First of a six-part series looking back on 50 years of Japanese-U.S. relations since the 1951 signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty and the bilateral security treaty.
Staff writer Nobuo Matsunaga was a young diplomat in Paris when Japan signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which officially ended its state of war with the United States and 47 other countries on Sept. 8, 1951.

The treaty, and a subsequent security alliance with the U.S., set the direction for postwar diplomacy. Now that the 50th anniversary is approaching, experts say Japan should take greater diplomatic initiatives on its own, instead of mainly following the lead of the U.S.

“All the Japanese in Paris heard with great joy and excitement the news that we finally had regained our sovereignty on that day,” recalled Matsunaga, who climbed to the top rung of the diplomatic corps as vice foreign minister and ambassador to the U.S.

After being released from the Imperial navy in August 1945 following Japan’s surrender in World War II, Matsunaga joined the Foreign Ministry in April 1946 as one of a new breed of postwar diplomats. “I wanted to do something to contribute to rebuilding Japan after the war,” Matsunaga, 78, said. “Looking at the ruins of the war, I realized that the only way resource-poor Japan could rebuild itself was through cooperation with the international community.”

He said his belief at that time proved correct, as Japan has enjoyed peace and economic prosperity in the 50 years since.

Japan, under Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, signed the peace treaty with 48 non-Soviet bloc countries. It also signed a security treaty with the U.S. that offered protection for Japan in exchange for allowing the presence of U.S. military bases. “We must remember that it was Japan’s own choice to rely on the U.S for its defense by concluding the security treaty and to make Japanese-U.S. relations the cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy,” Matsunaga said.

“Getting a security guarantee was indeed the correct choice, because Japan could concentrate all its resources on rebuilding its economy,” he said.

Like Matsunaga, many experts believe that siding with the U.S. and becoming a part of the Western bloc was the best choice at that time.

However, the security arrangement also effectively obliged Japan to follow the U.S. in its overall foreign policy over the past half century, and experts say it is now time for the nation to play a more proactive role in the international community.

“The byproduct of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty was a psychological subordination of Japanese leaders that prevented Japan from anything without Washington’s initiative,” said Atsushi Kusano, a professor of international relations at Keio University.

Japan’s normalization of diplomatic relations with China in 1972 was symbolic of this mind-set, Kusano said.

In July 1971, U.S. President Richard Nixon made a surprise announcement that he would visit China the following year, ending 20 years of hostility toward China dating from the Korean War. Japan was never consulted about the policy shift.

Seven months after Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972, Japan quickly followed suit when Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka visited Beijing and normalized relations with the communist nation, cutting off ties with Taiwan in the process.

In 1952, Japan, under pressure from Washington, had recognized Taiwan as the legitimate government of China at a time when many Japanese leaders were hoping to improve ties with the mainland.

“Japan could not have normalized relations with China if the U.S. had not made the move,” Kusano said.

Satoshi Morimoto, a professor of international relations at Takushoku University and a former Foreign Ministry official, said U.S. policy in Asia after World War II has been to maintain its hegemony to prevent any rival power from rising, whether that be China or Japan.

“The U.S. allowed Japan to formulate its Asia policy only within the context of its own Asia policy, so Japan would not challenge American hegemony,” Morimoto said.

Kusano said that when regional cooperative groupings were created, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and the ASEAN Regional Forum, Washington made sure it became a part of the groups so there would be no Asian-only regional body that included Japan but not the U.S.

From time to time, Japan has made policy decisions that deviated from Washington’s, but not to the extent that they seriously harmed bilateral ties.

After the oil crisis of 1973, Japan departed from the U.S. position of supporting Israel and adopted a pro-Arab stance, as the Japanese economy relied heavily on oil from the Middle East.

By the 1970s, oil had replaced coal as the most important source of energy for Japan. The sharp rise in oil prices caused panic in Japan, including the hoarding of toilet paper and soap.

“The shift to a pro-Arab stance was a very pragmatic policy to protect Japan’s economic interests,” Kusano said. Japan’s continued economic assistance to Myanmar after the 1988 military coup is another example.

Tokyo suspended fresh loans to Myanmar after the coup but continues to give grants and technical assistance, saying it wanted to engage the military junta with dialogue to help its transition to democracy. Japan claims its historically close ties with the country are also behind the aid.

Washington has denounced the junta for violating human rights and has frozen aid and new investments in the country. But Motofumi Asai, a professor at Meiji Gakuin University and also a former diplomat, said Japan was able to continue aiding Myanmar because the U.S. government does not have much interest in the country.

“If the U.S. was actively involved in the country, Japan could not have taken its own path,” he said.

When Asia was swept by a financial crisis that began in 1997, Japan, as the major economic power in the region, extended large-scale aid to help other parts of Asia survive the turmoil.

However, Tokyo’s idea to create the Asian Monetary Fund — a pool of money to deal with future financial crises in the region — was scrapped due to strong opposition from the U.S., which apparently feared the new organization could undermine the power of the International Monetary Fund, which it heavily influences.

Matsunaga said the alliance with the U.S. will continue to be the main pillar of Japan’s diplomacy. Despite the end of the Cold War, the rise in regional and ethnic conflicts around the globe and lingering uncertainties in Asia, including emerging threats from North Korea and China, prompted Japanese and U.S. policymakers to reaffirm their security alliance in the 1990s.

