Transforming the US-Japan Alliance


Until recently, Japan’s response to adversity has been muted, at best. Media has always portrayed Japan as a relatively small player in the international community, particularly in the security sense. However, the murder of two Japanese nationals in the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has elicited a relatively unusual response from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, giving political commentators the idea that the Diet (Japanese Parliament) is likely to make Japan a bigger player in the ongoing war on terror, something its ally the United States have wanted for so long.

While Japan has a long-standing alliance with the United States, it is not as smooth sailing as mainstream media would depict (Baker & Frost, 1992). The United States has chastised Japan for its little contributions in US-led coalitions during the Gulf War of 1991 and the post-9/11 campaigns on Iraq and Afghanistan. In recent years, Japan’s foreign policy has started to shift towards making Japan a normal state, leaving the future of its alliance with the United States at risk. Though Japan is apparently undecided as to whether to keep or let go of this alliance that was in place since the 1950s, recent developments in the geopolitical atmosphere of Asia would test the strength, or even the necessity, of this alliance. In this paper we examine the factors that are driving the transformation of this erstwhile alliance between two powerful states.

The Nye Report and a Quest for Equal Partnership

While both the United States and Japan are economically dependent on each other, the US-Japan alliance is seemingly tipped towards the United States’ favour (Baker & Frost, 1992; Hughes, 2007). The ‘Peace Constitution’ that was imposed on the Japanese after their defeat in the Second World War prohibits Japan to build an offensive military capability. Japan’s present military component is exclusively for defence purposes, and the country has deeply relied on the United States for its security. Because of this, Japan has often sided with the United States in many international matters (Christensen, 1999; Hughes, 2004a; Hughes, 2007).

Japan’s quest for equal partnership in the alliance began after the collapse of the Soviet Union when the threat of a nuclear North Korea became imminent (Hughes, 2004a). North Korea’s reticent nuclear arms programme and the failure of the alliance to issue a diplomatic response became a growing concern for the rest of Asia. This pushed Japan to seek a more equal bilateral cooperation with the United States. Conversely, the United States pushed to strengthen its alliance with Japan as well as its active role in maintaining security and the balance of power within the region (Hughes, 2004a; Hughes, 2007; Sakaeda, 2007).

The strengthening of the US-Japan alliance was largely influenced by the United States Security Strategy for the East Asia-Pacific Region, or more popularly known as the 1995 Nye Report after its author Joseph Nye who was then the assistant secretary of defence for President Bill Clinton. Nye’s report stated that ‘the revitalisation of the US-Japan alliance [is] the keystone in US security strategy in East Asia’ (Hughes, 2004a, p. 98). The newly formulated security policy, whilst formulated in accordance with that of the United States and the recommendations from the Nye report, gave Japan a bigger role in any decision-making processes with regards to security. Meanwhile, the United States apparently maintained an upper hand in the alliance as Japan continued to rely on them for their national security needs (Christensen, 1999; Sakaeda, 2007).

Opposition to American Presence in Japanese Soil

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s surprising response to the threats made by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to murder two Japanese nationals polarised Japanese society, including the Diet. While some sectors praised Abe for his vehement stance against terrorism, many have criticised him for doing little to save the lives of the two nationals. Eventually, ISIL forces ended up murdering the two Japanese captives together with a Jordanian air force pilot, the brutal actions captured on video and released through cyberspace.

The criticism faced by the prime minister in handling the ISIL situation is similar to the criticisms faced by Japan vis-à-vis its role in the war on terror. The United States has continuously panned the Japanese government for doing very little in the said campaigns (Hughes, 2007; Sakaeda, 2007). Ironically, Japan’s role in the war on terror has also met polarised opinions within Japanese society, arguing that Japan’s involvement in the US-led war has enormous costs on Japan’s economy.

More than the war on terror, American presence in Japan has actually put the strain on the Japanese economy (Christensen, 1999; Hughes, 2007). After the Second World War, the United States has maintained the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, first as part of the United States Military Government of the Ryukyu Islands (established after a separatist movement developed in the Ryukyu Islands) then as part of the US-Japan alliance. At present, the Japanese government shoulders two-thirds of the cost of maintaining the air base (Hughes, 2004b), which occupies 10% of the entire landmass of the Okinawa prefecture and is close to the urban centre of the city of Okinawa. While the air base provides employment for close to a thousand Japanese, opponents of continued American presence on Japanese soil argue that the cost of maintaining Kadena is higher than the economic opportunities it provides (Hughes, 2007).

