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Why is Japanese officialdom so willing to tolerate troublesome U.S. military bases? In Okinawa, Tokyo constantly risks harmful local antagonism in its efforts to satisfy U.S. base demands there.

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara has made a very reasonable proposal to allow joint civilian use of the vast U.S. Yokota Air Base on the outskirts of Tokyo. But he, too, is stone-walled by the central government.

Recently I visited Yamato City near U.S. Atsugi Air Base, to talk to a local committee trying to organize an international friendship week there. Our talks were drowned out by the roar from U.S. low-flying exercises scheduled for precisely the same week.

U.S. night-time landing and takeoff exercises at Atsugi are even more brutal to local ears. But three decades of appeals from districts around the base have fallen on deaf ears in Tokyo.

Worse are the hard-nosed attitudes of the U.S. military. They refuse to do anything about noise pollution from Atsugi. But U.S. officials, from President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright down, have repeatedly protested air pollution from a single smokestack near the base.

Near my university is the vast Tama Hills recreation area, reserved exclusively for the use of the U.S. military and its friends. For years, this little-used “Little America” has operated like a U.S. colonial outpost, blocking nearby suburban development and badly needed road widening. At the entrance are large signs warning the local people that “military dogs” are patrolling the area to keep them out.

Chinese nationalists used to rile against the “No dogs or Chinese” signs allegedly used in the pre-1949 Shanghai concession areas. But at Tama Hills, it seems, even the dogs get priority (they are kept at Yokota and brought over when needed, I was told gruffly by a very unfriendly sentry).

The Philippine government had no problem asking the United States to leave when the bases there began to affront national pride. Japan does not lack pride. Why does it put up with these insults to its sovereignty?

One possible reason is typical Japanese reluctance (“enryo”) to attack a status quo once it is firmly in place. I felt something along these lines from the Yamato people when they politely declined my suggestion that they should tape the noises they have to endure, and play them back in real time and equal volume from loudspeaker trucks parked outside the homes and offices of the Tokyo bureaucrats who refuse to listen to their complaints.

But enryo does not oblige the Japanese government today to go out of its way to help pay for these bases. Tokyo says it pays because the bases are crucial to Japan’s security. But it’s the bases themselves that threaten that security, since the only plausible danger to Japan is from others reacting to the very real threats they see posed by those bases.

Japan’s hawks fuss over the threat posed by the recent intrusion of North Korean spy ships into waters near Japan’s Komatsu Air Base. Few seemed to note that the intrusion coincided with yet another U.S. threat to bomb North Korea, and under Japan’s military alliance with the U.S., the Komatsu Air Base would have been used to support that bombing.

U.S. academic Chalmers Johnson has recently used these pages to promote his theory that Japan lets the U.S. have the bases in exchange for trade gains from the U.S. But that is yesterday’s theory. Today, when Japan’s exports to the U.S. are heavily in surplus, more trade simply means more yen appreciation and more problems for the struggling Japanese economy as a result.

Johnson has warned elsewhere that if the U.S. does not do something about the bases, Japan may begin to move closer to China. But my guess says it is precisely because of China that Japan wants the U.S. to have the bases.

For years, pundits have assumed that close cultural and psychological links between the Japanese and the Chinese must inevitably lead to closer relations. Indeed, back in the early 1960s, when I was working on East Asian affairs in the Canberra bureaucracy, a constant U.S. theme was the perceived need to give Japan large trade and technology concessions, not in exchange for bases, but to stop it from moving closer to China.

In fact, Japan never intended to move closer to China in the first place. Deep down, most Japanese conservatives have long had an instinctive allergy against China. They cannot handle the idea of having to live alongside this much-larger nation that is every bit as talented as Japan is and with a richer civilization and much greater economic potential.

They know, even better than we do, the horrors they once inflicted on the Chinese. But to admit that and apologize properly would mean having to confront the allergy, something they cannot bring themselves to do.

Obscured by media fuss over recent remarks by former Defense Agency Vice Minister Shingo Nishimura suggesting Japan should consider nuclear armament, was an earlier and much more hawkish anti-West and anti-China speech by Nishimura to a defense research committee on Sept. 21 in which he frequently used the insulting name “Shina” to describe China.

“China threat” warnings are staple diet within the military establishment, with many openly published. Meanwhile Japan’s conservative diplomats have a consistent record of undercover moves to delay China’s emergence on the international scene, in their bid to keep the Asian power balance firmly in Japan’s favor.

In the early 1970s, Japan lobbied secretly and even more persistently than the U.S. to keep Beijing out of the United Nations. Japan’s rightwing is currently courting Taiwan and its pro-Japan president, Lee Teng-hui, even more fervently than does the pro-Taiwan lobby in the U.S. Earlier this century, Japan lost out badly when the U.S. turned pro-China and against Japan. Tokyo is determined that will never happen again. If bending over backward to encourage the U.S. military to stay in Japan is the price needed to keep the U.S. on side, it willingly pays that price.

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