Asia Program

Events

Is Japan a Dependable Ally?

March 24, 2009 // 4:00pm5:30pm

Speaker: Isao Miyaoka Wilson Center Japan Scholar; associate professor, Osaka School of International Public Policy, Osaka University

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a growing perception among U.S. policymakers that Japan is becoming a more "dependable" ally. Currently, policymakers expect Japan not only to settle bilateral disputes peacefully with the United States, but also to aid U.S. military forces in case of contingencies in East Asia or beyond. The invitation of Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso as U.S. President Barack Obama's first guest to the White House was certainly an attempt to show that U.S.-Japan ties remain strong. However, Japan's current political and economic turmoil may serve to weaken trust between the two allies. In his presentation hosted by the Asia Program on March 24, Wilson Center Japan Policy Scholar Isao Miyaoka analyzed some sources of American trust in Japan and spoke about the viability of U.S. expectations of Japan's role in the alliance relationship between the two nations.

Miyaoka started by outlining his theoretical position and key concepts central to his study. While traditional "realist" conceptions of international relations stress that alliances are only at best the temporary articulation of common security interests, Miyaoka explained that in the norms-based literature on international relations, an alliance may be more accurately described as a "security community" when its members (1) can no longer conceive of future military action against each other and (2) perceive mutual assistance above and beyond the formal obligations of the alliance as a natural part of the relationship. Within a security community, it is not the coldly rational calculation of national self-interest, even to the detriment of supposed allies, that stands as the most important factor in national security considerations. Instead, norms which encourage nations to view the priorities of their allies as integral to their own interests are vital to the formation of defense and security policy.

Miyaoka argued that Japan's constitutional renunciation of war, combined with restrictions on the use of force, effectively makes the notion that Japan might one day turn against its alliance partner simply inconceivable, and thus lends weight to the perception of the U.S.-Japan alliance as a security community. The Japanese government has interpreted the constitutional restrictions to mean that, while Japan has the international legal right to self-defense, it must only possess the minimum necessary amount of force to protect itself. It thus may not possess offensive materiel, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers. Despite Japan's formal renunciation of the use of force, Miyaoka showed that, even as late as the 1970s, there were "residual fears" in the U.S. that American encouragement of Japan to "do more" as an alliance partner might result in Japan's adoption of "courses of military preparedness… that are inimical to [U.S.] interests." However, increasing American perceptions of shared values between the two nations, overwhelming military asymmetry in favor of the United States, and Japan's status as a democratic nation that maintains civilian control over its Self Defense Forces (SDF) has, over time, served to complement Japan's constitutional restrictions in reinforcing American trust in Japan as a benevolent ally.

Nevertheless, during the Cold War, Japan's constitutional restrictions on the use of force made it difficult for Japan to garner American trust by going beyond its strictly defined alliance commitments. During that time, it was politically difficult for Japan to deploy its military overseas; extending the missions of the SDF beyond its purely domestic and defensive roles was seen as synonymous with a breach of the Constitution. Since the 1990s, however, Japan has gradually expanded the scope of the SDF's non-combat activities to include such international activities as peacekeeping operations, humanitarian assistance and anti-terrorism missions. While Japan's formal alliance obligations extend only so far as allowing the United States to base troops in Japanese territory, the deployment of the SDF on humanitarian and rear-area support missions to Iraq is clearly an example of Japan's willingness to go beyond the original limited scope of the formal alliance agreement to act in the national interest of its ally.

Despite Japan's recent efforts to engage in international cooperation, Miyaoka perceives important limitations on the SDF's deployments abroad which may lead Americans to reevaluate their perceptions of Japan as a dependable ally. The Japanese public remains circumspect about the ethics, legality and utility of using military force to resolve international disputes, and there is very little support for using the SDF in missions which involve a more muscular manifestation of national power in pursuit of the national interest. This extends to collective defense. Most Japanese believe that Japan should not be permitted to come to the aid of the United States if the latter is attacked by a third party. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party of Japan, which may defeat the governing Liberal Democratic Party in this year's general election, is running on a platform of internationalism and a greater focus on Asian nations in Japan's diplomacy. Continuing American trust in Japan's role in the alliance is by no means a foregone conclusion.

Miyaoka noted that it is therefore important for Americans to understand that many Japanese prefer non-military contributions to international society through the United Nations. However, he stressed that this position does not necessarily entail anti-Americanism or erosion in Japan's faith in the alliance. Miyaoka believes that United States representatives should make greater effort to respond more directly to the Japanese public's concerns and expectations in order to strengthen Japanese trust in the United States. In the meantime, the U.S. should work to strengthen the bilateral alliance by collaborating with Japan under the auspices of the United Nations or other multilateral frameworks.

Drafted by Bryce Wakefield, Asia Program Associate.
Robert M. Hathaway, Asia Program Director. Ph: (202) 691-4020

Experts & Staff

Wilson Center Photo Gallery

Browse or share photos from the Wilson Center’s events.

To Attend an Event

Unless otherwise noted:

Meetings listed on this page are free and open to the public. Reservations are not required unless otherwise noted. All meetings take place at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Please see map and directions. Allow time for routine security procedures. A photo ID is required for entry.

To confirm time and place, contact Maria-Stella Gatzoulis on the day of the event: tel. (202) 691-4188. Check this page for the latest updates and notices.