Should the U.S. military be withdrawn from Japan?
The presence of U.S. troops in Japan has been a flashpoint issue between the two countries since the infamous gang rape of an Okinawa school girl by U.S. troops. However, the threat of China and a nuclear-capable North Korea have led to many asking if U.S. troops should be withdrawn from the region or maintained.
Rise of the Issue
The U.S. began stationing troops in Okinawa in 1952 after Japan regained its sovereignty in exchange for giving the U.S. the right to set up military bases on the islands.The deployment of U.S. troops to the region was part of the American pledge to defend Japan, which had recently adopted a pacifist constitution, largely written by American officials. Today, the role of U.S. troops in Okinawa has become one of deterrence, as they would be able to respond rapidly to any aggression from China or North Korea. They work closely with the Japanese Self Defense Force (J.S.D.F) to coordinate strategy and military policy in the region. However, many issues have been raised over the long period the U.S. have been quartered there, including ill will among the locals, understandably so as Okinawa makes up 0.6% of Japan’s land mass and yet 75% of US Forces in Japan are stationed there, taking up as much as 18% of the land of the main island.
In 1995, there was an incident where U.S. servicemen raped a schoolgirl in Okinawa, prompting outrage from the population. This is one of the many such incidents that the residents of Okinawa have accused U.S. forces of committing since their deployment in 1952. On top of that, Japan spends more on maintaining U.S. forces than any other country housing U.S. troops. Combined, these factors do have the potential to do serious harm to the alliance between Japan and the U.S.
As such, a U.S. withdrawal from Japan would do a lot to alleviate these tensions while also encouraging Japan to focus more on its defense, which would make it a more reliable partner in the region. However, many also argue that a withdrawal from Japan at this moment would be foolish due to a more assertive China within the region and the potential threat of North Korea.
1945 - 1951
U.S. Occupation of Japan Post-WWII
The postwar occupation of Japan and the redrafting of its constitution were supervised and managed by the U.S. under General MacArthur. Japan thus adopts a pacifist constitution, withdrawing all military capabilities of Japan, and the U.S. pledges to protect them. Japan then leases the island of Okinawa to the U.S. in exchange for the end of U.S. occupation.
1951 - 1972
U.S. Forces Use Japanese Bases as Launching Points During Vietnam War
The U.S. 7th fleet and marines use Okinawa bases and other regions in Japan as a launching point for operations in Vietnam. In 1972, the U.S. returned Okinawa to the Japanese government but still maintained its bases on the island.
In Koza, now known as Okinawa City, tensions boiled over once an American driver hit an Okinawan and U.S. military police arrived at the scene and fired warning shots, leading Okinawans to gather en masse. In total over 3,000 Okinawans clashed with U.S. military police.
U.S. Servicemen Abduct and Rape a 12-Year-Old Girl in Okinawa
The incident caused a massive upsurge in anti-American sentiment in Okinawa, with local officials pointing out that this was one of the many crimes committed by U.S. servicemen on the island. The servicemen were prosecuted under Japanese law, as specified in the U.S.-Japan Security agreement.
2001 - 2015
Increased Defense Cooperation Between U.S. and Japanese Troops
U.S. troops and members of the J.S.D.F conduct military exercises and joint operations in response to threats from North Korea and China. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reinterprets the constitution to allow Japan to defend its allies, increasing its reliability as a partner in the Asia Pacific region.
Around 65,000 Okinawans protest U.S. occupation following the rape and murder of a 20-year-old woman by a former U.S. Marine.
2017 - Today
Japan Approves 5 years of Additional funding in 2022
President Trump accused Tokyo of not spending enough money to host U.S. forces, despite Tokyo citing the fact that Japan pays for 75% of U.S. military expenses, unlike South Korea which only pays 40%. President Biden was able to diffuse this tension and the Japanese government committed to spending US$8.6 billion more to support U.S. troops.
