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History of U.S.-Japan alliance

The U.S. military first entered Japan to demilitarize and occupy it shortly after the end of World War II in August 1945. America moved its Southwest Pacific Command from Australia to Zama near Tokyo and renamed it the Far East Command. It was then led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

In 1947, Japan’s postwar constitution, drafted by U.S. officials, was approved by the parliament. Its “pacifist” Article 9 states that the country renounces the use of war, and that any military forces as well as potential war materials will never be maintained.

After the Korean War broke out in 1950, the U.S. military deployed most of its units in Japan to South Korea and pushed ahead to establish a Japanese police force for civil security. The police turned into the Self-Defense Forces in 1954.

Japan regained its sovereignty in 1952 after the San Francisco Peace Treaty was signed to officially end World War II and allocate compensation to allied civilians and former prisoners of war.

In 1960, the U.S. and Japan signed the Mutual Cooperation and Security Treaty, in which Washington pledged to protect Japan in return for the rights to base its troops on the archipelago. The treaty replaced the 1952 pact, which Japan was displeased with as it was unfairly skewed to America’s interests.

With America’s security guarantee, Japan concentrated on its economic development.

During the Cold-War era, Japan played a crucial strategic role in keeping the former Soviet Union in check. Despite the constitution banning war capabilities, it had sought to bolster its SDF with right-wing politicians calling for a revision to Article 9.

Uncertainty loomed over the alliance in 1969 after President Richard Nixon put forward his doctrine calling on America’s allies to take care of their own military defense. The doctrine came as the U.S. was faltering due to the unsuccessful, costly Vietnam War and anti-war sentiment in the mainland.

Also adding to the uncertainty was a reconciliatory mood in the region amid Sino-U.S. detente.

The allies got closer again after the U.S. handed over administrative control of Okinawa to Japan in 1972 and they established the Security Consultative Committee in 1976 for deepened cooperation.

After the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the alliance played the role of what experts call a “regional stabilizer” with Tokyo continuing to strengthen its defense capabilities.

Japan passed a bill in 1991 to pave the way for its participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations.

The allies agreed in 1997 to revise their defense cooperation guidelines, extending the alliance’s role from handling Japan’s defense to dealing with regional conflicts such as one on the Korean Peninsula. The revision came as threats from North Korea and China had risen.

After the 2001 terrorist attack on the U.S., Japan passed anti-terrorism legislation and helped the refueling process in the Indian Ocean for U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan. In 2004, Japan sent its troops to Iraq to assist in the U.S. stabilization operation.

While expanding the role of its Self-Defense Forces, Japan’s political right has sought to alter its interpretation of the pacifist constitution and asserted the need for their country to have a full-fledged military to become a “normal state.”
The move has long triggered strong resistance from South Korea and China as they still have bitter memories of Japan’s wartime atrocities. But Washington has apparently supported the moves as Japan sharing the same value of democracy becomes a stronger force to keep in check a rising China.

In recent years, political instability with a frequent change of the Japanese prime minister has apparently undermined the alliance. On top of that, issues concerning a U.S. base relocation along with accidents and crimes involving U.S. military personnel have become politicized, making the bilateral cooperation difficult.

But ties between the allies have deepened as they now face common threats from a bellicose North Korea and a growing China.

By Song Sang-ho (