officially known as Reiwa. Like many Japanese words, the concept of Reiwa is conveyed using Chinese characters. The ideograms suggest beauty and harmony.

However, the Japan Times notes that ‘one hundred people may interpret the name Reiwa in a hundred different ways’ – a reminder that Japan is a complex society, accustomed to polite but serious debate about its role in the world.

The Reiwa era started joyfully when Crown Prince Naruhito ascended to the Chrysanthemum throne, following the dignified abdication of his much-respected father, Emperor Akihito. Celebrations will continue when Japan hosts the Olympic Games next year.

Disaster prone

Yet Japan faces ever present dangers. Foremost among them are earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons. The last major natural disaster in 2011 claimed just under 20,000 lives. Another concern is the economy, which suffered six recessions during Emperor Akihito’s reign and struggles as the population ages. Nevertheless, Japan remains a rich country and its economy is the third largest in the world.

The debate about defence and security is informed by the growing power of China and the threat from North Korea. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a conservative and a nationalist, yet holds to a multilateralist approach.

He is determined to maintain Japan’s long-standing alliance with the United States. He also hopes to transform the country’s Self Defence Force (SDF) into a regular army, with the capacity to fight abroad in support of its allies.

Compared to China, Japan’s defence budget is small at $47 billion

This goal clashes with the pacifist spirit of Japan’s constitution and is therefore politically controversial. It also challenges the rather passive view towards security and defence which is widespread in Japan, based upon long-held assumptions that China would never attack and if it were to do so, America would forcefully deal with the enemy.

The US relationship

Japan has hosted US military bases since its defeat in the Second World War. There are around fifty thousand US military personnel in the country, mainly based in Tokyo and on the island of Okinawa.

None of Japan’s post-war prime ministers has challenged the US presence and, for the most part, troops are accepted by local people, although there are complaints about misdemeanours, such as bar-room brawls and the occasional mistreatment of women.

Fatal accidents are reminders of the perils facing US personnel based in Asia. Last year, scores of US sailors died in collisions with cargo tankers in the Pacific Ocean.

Grant Newsham, a former colonel in the US Marine Corps who served as a liaison officer to the SDF, complains of Japan’s ‘pathological dependence’ on the United States for its security.

‘The Japanese like to say, “The Americans are the spear and we’re the shield.” Well, in battle, the spear gets bloodied and the shield doesn’t. It’s the Americans who are expected to do the dying on Japan’s behalf.’

Colonel Newsham suggests that, despite notable progress in recent years, Japan’s forces are ill-prepared for combat and that their air, navy and ground troops work poorly as a combined service team. ‘They do not even possess radios that can talk to each other,’ he claims.

BONDING: Shinzo Abe (l) and Trump during a game of golf in Palm Beach, Florida, in April last year
BONDING: Shinzo Abe (l) and Trump during a game of golf in Palm Beach, Florida, in April last year

‘Japan receives the support of the world’s most powerful military for a pittance. Just consider the defence coverage that the Americans provide.  Japan pays about $3-5 billion a year in direct support, depending on how you calculate it. But to replace the coverage of the Americans with a domestic army would cost at least $25 billion a year and it would mean a huge increase in the size of the Japanese military.

‘It is this which has created a pathologic dependency – like a guy on a trust fund who isn’t too eager to go out and work for a living,’ Colonel Newsham told Asian Affairs.

The cost of defence

In China, the Communist Party generally sets its defence budget in line with its economic growth target and the Chinese economy is currently picking up steam – despite the trade war with the United States.

This year, China has announced an increase of 7.5 percent to $174 billion, although many observers believe the actual expenditure is much higher.Compared to China, Japan’s defence budget is small at $47 billion, although this is a record figure for the country.

America’s defence spending is on an altogether much larger scale and sometimes amazes even President Trump. He used a Tweet last year to summarise his feelings: ‘The US spent $716 billion on defence this year. Crazy!’

The question of a referendum

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now running out of time to change the status of the Self Defence Force into an army with the capacity to fight internationally. The constitution, drawn up in 1947 bans Japan from possessing war potential, although its interpretation is a hot political issue.

Constitutional change requires a majority in parliament, which should be possible, given the dominance of Mr Abe’s LDP party in both houses of the Diet. However, it also needs agreement through a referendum. Yet public opinion is divided on the issue, so it is doubtful that the government will press for a vote it could end up losing. Mr Abe’s term in office must conclude by September 2021.

Japan’s former enemies, China and South Korea, oppose a constitutional change which would empower the military, due to their bitter memories of being attacked and occupied. However, Colonel Newsham believes this is a rather cynical view, given the modest size of the Japanese Self Defence Force. ‘It is not a threat to anybody,’ he says.

But rather than provoking any more diplomatic trouble with its Asian neighbours, Japan will probably stick to its existing defence arrangements, at least for the next few years. China’s president Xi will be welcomed to Tokyo next month and Mr Abe will continue his regular meetings with President Trump. And when the Olympic Games takes place next summer, talk of weapons and war will be temporarily banished from the arena.

Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs and a former BBC Correspondent in Tokyo

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