President Joe Biden has his work cut out for him in getting allies Japan and South Korea to cooperate in containing China. Image: Agencies

Four years ago the United States had a new president in Donald Trump. This writer wrote up some advice for the then-new ambassador headed to Japan. Now, four years later, the US has another new president and another as yet unidentified new top envoy to be dispatched to Tokyo.

In the spirit of foisting off – on a bipartisan basis – unsolicited advice, I offer my counsel again in the same terms with annotations as needed. The original article still reads almost as if the last four years hadn’t happened. And it wouldn’t be the first time this writer’s advice has been ignored.


Dear new ambassador to Japan,

The United States will have a new president in a couple of days, and shortly afterward a new ambassador to Japan. The Tokyo envoy will no doubt study up on the issues, but here is some unsolicited advice anyway:

You’ll hear that the US-Japan relationship is the “most important bilateral relationship, bar none.” It is.  You’ll also hear that “it has never been stronger.” Actually it has been, but with some effort that claim could be made again.

There is more to the relationship than the military angle, but that is the most important part. Here are a few things to consider.

Don’t pick a fight with Japan over host nation support as your boss, Mr Trump, suggested he would — even if Japan can indeed afford to pay ten times more. That isn’t the issue.  (2021: This one is easy. Just don’t do it.)

Most of all, America needs more combat power from Japan, and it needs to better align and integrate this combat power with US forces. The Japan Self Defense Force needs to improve and it needs to be able to operate much better with US forces.

A more capable and powerful military reduces Japan’s dependence on the US military, relieves the burden on US forces defending Japanese interests farther afield and potentially augments overstretched US forces in the region.

And don’t forget the political knock-on effects of more effective Japanese forces, solidly linked and able to operate with US forces. China was counting on splitting the US and Japan alliance. American and Japanese forces operating together can make this much harder to do.

Troops of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force’s Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, Japan’s first marine unit since World War II, gather at a ceremony activating the brigade at Camp Ainoura in Sasebo, on the island of Kyushu. Photo: Agencies

The Japanese military looks impressive on paper, but is less than the sum of its parts. The main problem is that the three Japanese services are mostly incapable of operating together.  Correcting this requires a desire on the part of Japan’s government, and finding senior officers committed to building a joint capability.

‘It’s too difficult’

In response to the above, expect to hear that “it’s too difficult.”  (You’ll hear this a lot in response to suggestions you might make.)

“Too difficult” means that a Japanese person somewhere (or the Asahi Shimbun newspaper) might complain. You might point out to the Japan government that explaining to US voters why American servicemen must die for a Japan that won’t do its share is also “too difficult.”

Be prepared for some of your embassy staff to make the “too difficult” case on Japan’s behalf. There are several sub-themes of “too difficult” that you should be aware of:

  • “Read Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution.” Yes, read it. Having long since been re-interpreted out of any connection to its plain meaning, it has become Japan’s go-to excuse when it doesn’t want to do something. Japanese are not snowflakes and can and will do whatever they need to do.
  • “Japanese are pacifist.” If so, it’s a curious form of pacifism that is happy to have Americans exterminate Japan’s enemies. And, oh yes, the Japan Self Defense Force is indeed a military – despite its name.
  • “There’s a Japanese election coming.” Japanese claims of “too difficult” are often made with a request to help out the government just the one time, since “there’s an election coming.” The bait is that after the election the Japanese will do whatever it is that is too difficult just now. However, there’s always an election coming – and there’s always help needed, just this one time.

More money, please

To fix the military is the main thing, but the other main thing is money. If Japan won’t spend the money, it’s not serious and is ultimately just doing the minimum necessary to keep Americans on the hook. Getting $25 billion annually in free defense coverage for decades is addicting.

Japan’s defense “increases” of the last few years are chimerical. Have your staff do the math for you.

How much is needed? Annual increases of about 10% for the next five years. What to spend it on? Be careful. Some more ships, planes, and equipment will be helpful, but there is no hardware solution to Japan’s defense. Raise equipment spending by $5 billion and the cost of equipment magically increases by $5 billion, defense industries being what they are.

