Commentary / Japan

Remembering the role Japan played in the Forgotten War

by Michael Macarthur Bosack

Next week will mark the 66th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice. On July 27, 1953, representatives from North Korea and United Nations Command — the multinational coalition formed in 1950 to counter North Korean aggression — signed the agreement and brought an end to three years of fighting that claimed at least 2.8 million lives, both military and civilian. Despite its brutal cost, the war earned the nickname the “Forgotten War” outside of the Korean Peninsula and has been treated as an epilogue to World War II, both at the time of the conflict and in historical memory afterward.

Among the oft-overlooked features of the Forgotten War was the role of Japan, a nation still reconciling its defeat in World War II. Given the recent deterioration of ties between Japan and South Korea, it’s worth remembering Japan’s contribution to the coalition effort in the Korean War, if for no other reason than to recognize how deeply intertwined these two countries’ security interests are in the modern era. The stability of the Korean Peninsula has and will continue to be critical to Japan, and Japan still stands to play a vital role in support of coalition operations against North Korean aggression if diplomacy should fail as it did nearly 70 years ago.

In 1950, Japan was an occupied nation still struggling to regain its sovereignty and to rebuild itself in the aftermath of defeat. There was no formal military, in part because of the 1947 Constitution that formally renounced war and the maintenance of military forces, though there was an embryonic naval force in the form of the Maritime Safety Agency established in 1947. At the behest of the Occupation authorities, the agency started its operations with former Imperial Navy minesweepers clearing Japanese ports after the war. Meanwhile, the Japanese economy was flagging, still seeking to regain its footing after the dissolution of the old zaibatsu (family-owned conglomerate) system and the transition from military industry to commercial goods.

When North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, the U.S. Occupation forces were among the first to answer the call. A major question for the Occupation leadership was what to do with Japan: Few were ready for it to remilitarize, but the country’s strategic potential vis-a-vis the Korean Peninsula was too important to leave untapped. The answer was to include Japan in the war effort, though not under the auspices of the U.N. Command structure that was formed shortly after the declaration of an armed attack against South Korea.

Japan was not a formal U.N. “Sending State,” but the absence of that designation did not prevent it from being a critical component of U.N. Command operations. Japan served four major functions during the war.

First, it was home to U.N. Command headquarters and Far East Command, the command and control centers for the broader war effort.

Second, the country provided a staging area for troops flowing into the Korean Peninsula, a rear support base for logistics and medical functions, and airfields for the prosecution of U.N. air operations into Korea.

Third, Japan provided logistics and services support to U.N. forces based in or transiting through Japan. This included provision of utilities, domestic transport of goods, medical services, and such functions as embalming and processing the many war dead.

Finally, the Maritime Safety Agency deployed minesweepers and other vessels to support the war effort directly, though it did so under independent orders from the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet and outside of the direct U.N. command and control structure.

It is also worth mentioning that the Korean War catalyzed the creation of the National Police Reserve, the predecessor to the Ground Self-Defense Force. Occupation authorities ordered the formation of this contingent of about 100,000 uniformed Japanese personnel to supplement Allied military functions in Japan. This in turn freed up coalition resources for use in the Korean War.

None of this is to say that all (or even many) Japanese were enthusiastic participants. Much like the current relationship between Japan and South Korea, the situation was messy, complicated by myriad political interests and subject to American influence. For some Japanese, the Korean War was simply a doorway to regaining sovereignty (which Japan obtained with the 1951 San Francisco Treaty that ended the Occupation in 1952). Others coveted the economic boom that would come with the increased demand for Japanese goods and services to support the war effort. Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida captured that sentiment in his infamous remark that the Korean War was a “gift from the gods.”

There was also Japan’s need to preserve stability in the region while satisfying its primary security guarantor, the United States. The perceived threat of Communist-driven conflict spilling across borders loomed in Japan just as it did elsewhere in Asia. Meanwhile, a Japanese government trying to establish an enduring relationship with its American occupiers and, later, allies needed to mind U.S. needs and wants.

Despite the complexity of circumstances and interests underwriting Japanese support, there was an undeniable and critical contribution to the Korean War effort. This contribution to security on the Korean Peninsula has not gone away, nor have the conditions that will continue to bind the regional neighbors.

A deterioration of security on the Korean Peninsula would present an even greater crisis for Japan than in the 1950s given North Korea’s nuclear and missile development. Further, the fact that the Japan-U.S. alliance is still a pillar of Tokyo’s security designs means support for U.S. operations in the event of a Korean conflict will demand Japanese involvement.

This is all reflected in Japan’s security posture. Just as U.N. Command still exists on the Korean Peninsula to sustain peace and to respond should deterrence fail, so does U.N. Command Rear headquartered at Yokota Air Base. To that end, Japan hosts seven U.N.-designated bases, several of which have been the home port for recent sanctions-monitoring missions against North Korea. Also, among the many documented functions of the U.S.-Japan alliance is responding to crises and contingencies on the Korean Peninsula.

The point of this remembrance is not to laud the Japanese or to excuse the other sources of animosity between Japan and South Korea; rather, it is simply to recall that the last time war broke out on the Korean Peninsula, Japan was an integral part of the effort to drive back the North Korean invaders. The anniversary of the Korean War Armistice offers all parties a reminder that should diplomacy fail — should Kim Jong Un be more Kim Il Sungian in his enterprise than many officials and observers hope — circumstances may once again demand Japanese support for a coalition effort meant to return peace and stability to the Korean Peninsula.

For Japanese and South Koreans, this anniversary ought to present a reminder that back-and-forth erosion of trust is in neither of their self-interests. For Americans, it is a call for action in mediating tensions between its mutual allies for the sake of regional security, if nothing else.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He was the deputy chief of government relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces Japan and is a former officer in the U.S. Air Force.