The Japanese government maintains that American presence on Japanese soil is not only in accordance with the provisions forged in the US-Japan alliance, but also necessary to maintain national security in the absence of an offensive military unit. The United States have also found its presence in Japan crucial in its humanitarian efforts in the Asia-Pacific region as well as in its continued response to threats from North Korea, Russia, and a rising China (ibid). Nevertheless, the continued American presence has caught Japan entrapped in the United States’ campaigns, as evidenced by Japan’s own situation with the Islamic State.

Regional Politics: The Threats of North Korea and a Rising China

For a long time, Japan has been perceived as the ‘great power’ in the Far East. Economically, Japan is highly advanced compared to the perceived economic tigers of Asia, including China. However, the security threats posed by China and a nuclear North Korea has triggered concern within Japan.

North Korea is known to have been developing a nuclear programme since the 1960s whereas China’s own nuclear programme is on the rise (Garret & Glaser, 1997; Christensen, 1999). While no imminent conflict may erupt between Japan and North Korea, China’s aggression in both the East China Sea and South China Sea is a source of major concern for Japan’s security. Recently, Japan and China have been involved in minor skirmishes concerning the Senkaku Islands. Furthermore, the southernmost inhabited islands of Japan are within close range of Taiwan, and the Japanese fear that the proximity of their southernmost islands may entrap Japan in any conflict that may arise between Beijing and Taipei. While economic cooperation between Tokyo and Beijing are in place towards the end of the 20th Century, brewing tensions in the East China Sea have hampered further mutual cooperation between the two giants (ibid).

Japan’s regional security concerns are shared by the United States, and Washington has vowed to protect its allies in the East Asian region (Baker & Frost, 1992; Garret & Glaser, 1997; Sakaeda, 2007). These security concerns created apprehensions within Japan with regards to the US-Japan alliance; commentators have noted that despite these recent apprehensions regarding the alliance, talks would most likely result in Japan revitalising its alliance with the United States as opposed to repealing it.

Increasingly powerful nuclear threats from North Korea, China, and even Russia have prompted Japan to share its nuclear technological capabilities with the United States (Wampler, 1997; Christensen, 1999; Norris et al, 1999). While the Japanese government asserted that Japan has a non-nuclear policy, an agreement that the United States can clandestinely bring nuclear weaponry to Japan has been reached in the 1960s (Wampler, 1997). Reports claim that there are close to 1,000 nuclear warheads supplied by the United States to Japan and are clandestinely stored somewhere in the Kadena Air Base (Norris et al, 1999).


The alliance between the United States and Japan have been in place since the end of the Second World War, but this alliance is far from perfect. The end of the Cold War have seen the transformation in the alliance between the two powerful nations. Conversely, this transformation is being driven by three major factors – Japan’s quest for an equal bilateral partnership with the United States, a growing opposition against continued American presence on Japanese soil, and the imminent threats from its neighbouring states, particularly China, North Korea, and even Russia. Geopolitical developments throughout recent history have caused the revitalisation (using the language of the United States government) of the alliance between the United States and Japan to not follow a steady path. On the one hand, while the United States heavily chastises Japan for its insignificant role in US-led campaigns in the Middle East, the United States sees the alliance as a keystone for maintaining peace and order as well as power balance in the region. On the other hand, while Japan heavily relies on the United States for its security needs, it continues to seek a larger part in arguably one of history’s most powerful yet one-sided alliances.


Baker Jr., H.H., & Frost, E.L. 1992. Rescuing the US-Japan alliance. Foreign Affairs, 71(2). 97-113.

Christensen, T.J. 1999. China, the US-Japan alliance, and the security dilemma in East Asia. International Security, 23(4). 49-80.

Garrett, B. & Glaser, B. 1997. Chinese apprehensions about the revitalization of the US-Japan alliance. Asian Survey, 37(4). 383-402.

Hughes, C.W. 2007. Not quite the Great Britain of the Far East: Japan’s security, the US-Japan alliance, and the war on terror in Asia. Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 20(2). 325-338.

Hughes, H. 2004a. Forging a strengthened US-Japan alliance. In Hughes, H. (ed). Japan’s Re-emergence as a Normal Military Power. London, England: Routledge Books. 97-115.

Hughes, H. 2004b. Japan’s shifting security trajectory and policy system. In Hughes, H. (ed). Japan’s Re-emergence as a Normal Military Power. London, England: Routledge Books. 41-66.

Norris, R.S., Arkin, W.M., & Burr, W. 1999. Where they were. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 55(6). 26-35.

Sakaeda, R. 2007. Soft power, the 1995 Nye Report, and the US-Japan Alliance. Japan Aktuell, 5(7), 43-56.

Wampler, R.A. 1997. Revelations in Newly Released Documents about US Nuclear Weapons and Okinawa Fuel NHK Documentary. [ONLINE] retrieved from Retrieved on 07 Feb 2015.