The Japanese Constitution
Because the Japanese constitution outlaws the use of war as a means to settle a conflict, some believe the U.S. presence in Japan to be necessary to protect this important partner from rival actors like China and North Korea. Others have pointed out that Japan’s Self Defense Forces are more than capable of protecting their country, which does not necessitate U.S. Involvement.
Expenses of U.S. Bases
While some say that relocating U.S. troops to bases in U.S. territory would considerably increase the upkeep expenses for the U.S., others argue that Japan is unfairly paying for a continued U.S. troop presence and that the bases should revert to Japan so it can use the money to develop its defensive capabilities.
Tensions with Locals
Some argue that American troops should be withdrawn entirely from Okinawa to Japan-U.S. relations are not harmed, while others say simply scaling down the number of bases would be enough.
Many have argued that the continued U.S. troop presence in Japan is one of the reasons behind North Korea’s nuclear tests, while others say U.S. troop presence deters North Korea from taking even riskier action.
Defense of Taiwan
Some believe that having U.S. troops positioned in Okinawa is ideal deterrence for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, and also serves as a force that can rapidly mobilize and defend Taiwan if an invasion does happen. Others argue that the pledge of U.S. troops to defend Japan becomes null and void in such a scenario, and so they could simply be relocated elsewhere closer to Taiwan.
Withdrawing U.S. troops from Japan would force them to reconsider their Constitution.
By removing the guarantee of security U.S. troops provide, Japan would be forced to reconsider its position on pacifism and commit to amending its constitution, which would make it a more reliable partner in the region.
Removing U.S. troops from Okinawa would reduce local tensions.
By relocating or withdrawing U.S. troops from bases in Okinawa, the U.S. would be able to reduce flare-ups and tensions with the locals, which removes a potential flashpoint that could deteriorate Japan-U.S. relations.
Withdrawing U.S. troops would relieve the Japanese from having to pay for them.
Japan spends up to 75% of the costs of hosting U.S. troops, which amounts to almost US$4.8 billion in expenses. These expenses could then be redirected elsewhere to increase government spending, alleviate societal issues, and increase Japanese defense spending.
Removing U.S. troops from Japan could reduce the threat from North Korea.
By removing U.S. troops from the region, North Korea would probably have less reason to continue provoking its neighbors with missile tests and nuclear weapons detonations. It would by no means eliminate the threat they pose, but would significantly reduce the risk of war through provocations.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops would do too little to impact the defense of Japan.
The terms of the Japanese American Security Arrangement state that Japan is fully responsible for the defense of its islands, supplemented by U.S. Forces. If U.S. forces were removed, there would be no gaping hole in the Japanese defense.
Removal of U.S. forces would be seen as an act of weakness.
The U.S. forces presence in Japan represent America’s commitment to the region and stand in opposition to Chinese, Russian, and North Korean aggression in the region. By removing this deterrence, these rivals would be emboldened to pursue their territorial claims in the region.
It would be more expensive to maintain U.S. troops at home.
Japan covers a significant cost of maintaining the U.S. presence in the region, and withdrawing these troops to a region under U.S. control would mean an increase in upkeep costs for the U.S.
It would become harder to defend Taiwan in case of an invasion.
The current location of U.S. forces in Japan, while not the most ideal, is still a major geographic advantage the U.S. possesses. If they were removed from Okinawa and other Japanese bases, it would make it harder for the U.S. Pacific Command to coordinate with allies like Japan and South Korea in case of conflict.
The move would not go down well with the Japanese government.
Despite local opposition to the deployment of U.S. troops, the Japanese government still holds the view that U.S. troop presence is necessary and effective. Thus by withdrawing, the U.S. would run the risk of abandoning and upsetting an important partner in the region.
Removing U.S. troops and infrastructure would make it more difficult for Japan to defend itself.
The Japanese Self Defense Forces are capable of defending their home islands, but without the supplementation of U.S. forces, they would be hard-pressed to do so. U.S. troop presence allows Japan to focus on its defense first, but in the case of a withdrawal of U.S. troops, Japan would struggle to defend both its surrounding allies and itself.