‘Severe fiscal condition’

Instead, the money should be spent on JSDF training and improved terms of service for JSDF personnel. The aforementioned “jointness” costs nothing – only requiring doctrine, practice, and changed mindset.

Expect to hear the government bemoan its “severe fiscal condition” to explain why it can’t spend more on defense. Note that Japan recently found $8 billion for the Philippines, $30 billion for Africa, and another $100 billion to stimulate the Japanese economy for the umpteenth time in the last 25 years.  (2021: The specific amounts and recipients will vary from 2017, but Japan still finds all the money it needs for things other than defense.)

The world’s third largest economy has the money – but the Japanese government fears the Ministry of Finance more than it fears the US government.

This spending approach hinders “jointness” – as the services are so starved of funds that they view each other the way survivors in a lifeboat see each other once the water and food run low. One tends to want what the other fellow has, or even to eat the other fellow.

‘But China will complain’

You’ll hear this a lot and from your own people as well, especially if the “it’s too difficult” line isn’t persuading you. The point is, China will complain about anything Japan (and the US) might do short of surrendering.  

Japan has been a model of responsible international behavior and consensual government for 70 years now. Japan is a threat to nobody. It lacks the manpower, hardware, know-how, and most importantly, the desire to threaten its neighbors.

And there’s more to Asia than China and Korea. Get around a bit and you will find the Japanese are well regarded just about everywhere else in the region. A billion plus Indians well disposed toward Japan ought to count for something.

Then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks at Japanese naval ships during a fleet review off Sagami Bay, Kanagawa prefecture, on October 18, 2015. Photo: AFP / Jiji Press

Appreciate Abe while you have him

Whatever Shinzo Abe might think about World War II, he is the first statesman Japan has seen for decades and is doing his best to bring Japan’s defense policies back to the center.

He also understands the value of the US-Japan defense relationship – and what Japan gets out of it. Remember that Mr. Abe faces immense opposition – even within his own party. Some of this opposition is principled. Much of it is not. And no, he is not a fascist hell-bent on moving the nation back to 1933. 

(2021: Japan has a new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga. Defense isn’t his thing but he is trying to keep Abe’s ideas – including the Quad – going. He faces opposition just as Abe did. Also, Suga may not be around long, as Japan tends to discard prime ministers every few months. Abe’s long tenure was unusual.)

A word about gaiatsu (foreign pressure): This usually applies to trade matters, but it works just as well with defense policy – and Japanese reformers will appreciate the help.

However, if you or the US government will be talking tough to the Japanese – and you might need to, given the tenacity of the “too difficult” and “severe fiscal condition” crowd – do it quietly. Be prepared for the Japanese to shop around for somebody in the US government who will take up their arguments. A united front is important.

Linking Japan and US forces

Except for the shining example of the US Navy and the Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF), American and Japanese forces can barely operate together.

Go down to Yokosuka Naval Base at your first opportunity and see what the two navies have quietly accomplished over the last 60 years. Apply what you see to the overall defense relationship.

The Japan-US Defense Guidelines were revised over a year ago and allow Japan and the US to do whatever is necessary to establish genuine operational linkages. For example, the Guidelines call for an “alliance coordination mechanism.”  

Ask what concrete progress has been made to link US and Japanese forces. Is a standing, permanently staffed joint headquarters in the works? If there’s nothing concrete, or if it is still being discussed, raise an eyebrow – and expect to hear “it’s too difficult.” (2021:  Get angry. Don’t only raise an eyebrow.)

The hotel taxi

The idea that the US might actually have to fight to defend Japan was mostly an academic exercise until late 2008, when China started throwing its weight around in the East China Sea. Fighting and dying on Japan’s behalf, especially “over some rocks,” is not a vote getter in Washington, DC.

Koji Yamazaki, Japanese chief of staff, Joint Staff of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, and Lieutenant General Kevin B. Schneider, commander, US Forces Japan and Fifth Air Force, fist bump on board the Japanese helicopter carrier Kaga off the Shikoku region, October 26, 2020. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Both governments must defang, in advance, the argument that the China lobbyists will make – that Japan thinks it can call up US forces to die for it just the way it would whistle up a taxi outside a hotel.

