Running Back to the U.S.A.

Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned after barely eight months in office. Despite his desire to reduce Washington’s influence over Japanese politics, Hatoyama was forced to back off a major campaign pledge —beginning the process of removing all American military forces from Japan’s Okinawa Island. Already weakened by domestic political scandal, Hatoyama resigned rather than lead his Democratic Party into parliamentary elections next month. He felt that he had lost the confidence of his people after announcing that American forces would indeed be staying on Okinawa (though moving to a more remote location).

So ends the tenure of a man who came to power riding a wave of popularity, promising to lead Japan to a new era of reduced spending and a foreign policy distinct from the United States. He ended Japan’s supportive, non-combat role in the war in Afghanistan. His stated goal was to rebalance Japan’s alliance with the United States, maintaining close ties, perhaps, but under terms less favorable to America.

But now, he has quit, and his replacement has already sought to reassure America that the alliance will remain as-is. The reason for this sudden shift, yanking Japan firmly back into America’s orbit, was explained by a joint statement issued by Tokyo and Washington: “Recent developments in the security environment of Northeast Asia reaffirmed the significance of the Alliance.” Addressing reporters later, Hatoyama went further, saying, “I am painfully aware of the feeling of the people of Okinawa that the present problem of the bases represents unfair discrimination against them. At the same time, the presence of US bases is essential for Japan’s security.”

In other words, the North Koreans have rattled the Japanese. A year ago, Japan might have had reason feel comfortable inching away from an America, with the US military stretched and a new, dovish president seeking to avoid confrontations. But now with the North Koreans committing acts of war over and above their usual provocations, the Japanese have decided they’d rather keep their powerful friend around, after all. America’s military faces an uncertain future during these times of fiscal duress and while the Democrats control both the White House and Congress, but the fact remains that it is still the world’s best fighting force. Hatoyama, despite his earlier hopes of building a new Japan free of American protection and influence, has been forcefully reminded of just how dangerous a place the world can be.

The American presence on Okinawa Island, while essential for Japanese security in these turbulent times, is understandably an inconvenience for the local population. Okinawa is small but densely populated: 1.3 million Japanese live on it, along with 25,000 Marines, plus their support staff and families. The forces housed on Okinawa represent fully half of the US forces stationed in Japan. In 1995, three Marines kidnapped and raped a 12-year-old girl. They were tried and sentenced to long prison terms, but the relationship between the US forces and the local Japanese population never recovered. When you factor in the petty crime, noise, pollution and crowding inherent to any large military force, it is easy to understand that the local civilians might resent the base. But the Marines’ presence on Okinawa, setting aside such extremely rare incidents as the above-mentioned rape, is merely that — an inconvenience. America’s support for Japan, in light of an aggressive North Korean regime capable of easily striking Japan, is a political and pragmatic necessity.

The Japanese are not the only allies of the United States in the region to suddenly rediscover how beneficial a strong relationship with America can be. South Korea, the victim of North Korea’s unprovoked attack, has enjoyed a long history of close defense relations with the United States, dating back to the Korean War itself, which saw American-led allied forces protect South Korea from North Korea communist forces, backed by Beijing and Moscow. For several years, however, the United States and South Korea have been working towards a transfer of control of all forces — including American — to South Korea. America has almost 30,000 troops in the South, but the South has a 600,000-man army. Under the new arrangement, the American troops would have taken all a supporting role.

Since North Korea’s attack, however, South Korea’s defense community has become determined to delay the transfer of command. They do not want America to move into a supporting role — if war comes, they want to make very certain that US forces lead the charge against the numerically strong but technologically backwards North Korean military. The South Korean president is being pressured to invoke a clause in his country’s alliance with the United States that would delay the planned 2012 handover of command to South Korea. Meanwhile, the utility of the alliance is being clearly demonstrated: despite the predictable outrage from the North, the United States plans to join South Korea in naval exercises in the weeks and months ahead, demonstrating the close relationship and military prowess of the allies to the troubled North. There has also been discussion of sending an American carrier battle group, and its awesome firepower, to the region to impress upon the North Koreans the wisdom of choosing a more peaceful course of action.

