Are Japan and the United States “true friends”?

by Yumi Kanazaki, Editorial Writer

The Japanese word “tomodachi,” which means “friend,” is a reminder, when written in katakana characters, of the emergency relief operations deployed by the U.S. armed forces in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

In a comic book version of Japan’s “White Paper on Defense,” gratitude for these contributions was expressed in a chapter titled “Real Friends.” It was reported that along the shoreline near the Sendai Airport, someone had laid out driftwood on the ground, forming the word ARIGATO (THANK YOU), for U.S. military planes to see from the sky. U.S. forces were reportedly very touched by the gesture.

The word “tomodachi” has thus become a symbol of strong ties between Japan and the United States. The U.S. government has even proposed a project called the “Tomodachi Initiative,” in which youth in the affected area would engage in exchange activities.

“Tomodachi” should indicate a “true friend,” but the word seems to have taken on a different connotation.

Recently, former senior government officials and other figures released a report on the Japan-U.S. alliance. They commended “Operation Tomodachi,” stating that the lax interpretation of the Article 9 in the Japanese Constitution enabled the Self Defense Forces to cooperate with U.S. forces without heeding the prohibition of collective self-defense. They went on to propose a framework for full cooperation throughout the security spectrum of peacetime, tension, crisis, and war. A report issued by the Congressional Research Service, an arm of the U.S. Congress, also indicated that this was the first time that SDF helicopters used U.S. aircraft carriers to respond to a crisis.

Apparently, “tomodachi” means an allied nation that is fully integrated in U.S. military operations.

In Okinawa, MV-22 Ospreys, after being deployed from Iwakuni, are now flying over local residents in a high-and-mighty manner. And another odious sexual assault on an Okinawan woman has been committed by two American soldiers. The perpetrators are reported to have approached the victim and said “Arigato,” apparently the only Japanese word they knew.

The local people are furious and have appealed for a revision to the Japan-U.S. Status-of-Forces Agreement which gives wide latitude to the U.S. military in Japan. The Japanese government, however, is opposed to revising the pact, arguing that a revision would render it out of step with agreements that the United States has concluded with other nations.

But these agreements are not necessarily the same. For example, Germany and Italy have a far stronger grip on the U.S. military bases in their lands compared to Japan. Ultimately, it comes down to the will of the Japanese government whether or not negotiations on such issues are pursued with the United States.

When individuals are involved, a true friend will speak frankly, if the situation demands it. What about countries? If the Japanese government simply plays the role of messenger, conveying the intentions of the United States to the people of Japan, it is no more than a “tomodachi” of convenience.

(Originally published on October 20, 2012)