The U.S. Forces Japan headquarters marked its 50th anniversary with a ceremony Monday at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo.

“Our security alliance has matured,” Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright, commander of U.S. Forces Japan, said in his address to the ceremony. “We saw this clearly in how Japan and the United States worked together before, during and after North Korea’s provocative missile launches in July 2006.”

The first headquarters was activated at Fuchu Air Station in Fuchu, also in western Tokyo, on July 1, 1957, replacing the Far East Command. It moved in 1974 to Yokota Air Base, which covers parts of six municipalities in western Tokyo, namely Fussa, Musashi Murayama, Tachikawa, Akishima, Hamura and Mizuho.

The headquarters was established just as the Cold War was intensifying and three months before the Soviet Union sent shock waves through the world with the launch of Sputnik. Five months earlier, Nobusuke Kishi, grandfather of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, had taken the helm of the Japanese government. He would later set Japan’s course as a member of the Western camp by revising the Japan-U.S. security treaty in 1960.

U.S. Forces Japan traces its origin to the Occupation that administered Japan following the country’s defeat in World War II in 1945, beginning with the arrival of Gen. Douglas MacArthur at Atsugi airfield in Kanagawa Prefecture as Supreme Allied Commander.

The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 made Japan an important strategic base for the U.S. in the Cold War confrontation. When Japan regained its independence with the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951, the two countries concluded a bilateral security treaty the same year that allowed U.S. service members to continue to be stationed in the country.

Under Kishi’s initiative, the treaty was revised in 1960 to beef up the military cooperation between the two countries.

The original treaty allowed the U.S. military to use areas and facilities in Japan, but the U.S. was not clearly obliged to defend Japan in wartime. The revised treaty obliges the two countries to jointly defend Japan by recognizing an armed attack on Japan as a common danger to the peace and safety of both countries.

The 1960 treaty says Japan will allow the U.S. forces to use areas and facilities “for the purpose of contributing to the security of Japan and maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East.”

The Japanese government has officially interpreted “the Far East” as the area around Japan north of the Philippines, including Taiwan and South Korea. But opposition forces and antimilitary activists have criticized the use of Japan as a permanent staging area for U.S. forces being dispatched to Vietnam, Iraq and other parts of the world.

The presence of the U.S. military in Japan has long been a focus of debate between the ruling and opposition camps, in particular the heavy burden placed on Okinawa, which was the scene of a fierce ground battle at the end of the war and remained under U.S. rule until 1972.

But with the end of the Cold War and the emergence of regional threats such as North Korea, an increasing number of Japanese today appear to have a positive view of the role of the U.S. military in Japan.

According to a government poll last year on security policies, 76.2 percent of 3,000 respondents said Japan should defend itself by maintaining “the Japan-U.S. security system as it stands now,” together with the Self-Defense Forces.

The same question garnered a positive response from only 40.7 percent of the respondents in a similar 1972 poll.

Last year, Tokyo and Washington reached an agreement on the largest-ever realignment of U.S. forces in Japan. Under the plan, the SDF’s Air Defense Command, now located in an ASDF facility in Fuchu, will relocate to Yokota Air Base in fiscal 2010 to further step up interoperability of the SDF and the U.S. military.

“This move will ensure close coordination between our respective Ballistic Missile Defense command and control systems,” Wright told guests at the anniversary ceremony, including Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma.

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