“There are still uncertainties in Asia, and it is Japan’s responsibility to maintain the alliance with the U.S. for Asia-Pacific peace and stability,” he said. “The alliance works as a deterrence to regional threats.”

But it does not mean Japan should always follow U.S. foreign policy, Matsunaga said.

“As the world’s second-largest economy, Japan must take more international initiatives, such as on the Kyoto Protocol,” he said.

After President George W. Bush’s announcement in March that the U.S. would pull out of the global warming protocol, European leaders increased pressure on Japan to ratify the treaty even without the U.S.

Japan remains noncommittal and insists that efforts should be continued to bring the U.S. back into the pact, claiming the absence of the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases would undermine the treaty’s effectiveness. But Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has so far apparently been unable to get Bush to change his mind.

“It is the right policy to seek U.S. participation, but Japan must present compromise proposals (to pull Washington back into the pact),” Matsunaga said.

At the U.N. climate change talks in Bonn in July, participants agreed on core rules to implement the Kyoto Protocol, paving the way for its enforcement in the target year 2002. The deal was reached after European nations offered major concessions to Japan and other countries.

Jitsuo Tsuchiyama, a professor of international relations at Aoyama Gakuin University, said now that Japan has agreed to the revised rules, it should ratify the treaty even if Washington still rejects it.

“Of course, it is better to have the U.S. in the framework. But if Japan backs down, it means the death of the Kyoto Protocol,” Tsuchiyama said.

“The time has passed for Japan to hide behind the U.S.,” he said. “We must speak with our own voice, and think what Japan can do for the world.”

Tsuchiyama said Japan should use the alliance with the U.S. to engage other American allies in the region, such as South Korea and Australia, in multilateral cooperation. For example, Japan, the U.S. and Australia can cooperate in supporting the nation-building process in newly independent East Timor and help Indonesia become more democratic, he said.

“When the U.S. is taking a unilateral approach on a number of issues, such as the missile defense plan, the Kyoto Protocol and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Japan should take a leading role in multilateral efforts, especially in the Asia-Pacific region,” Tsuchiyama said.

Keio University’s Kusano argued that for Japan to play a regional leadership role, it should lift its self-imposed ban on collective defense and on full-scale participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations.

“By bearing more of the international security burden, Japan will have more say in diplomacy,” Kusano said.

At the same time, Japan should continue playing an active role in economic cooperation in Asia and elsewhere as a global economic power, especially in such areas as education and environmental protection, he said.

But before exerting leadership in Asia, Japan must clearly accept blame for its past aggression and harsh colonial rule in other parts of Asia and erase fears about a resurgence of nationalism, said Asai of Meiji Gakuin University.

“Bitter memories of Japan’s militarism are still fresh in Asia,” he said. “Unless Japan clears out its historical problems, it cannot play a leadership role in the region.”

Japan-U.S. security relations

Following are major events marking Japanese and U.S. diplomatic and security relations over the past half-century.

June 1950: North Korean troops invade South Korea, starting the Korean War.

September 1951: Japan signs a peace treaty with 48 nations in the Western bloc, and a bilateral security treaty with the United States, ending the Allied Occupation.

July 1954: The Defense Agency and the Self-Defense Forces are established.

January 1960: Japan signs a revised security treaty with the U.S., clarifying its obligation to defend Japan.

June 1960: Opponents of the security treaty storm the Diet. The turmoil over revising the treaty prompts President Dwight D. Eisenhower to cancel a visit to Japan.

February 1965: The U.S. starts bombing North Vietnam, sending bombers from a base in Okinawa.

January 1968: Prime Minister Eisaku Sato declares a nonnuclear policy barring the possession, production and import of nuclear weapons.

July 1971: President Richard M. Nixon announces his plan to visit China in 1972.

May 1972: The U.S. returns Okinawa to Japan.

September 1972: Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka visits China, normalizes relations with Beijing.

November 1978: Japan and the U.S. establish guidelines for bilateral defense cooperation and conduct their first joint military training.

May 1981: Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki visits Washington and announces the SDF will cover sea lanes of up to 1,000 nautical miles from Japan.

January 1983: Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone visits the U.S. and reaffirms the importance of the security alliance.

December 1989: The U.S. and Soviet Union declare the end of the Cold War.

January 1991: The Persian Gulf War breaks out. Japan gives $13 billion in financial aid to the U.S.-led multinational force and sends MSDF minesweepers to the region after the war.

June 1992: Japan enacts a law enabling SDF personnel to take part in U.N.-led peacekeeping operations.

September 1995: Opposition to U.S. bases erupts in Okinawa after a 12-year-old girl is raped by three U.S. servicemen.

April 1996: Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and President Bill Clinton issue a joint declaration calling for a strengthened security alliance.

December 1996: The Japan-U.S. Special Action Committee on Okinawa submits its final report, outlining the return and consolidation of 11 U.S. military facilities in Okinawa.

September 1997: Japan and the U.S. agree on the revised guidelines for bilateral defense cooperation, under which Japan will support U.S. forces during emergencies around Japan.

September 1998: Japan and the U.S. agree to jointly research the Theater Missile Defense plan.

May 2001: President George W. Bush announces a new missile defense strategy that could involve Japan.

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