Japan needs to show in every possible way that it’s pulling its weight. Otherwise, expect serious political opposition in Washington when push comes to shove. “Too difficult” and “severe fiscal condition” will not persuade many Americans.

Be prepared for a surprise as you may sometimes get the impression from Japanese officials that they are doing the US a favor by allowing Americans to fight (and die) on Japan’s behalf.

Does Japan have any good defense options that don’t involve close ties with the US?  No.  And it has no options at all that don’t involve nuclear weapons. You will need to make your case clearly and often.

Which Japanese?

Japanese do not all think alike. Among Japanese officials, politicians, and the media there is a range of opinions about defense and the US-Japan defense relationship – just as there is in the United States.

Get out and talk to as many Japanese as possible – not just the usual suspects deemed suitable to talk to an ambassador.

Probably the larger number of Japanese recognize the need for an improved military capability, much bigger defense budgets and seamless ties to the US forces.

Others see no need to do more, viewing the Americans as “guard dogs” (yes, the term slips out now and then) who just need to be given some water and a bone and set loose in the front yard. A smaller number are reflexively anti-military, and some are resentful of the US presence – a reminder of how World War II ended.

If you need a break from the Tokyo elite, get out and meet younger Japanese military officers and jieikan (regular troops). Even most Japanese know little about these people. (2021: Japan’s service members are some of the most impressive Japanese. Get to know them.)

Fortunately, the Japanese public is intelligent – and when things are explained to them, they understand and support Japan’s defense requirements better than many Tokyo politicians and bureaucrats do.

Regarding Okinawa

An aerial photo shows landfill work at a coastal area off Henoko, Oura Bay, Nago City, Okinawa Prefecture, on December 11, 2020, two years after the Okinawa Defense Bureau of the Defense Ministry started a construction project. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

US handling of Okinawa issues has been largely incoherent for the last 20 years. That’s another matter, however. (2021: Make that 24 years.)

Okinawa is Japanese territory and the Japanese central government is responsible for doing what is necessary to ensure US operations on the island. The government’s failure to take on a noisy Okinawan opposition – one that is raking in huge amounts of money in central government payouts (have your staff do the math to calculate the jaw-dropping amounts) – is the ultimate problem. Okinawa is not America’s fault.

Have your staff count the number of times the government has promised to keep its promise (to keep its promise to keep its promise) to build a replacement for Futenma Air Station.

As for the Henoko solution being the only possible solution: Don’t be afraid to ask why this is so – and even better, ask how the decision to build a really long heliport to replace the functions of Futenma’s 10,000 foot runway was arrived at?

One wishes a fraction of the effort that’s gone into solving (or not solving) the Okinawa real estate problem over the last 20 years had been applied to creating a competent Japanese military fully linked to US forces. It’s never too late to start.  (2021:  It is now 24 years and counting.)

Best wishes Ambassador.  You will watch history being made, and indeed, might even make it yourself. If at the end of your assignment things are in as good shape as when you began, you will earn a gentleman’s C.  

(2021: How did the previous guys do? Just a C. Maybe not a gentleman’s C but a C nonetheless when graded by the specific measures Japan and the US needed to accomplish. It didn’t help that Ambassador William Hagerty resigned two years into his tour – and a replacement ambassador was not fielded.

While the concrete progress with the Quad was impressive, as was the JSDF getting out and about in the region more than ever before, the Japanese themselves deserve credit for most of that. As you can see, the 2017 advice still mostly applies – four years later. That’s not a good thing. 

And unfortunately, the People’s Republic of China’s military build-up during the last four years deserves an A+. The Chinese now smell blood. A C this time around will just be a gentleman’s F. But if the JSDF is able to conduct joint operations, is adequately funded and is able to really operate with US forces, you’ll be remembered for a good long while.)

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and the Center for Security Policy. He is a retired US Marine officer and a former diplomat who has lived in Japan for many years.