No decision to deploy the carrier has yet been made public, but the message is clear. For Japan and South Korea, the world can be a dangerous place. And in such a world, you can ask for no better friend than the United States of America.

Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at

  • Cuban Refugee

    To be read with tongue in cheek: Isn't it obvious that Hatoyama's replacement seeks to reassure America that our alliance will remain "as is," because Asian-American experts have told him that our Community Organizer in Chief will "kick his ass" if he doesn't? But, seriously, with a lunatic like Kim Jong-il at the helm in North Korea, threatening not only South Korea, but also the entire region, including Japan, how could he not run to our arms? The only difference is that the welcome hug that freedom formerly gave our allies has become a kick in the ass — welcome to Communism 101, taught by the New World Order professor in the School of Experience.

  • The_Inquisitor

    "When you factor in the petty crime, noise, pollution and crowding inherent to any large military force, it is easy to understand that the local civilians might resent the base."

    What is this all about? Why is our military committing petty crimes against a civilian population? Why are they polluting? What is the noise? Airplanes landing and taking off? I would think crowding is not all bad if you are a Japanese businessman. The military presence should be an economic boon, not a liability.

  • gidmeister

    Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama showed that he had Japanese interests at heart more than his own reputation. He had to go against his own promises, when he saw that Japan, indeed, is threatened. I admire the guy.

  • cyberdove

    All nations where we have bases should reimburse us for the cost. Just imagine the boon to our economy if we were not funding the security of others.

  • USMCSniper

    The US will betray Japan for China as it betrayed Taiwan. When the US aborted the defence treaty with Taiwan and issued the Shanghai Communiqué, the writing was on the wall. The United States stopped challenging the Chinese Communist Party’s authority to rule the country. . . . The American acceptance (in the communiqué) and, indeed, its embrace (in Nixon’s private talks) of a one-China policy with Taiwan eventually to be part of China was to govern American conduct from that point onward."

  • brimp

    Who benefited from the sinking of the Cheonan? North Korea? No. The interest that benefited most was the American military. The South Korean, as well as the Japanese, population do not want American forces there. The sinking of the Cheonan seems suspicious. This is not to say that crazy S.O.B. Kim Jong-il could not be responsible for this. It is just that the American government has lied to me so many times that I don't trust them.

    • JSM

      Typical anti-american stupidity from the obama voter. Someone who think it's more likely the US was involved than someone who kills and imprisons millions of his own people. You ask your first question assuming North Korea is a rational, sane place to live run by rational and sane people. If those mass murderers were such utilitarians as you suggest, you'd think they'd abandon they're pathetic state-controlled economy and adopt what works the world over.

      • brimp

        Clinton lied to me many times. Bush lied to me many times. Obama has lied to me many times. I didn't vote for any of these people. Just because Kim is a bizarre maniac, doesn't mean that I will trust our government. When dealing with two liars, one can not listen to their words. Comprehending their interests will give a better picture on what really happened. The military industrial complex in America is the party that most benefited from the sinking of the ship. As to being anti-American, if the current leaders represent America then I guess you are correct. On the other hand, if America is defined by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution then I don't think I am anti-American.

  • ebonystone

    For a long time now, I've been wondering why the U.S. has been keeping such a large force in South Korea (30,000 according to the article). Fifty years ago this made some sense. But since then South Korea has become an economic powerhouse. Its population is more than double that of North Korea, and its GNP is almost forty (yes, 40) times that of the North. They certainly have the manpower and the wealth to defend themselves. The article notes that they have an army of 600,000, so the U.S. presence addsa mere 5%. The only way we should continue maintaining this force in South Korea is if the South Koreans agree to cover their ENTIRE expense. Otherwise, bring 'em home, and post them on the Mexican border to reinforce the Border Patrol. They might do some good there.