US-Japan military relations could be bolstered as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to amend Japan’s constitution. A revision would include the explicit mention of Japan’s military, whose existence and role has been controversial since its founding in 1954. Through the duration of his career, Abe has sought to increase militarization in Japan. This comes amidst hostile trade rhetoric from President Donald Trump.
Nevertheless, military relations between Tokyo and Washington remain strong. This September members of the Japan Ground Self Defense Force and US Army went to the Yakima Training Center in Eastern Washington State for Exercise “Rising Thunder”. The annual exercise is a part of Pacific Pathways Program, which contains a number of other combined arms exercises with other US allies in the Indo-Pacific Region.
The Pacific Pathways Program is designed to increase partnership in the event of a conflict in the region. Cooperation and preparedness were points of focus during the exercise. Soldiers taking part in the exercise told me the only difficulty was the language barrier. This was leavened by thorough communication between the two, prior to and during the exercise. “Both being infantry, we actually both have a lot of the same practices and tactics,” said Capt. Randolph Rotte, a company commander with the US Army 2nd Infantry Division’s 2nd Stryker Brigade. “There are some slight differences with the language barrier and the different ways we do things, but as far as overall it’s been surprising that we operate similarly.”
The camaraderie between the Japanese and American troops was awkwardly juxtaposed to US-President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric concerning US-Japan trade relations and awkward engagement with Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. Citing the need for Japan to reimburse the US, Trump has continually attempted to apply pressure on Tokyo by threatening tariffs and potentially cutting military support.
Japan and the US have maintained strong military relations for nearly 70 years. The United States recognized Japan as a sovereign nation in 1952, with the ratification of the US-Japan Security Treaty. This granted the US the right to locate military forces on the islands, effectively placing Japan under the US military umbrella. The treaty’s successor, the Treaty for Mutual Cooperation and Security Between Japan and the United States of America, went into effect eight years later, in 1960.
This treaty offered a continuation of US military support and allowed for basing facilities within Japanese territory. It also stated that the Japanese government would be consulted prior to the US becoming involved in any armed conflict on behalf of Japan. This came with a 10-year term renewal, and today there are approximately 50,000 US military personnel stationed there. Both then and now, Japanese and American officials have regarded the presence of US forces in Japan as vital to maintaining security in the Asia-Pacific region.
Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) in Western Washington State has often had a focus on the Asia-Pacific due to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Training activities there and at the Yakima Training Center regularly involves allies from the Indo-Pacific Region. This has been especially so during the ramping up of North Korea’s aggression toward the United States and China’s dispute with Japan over territorial claims.
Pacific Pathways has explicitly focused on pairing US soldiers from the Pacific region with soldiers from nations who have a strategic position on the Pacific Ocean. In the past, training exercises have involved units from Singapore, India, Canada, and others. These exercises are frequently hosted at both the Yakima Training Center and JBLM.
Troops from Japan and Canada are sometimes assigned to American units at JBLM for long-term assignments. During the two-week training exercise, the members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force and 2-2 Stryker Brigade joined the Nisei Veterans Committee (NVC) in Seattle for a luncheon. Annually, the NVC participates in “Rising Thunder” to commemorate the history of US-Japan relations and the path to becoming allies. Members of the association were invited to watch a sniper competition between the two armies.
The theme of similarities was likewise voiced during this competition, as snipers on both sides were able to compare methods and conduct. “It’s been a great experience learning with our Japanese counterparts,” said Cpl. Thomas Kyttle from the 2-2 Stryker Brigade’s 17th Infantry Regiment. “We’re both eager to learn from one another, and see the similarities and differences of how we function as Snipers.”
While trade rhetoric becomes increasingly contentious, defense ties across the Pacific appear largely unhindered. With 23 US military installations in Japan, Japan remains not only a significant treaty ally but also a strategic foothold for US operations in the Indo-Pacific Region. Even more, a recent report from the Center For Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) argued that Japan should be added to the “Five Eyes” intelligence network, currently including the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
Given Japan’s proximity to China and North Korea as well as having linguistic similarities to Korean and many languages spoken in China, Japan is in a prime position for the collection of intelligence in the Indo-Pacific. Though there have been concerns expressed by current members of the intel network. “We need to be able to make sure that, if we are in, this intelligence cooperation mechanism will remain secure,” says Dr. Narushige Michishita, a defense analyst teaching at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. “This is a kind of weakness because we have really a shortage of power, resources, and know-how in order to make sure that the system is secure. So, in cybersecurity, Japan is very lagging behind.”
The CSIS also suggested that an increase in joint operations would mitigate unequivocal financial responsibility on either side. Cost sharing remains a key point of cooperation as Japan has paid 75 percent of operation cost for US installations, according to former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. However, there are still hurdles to this relationship. Not all Japanese approve of Tokyo’s increasingly assertive military posture. The Japanese Government recently received criticism for the addition of an aircraft carrier to its naval fleet. This was followed by recent plans to purchase 147 F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters.
Many are also deeply critical of America’s robust military presence. The recent election of Governor Danny Tamaki of Okinawa, the son of a US Marine and Japanese mother, who has actively advocated against a US military presence on the island, might also have an impact on the alliance. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is also beginning to make efforts to thaw trade relations with Beijing, representing a departure from his long-standing hostility toward China.
Few factors indicate that the progress of relations with the US should become stilted. With Japan’s strategic significance to the US and its presence in the region, there has been no suggestion that joint training exercises like “Rising Thunder” won’t continue. The US-Japan military alliance serves as a key cornerstone for relations between the two countries, and with its strength, the partnership is likely to persist.