Japan-U.S. relations must get away from "diplomacy of inertia"

by Hiroshi Oshima, professor in the Department of Law at Hiroshima Shudo University

When considering Japan-U.S. relations, for a long time we have assumed that continuity in diplomacy was foremost. That is to say, no change is good. The recent change in government may have provided the first chance since the war to reassess that assumption.

At the September 23 summit between Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and President Barack Obama, which marked the start of a new age in Japan-U.S. relations, the two leaders pledged to maintain the Japan-U.S. alliance. It was a carefully thought-out message that was what both sides wanted.

An article Hatoyama wrote for a monthly magazine in Japan was partly introduced in the U.S. where it was criticized by some as tilting away from the U.S. or being anti-American. So there was a need to confirm a stance that emphasizes the importance of the U.S. to Japan. For Obama, with the anticipation of policy changes by the Hatoyama administration, such as halting the refueling operations in the Indian Ocean, it was necessary to firmly establish the basic intent to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance.

The meeting only lasted 30 minutes, so it's hard to predict how Japan-U.S. diplomacy will unfold, but for now I think we can say that continuity – not change – in the Japan-U.S. alliance was emphasized.

A few years ago an American friend of mine said to me, "Japan never speaks up to America because of the inertia of history." Maybe so, I thought. Inertia is a law of physics, and if I were to restate the concept of "inertia" in my own words, I would say, "As long as things aren’t moved, they won’t move. And not moving in and of itself is comfortable."

We're all familiar with notions like "Japan was able to prosper after the war thanks to the protection of the U.S.," "Japan is secure because of the nuclear umbrella" or "Japan can’t go against Washington." We've grown accustomed to them and accepted them as givens in our diplomacy. That is the "inertia of history." Because of that, we continue to make Okinawa bear the burden of the U.S. military bases, continue to neglect the issue of a secret agreement allowing the U.S. to bring nuclear weapons into Japan aboard ships and unashamedly supported the war in Iraq.

Is this acceptable?

With the change in government, I think we must ask some very basic questions. Of course, change is not an end unto itself, but some things have to be changed eventually.

When you get right down to it, I think the biggest concern of the U.S. under the Japan-U.S. security partnership is that its military bases remain in Japan. During a visit to Washington in 1983, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's description of Japan as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" caused a stir. No other expression gets at the essence of the Japan-U.S. Security Agreement the way this one does. The U.S. bases in Japan make it possible for the U.S. military to operate freely over a vast territory stretching from the Asia-Pacific region to the Middle East at all times.

The U.S. can listen to what Japan has to say about the issues of the Self-Defense Forces' refueling mission and the relocation of the air station in Futenma, but there's no room for debate about the continued presence of the bases.

But no matter how important this issue is to the U.S., continuing to provide bases for a foreign country more than 60 years after the end of the war is not normal. We have to ask ourselves what kind of country this is that continues to serve as an unsinkable aircraft carrier for the U.S. military.

The inertia of history – or the mind-set of inertia – can only be resisted with the power of ideas. Realistically, it may be rare for ideas to prevail in politics, but without ideas, nothing will change.

Obama has called for "a world without nuclear weapons," and Hatoyama has adopted the catchword "yuai" (fraternity). Both of them seem to attach importance to ideas. I hope to see a new approach to security that relies less on military capability.

Hatoyama has said he won't pull any punches when dealing with the U.S. I'd like him to follow through on that. If Japan speaks up, it may make waves and lead to friction in the Japan-U.S. relationship. But isn't that what change is about? If Japan is afraid of making even small waves, the issues of the nuclear umbrella and the military bases will never be resolved.

Hiroshi Oshima
Born in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, in 1948. Graduate of the University of Tokyo Faculty of Law. Employed by Kyodo News and as bureau chief in Washington and New York. Assumed his current post in April 2008. Specializes in journalism theory and American studies.

(Originally published Sept. 27, 2009)