Summer 2003. High over Alaska, an Air Self-Defense Force fighter links up to a U.S. Air Force tanker’s refueling boom.
In the past, any in-flight refueling capability would have seemed to counter the notion of a defense-only posture, since this would extend the reach of Japan’s warplanes. But in a radical departure, the Self-Defense Forces plan to acquire tankers, and the ASDF jet over Alaska was part of a joint drill to in part prepare for this change.
Previously unthinkable, that Japan plans to operate such aircraft could be interpreted as proof positive that times are changing, albeit slowly.
The change can also be seen as symbolic. From one U.S. perspective, in matters of defense, economic rival Japan has for years been perceived as just tagging along behind, draining the U.S. of resources by forcing it to maintain a high-level presence in Japan, and ignoring American calls for it to assume more responsibility for its own defense.
The U.S. influence, particularly that pertaining to Japan’s postwar defense, has been a constant, but for years has also known its limits.
A prevalent U.S. view was that for political expediency, Japan deliberately constrained its defense commitments. This was done via abstruse interpretations of the war-renouncing Article 9 of its Constitution, which was effectively imposed on the country by the U.S. in the immediate aftermath of World War II.
Later, in 1954, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida reflected ruefully on his government’s inability to re-create a militarily strong Japan.
Only now, 50 years after the SDF was founded, is the current prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, forging fundamental changes in the nation’s defense posture in line with the new world order.
In hindsight, it could be argued that creating the SDF with built-in constraints would only backfire on the U.S.
Successive Japanese administrations in the 1970s and ’80s capitalized on these constraints, mixing enthusiastic calls to boost Japan’s defense contribution with empty gestures, as reluctance joined with a lack of political will to install the legal mechanism to enable change.
In defense terms, some likened Japan to a sleepy but far from toothless pit bull contentedly but legally chained up in its backyard.
The first indication of impending change occurred when U.S. voices joined a chorus of criticism after Japan failed to commit any personnel to the multinational coalition that ousted Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 and instead merely resorted to checkbook diplomacy, shelling out a monetary contribution equivalent to $13 billion.
The rebuke fostered a newfound sense of purpose. Japan sent Maritime Self-Defense Force minesweepers to the Persian Gulf in the wake of the 1991 war, and the following year deployed to Cambodia, in an SDF first, troops on a United Nations-led peacekeeping mission.
On the domestic front, the U.S. bases in Japan that played such vital roles during the Korean and Vietnam wars have not been scaled back as some would have hoped as a “peace dividend” following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Cold War may be over, but North Korea and Chinese tensions around the Taiwan Strait remain potential flash-points. Possible security threats to both Japan and the U.S. mean that the bases here, particularly those in Okinawa, have not lessened in strategic importance and undoubtedly will remain in some form or other even after a U.S. forces realignment.
The U.S. has meanwhile never wanted Japan to pursue a go-it-alone defense policy. When such a notion was floated briefly in the mid-1990s, it caused a good deal of unease in Washington.
But when North Korea test-fired a missile over Japan in 1998, Tokyo huddled even closer under the U.S. umbrella. The nation’s demonstrated vulnerability had a more immediate effect than any amount of presidential cajoling over the previous 50 years for Japan to play a greater role in its own defense.
Although postwar Japan has continued to upgrade its military capabilities, there had been a reluctance on the part of the U.S. to share military technology secrets with Japanese industry.
This has changed, too, as Japan in 1999 joined in the U.S. effort to create and deploy a global ballistic missile defense. The first phase of the system will be tested next year, and the stage is set for bilateral relations to enter a new dimension.
Later this year, Japan will be asked by Washington to install missile defense system radar sites on its soil — a move that may prove contentious domestically.
The current Japan-U.S. security pact permits the presence of U.S. bases for the defense of Japan and maintenance of security in East Asia, but these new sites are intended to upgrade U.S. defense capabilities.
December 2001. On the Indian Ocean, and in a marked redefined role, a fleet replenishment vessel of the Maritime Self-Defense Force refuels a U.S. Navy warship engaged in nonexercise duties for the first time.
Japan’s contribution to the war on terrorism, including its rear-area deployment of warships and air logistic support, marked the completion of a sea change in its cooperation with the U.S. beyond its own borders.
But what would the U.S. expect from the SDF, with all its hardware, if the unthinkable happened and America or Japan came under attack?
The current interpretation of the Constitution poses a stumbling block toward forming a clear-cut policy of collective defense, although Japan retains this right under international law.
Disaster relief, yes, and the dispatch of military units to assist in hazardous humanitarian efforts, yes, but an SDF rapid reaction force, even one ready at short notice to work under a U.N. mandate, will take more time to forge.
A more streamlined SDF, shed of some of its conventional combat elements but at the same time more sophisticated and engaged in surveillance and early-warning efforts with its principal ally, appears to be in the works.
But for the time being, a scaled-down U.S. military presence in Japan appears unlikely, even if the SDF were to become a more go-it-alone military — which some in the U.S. may be historically reluctant to see.
Summer 2014. A Japanese Navy — the “Self-Defense” label was peeled off five years ago — a Japanese helicopter lands on a U.S. Navy destroyer during an international exercise that coincides with celebrations commemorating the 60th anniversary of the founding of its predecessor, the SDF. Welcome aboard.