Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has many things to consider. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

US officials might have been hoping Taro Kono, Japan’s current defense minister, would be the next prime minister. But it almost certainly will be Yoshihide Suga, outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s long-serving chief cabinet secretary. 

Suga is what might be called a typical Japanese politician. For such pols, the main thing is getting elected and re-elected and jockeying for power. Developing and pursuing innovative policies is somewhat lower on the priority list. National defense is usually especially low.

Prime Minister Abe was an eight-year exception. The Americans will now have to figure out how to deal with what the Japanese system offers up. 

But first, why was Kono the preferred choice for the Americans? In fact, in some respects, he is the ideal prime minister.

For starters, being a Georgetown University graduate, Kono has real exposure to the outside world and the US in particular. Indeed, he seems to have gained much more from his overseas experience than is typically the case with a certain type of Japanese pol or elite official who might study in the US for a year but never really get to know any Americans.

Such an exchange student returns to Japan with the added line on his resume but having achieved little understanding of the US. There are, of course, Japanese prime ministers with even less overseas experience and scant experience even dealing with foreigners.

Kono also has a brighter personality than most Japanese politicians. He actually smiles and expresses opinions. That does matter. It allows for debate and discussion. 

Better than the awkward rote exchanges of pleasantries and reciting of Foreign Ministry-drafted talking points when meeting overseas counterparts.

Kono also seems popular with the Japanese public writ large, partly because he’s seen as not the typical politician. That can be helpful for overcoming the factional opposition to getting anything done – or doing anything controversial. 

Recall how then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi sometimes played to the public and leapfrogged the Liberal Democratic Party and political and bureaucratic phalanxes looking to keep him in his place.

It’s also good when a prime minister’s yakuza ties are not an open secret.

Kono’s time will come. 

But regardless of who is in the prime minister’s chair, the important thing from the US’ perspective is getting Japan to do certain things, particularly on the defense and security fronts.

Japan’s Minister of Defense Taro Kono listens during a press conference US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, January 15, 2020. Photo: AFP/Eric Baradat

This matters all the more now that the People’s Republic of China is on the warpath.  

What does Washington need? Four main things: Capable and properly funded and equipped, fully manned Japan Self Defense Forces; a JSDF that can operate jointly; much better interoperability with US forces, to include a joint Japan-US operational headquarters in Japan; and the ability to train US forces in Japan (to defend Japan) without undue restrictions.  

Prime Minister Abe deserves much credit for pushing through revised US-Japan defense cooperation guidelines and reinterpreting “collective self-defense.” This allows Japan to play a bigger role in its own defense and be a more useful ally to US forces – if it wants to.  

But Abe largely failed at achieving the concrete measures necessary to make this a reality by adequately increasing defense spending and improving overall JSDF capabilities to include joint operations by the three Self Defense Forces (ground, maritime and air) acting together, as well as bilateral JSDF-US operations.

(The US and Japanese navies have the latter capability, but not the other services.)

Regrettably, even during the Abe years, the Japanese mainly continued their decades-long practice of doing little or nothing more than they felt like doing and at the speed they felt like doing it.

One can’t entirely blame them.  US alliance managers, civilian and military, have let this happen and often preemptively think up reasons why something or other is “too hard” for the Japanese to do.

But instead, they might usefully recall the advice a Japanese friend offered US officials around 1970 when the Americans wanted to permanently station an aircraft carrier at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan. 

The USS Midway leaving Japan’s Yokosuka Port in 1991 nearly 18 years after having been home-ported there. The aircraft carrier became a museum ship at San Diego. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, this was probably the best advice the US ever received about dealing with Japan on defense matters. One of the Americans involved recently explained to Asia Times what happened. He described it as a three-step process:   

Step 1: The US National Security Council decided to homeport a carrier in Japan, but the Tokyo embassy was hesitant and offered up excuses: “never done in a foreign country before,” “LDP is not all-powerful,” “need to wait for the right time,” etc. 

However, a US Navy lieutenant commander assigned to Commander Naval Forces Japan headquarters at Yokosuka brought his big boss to Tokyo in civilian clothes to meet a senior LDP member of parliament, who was a former high-ranking defense official. The lawmaker asked several questions. 

He then said: “We hope we are correct that the US wants and needs the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, but Japan’s need is absolutely critical to our security. Thus, when you really want something important, don’t ask our opinion; tell us what you need very firmly and don’t back down.”

Step 2: Kakuei Tanaka succeeded Eisaku Sato as prime minister. One evening at a reception for the diplomatic community at the Speaker’s Official Residence the Diet member asked the US ambassador and the deputy chief of mission to join him in a side room.

The Diet member said that Prime Minister Tanaka was a good man who could be decisive, but he did not have a good background on security issues. The Diet member said he had been teaching Tanaka about the critical importance of the alliance for Japan’s security and telling him that the US might have a desire to base an aircraft carrier in Yokosuka.  

The Diet member told the two Americans that, earlier that day, the prime minister had told him that the US Navy did not need to ask Japan’s permission to put a carrier in Yokosuka – but if the US wanted to ask Japan’s permission to do so, Japan would say yes.

Step 3: Much later when all went well including USS Midway’s smooth arrival in Yokosuka in October 1973, the embassy began to take credit for “its” achievement in persuading Japan.

Former Japanese prime minister Kakuei Tanaka (R) shaking hands with former US president Richard Nixon at the former’s residence in Tokyo in a 1982 file photo. Image: AFP/JiJi Press

Perhaps the Americans could learn from this.

Most Japanese politicians’ and officials’ natural inclination is to do as little as possible defense-wise, especially if it might lead to criticism. But it’s important to bear in mind that the Japanese are not mindreaders.

If America needs something from Japan, it should remember that sound advice from 50 years ago, no matter who is Japan’s prime minister. “Tell us what you need very firmly and don’t back down.”

But surely America can’t speak so directly to Japan?  

When the prospects of regional conflict are increasing and Washington is offering up its servicemen and servicewomen to die on Japan’s behalf, it had better.

And some Japanese will applaud and maybe ask, “what took you so long?”

Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine Corps officer and former US diplomat, currently is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and the Center for Security Policy.