The 60th anniversary of the revised Japan-U.S. security treaty fell on Jan. 19. When it was revised in 1960, popular protests against the treaty gathered momentum. Massive demonstrations surrounded the Diet day after day, and a female student was crushed to death in the disturbance. Even though the revised treaty was eventually approved by the Diet, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi was forced to resign and a scheduled visit by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower was canceled.

What happened 60 years ago may appear to belong to another age, but it’s still worthwhile to get a general overview of Japan’s national security challenges from a historical perspective.

Since ancient times, governments have made enormous efforts to ensure the safety of their societies, mainly through the buildup of military power and the development of alliances.

World War I, however, proved that such a policy alone cannot prevent war. This led to the creation of the League of Nations and the birth of the concept of collective security. But the League of Nations had fundamental defects, the foremost of which was the refusal of the United States — then rising to become the greatest power in the world — to join. The end result was that the body was unable to prevent World War II.

The United Nations was established after the Second World War with more powerful functions. But since its five most powerful participants — the permanent members of the Security Council — failed to act in concert as the Cold War erupted, the collective security system under the U.N. did not function as intended — and still does not even today. As a consequence, collective security and individual security exist side by side in today’s world.

Historically speaking, aggression takes place for two reasons. One is when a country is endowed with fertile land, rich natural resources or rare global commodities (such as tea, pepper or silk). The other is when a country has geopolitical value (for example, Gibraltar at the gateway to the Mediterranean Sea).

Japan was able to maintain a policy of seclusion under the Tokugawa shogunate because it had almost exhausted its supply of silver — a global commodity — and because the Japanese archipelago had no geopolitical value.

Commodore Matthew Perry came to Japan in the mid-19th century because the U.S. started competing with Britain for access to the Chinese market. The steam frigate USS Mississippi, on which Perry sailed, had departed from the East Coast. The U.S. needed to explore the Pacific route as it had no chances of winning the competition with the United Kingdom if it took the Atlantic route due to the extra freight cost. In other words, Japan’s geopolitical value increased amid the U.S.-U.K. rivalry over China.

Abe Masahiro, who was the chief senior councilor in the Tokugawa shogunate at the time of Perry’s arrival, decided to open Japan’s doors because two great innovations — the Industrial Revolution and the formation of nation states — had put Japan far behind the Western powers.

Abe sought to catch up with them by drawing up a grand design comprising three pillars — opening the country, making it rich and beefing up its militarily strength.

The Meiji government that toppled the Tokugawa shogunate inherited Abe’s grand design and succeeded in rapidly catching up with the Western powers. But Japan became arrogant in the process. It abandoned the international cooperation that had resulted from opening up the country and rushed along the path of building up its industrial and military power. The end result was Japan’s crushing defeat in World War II.

In postwar Japan, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida chose two of Abe’s three agenda items — international cooperation and economic development — and replaced the military buildup with the Japan-U.S. alliance.

The start of the Cold War raised the geopolitical value of Japan once again. The archipelago became a bulwark against the advance of the Soviet Union and China into the Pacific Ocean and turned the nation into an unsinkable aircraft carrier for the U.S. This was the fundamental factor behind Japan’s miraculous postwar reconstruction.

The value of the Japanese archipelago goes down when the U.S. becomes friendly with China and Russia, so the end of the Cold War reduced Japan’s geopolitical importance. That reality should be the basis for contemplating Japan’s security policy.

There is a group in Japan that insists on a Japan-first policy. Its members propose that Japan build up its own military power without relying on alliances. But that is an unrealistic option given the nation’s anemic economic growth and fiscal condition.

In addition, none of the countries around Japan, including the U.S., China or Russia, want Japan to become a formidable military power. As such, the only choice for Japan is to rely on alliances.

Japan is a major economic power with the world’s third-largest nominal GDP. Only a country that is more powerful than Japan can help defend it, leaving either the U.S. or China. If Japan was to make a choice from scratch, the possibility of a Japan-China alliance might not be ruled out since an alliance between the No. 2 and No. 3 powers is not unusual in international politics.

But given today’s national sentiments and the postwar alliance with the U.S., it would require enormous time and energy for Japan to switch its alliance to China. Therefore, there is no other practical choice except to maintain the security alliance with the U.S.

The problem is that while Japan has no other choice but the U.S., the U.S. does not necessarily have to choose Japan. What is required of Japan are efforts to close this asymmetrical gap in the alliance.

There is a theory that what counts most in the end in an alliance or diplomacy is the number of friends. While 370,000 students from China study in the U.S., the corresponding number from Japan is less than 20,000. Is it absurd to worry about this situation?

Haruaki Deguchi is the president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. A popular lecturer and author of more than 40 books, he founded Lifenet Insurance in 2008 after a career spanning nearly 35 years at Nippon Life Insurance Co.

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