How Japan Can Finally Say “No”

In 1990, the controversial right-wing Governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro, published “The Japan That Can Say No: Why Japan Will Be First Among Equals”. Nearly 20 years later, many Japanese are still pondering if or when Japan can “say no” to the United States, the target of Ishihara’s book. Since the end of World War II (WWII), Japan has worked closely with the United States on issues of East Asian security. Still, if America is not careful in addressing Japanese concerns, especially in regard to North Korea, this may create a tipping point in U.S. – Japanese relations, where Tokyo significantly breaks with Washington over foreign policy.

Many in the Japanese government have long wanted to take a harder line with North Korea. Some hardliners have even suggested a full remilitarization of Japan, including nuclear capability. Although the majority of the population is still anti-nuclear and support keeping the military (SDF) as a defense force, the percentage of those who do is declining yearly. This also reflects the growing number of Japanese who no longer feel burdened with the legacy of World War II Japanese Imperialism or the necessity of an American security umbrella.

In Asia, Japan’s military funding is second only to China’s. It is also highly regarded internationally, especially for its naval capabilities. Currently, the SDF has about 240,000 uniformed troops. Due to constitutional restrictions, written in by America after WWII, the Japanese military has been limited to defensive capability only. Force projection technologies, such as aircraft carriers, are prohibited.

Since the first Gulf War, America has been encouraging the Japanese to push the definition of “defense”, not to promote an independent Japanese foreign policy, more so to offset the costs to America in mounting these types of operations. There is more to the contemporary relationship than the multi-billion dollar ballistic missile shield being put in place to prevent a potential strike by North Korea (or China). Lately, the United States and Japans’ joint military trainings have focused on coordinated attacks; a skill that would be needed for the Japanese to contribute to missions similar to what the U.S. has undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the last few years, Japan has sent its navy to the Red Sea to fight pirates as part of a multinational force, to monitor North Korean missile activity, and to aid the refueling of ships in the Indian Ocean. Japan has also sent ground troops to Iraq to provide humanitarian aid. This change is partially a result of Japan having been criticized for “checkbook diplomacy” due to not committing troops to Desert Storm. This is a point of contention, as the Japanese government feels the war would not have been possible without their financing. Japan has also given the second largest amount of wartime assistance to Iraq between 2004 and 2006 and a similarly large amount to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2006.

North Korea

On April 5, 2009, the North Korean government launched, what it claims to have been, the experimental communications satellite Kwangmyongsong-2 on an Unha-2 rocket. Since 1957, most ICBMs evolved from satellite launchers, and this too, was likely a cover for a Taepodong-2 or 3 ballistic missile test, which has the ability to strike anywhere in the Japanese archipelago. In fact, the missile flew over Japanese airspace. This was North Korea’s first long-range missile test since its two failed attempts in 2006 and 1998. North Korea’s 1998 missile test prompted the UN Security Council to express concerns in an informal press statement. The 2006 tests resulted in the Security Council adopting a resolution to prohibit North Korea from conducting testing.

North Korea’s test was not happenstance; it was a purposeful ploy to escalate tensions. The North wants to solidify its status as a nuclear power by demonstrating its ability to launch ballistic missiles capable of transporting a nuclear warhead. Kim Jong Il also wants to play China and Russia off against the new Obama Administration, Japan, and South Korea to gain negotiating leverage at any renewed 6-party talks. The missile site at Tongchangri was outfitted to launch both intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and satellites. It can also test launch missiles without them flying over Japanese airspace. Instead, North Korea launched from Musudan-ri. Although the missile test was a failure it appeared to travel further than previous missiles.

The cash strapped Kim Regime also has incurred a current account deficit for 50 years. In earlier decades, the Soviet Union primarily funded these deficits, but since its collapse, China and South Korea have become its major sources of subsistence, along with U.S. currency counterfeiting; weapons sales; drug trafficking; and remittances from Japanese born Koreans (Zainichi). Kim needs these cash infusions to secure the loyalty of the military and party members. Cash flows have become even worse in recent years due to sanctions and the loss of Libya and Pakistan as weapons buyers after 9-11. A Japanese newspaper, Sankei Shimbun, reported that 15 Iranians arrived in North Korea to observe the latest missile test; it is likely they are potential buyers.


The Japanese government’s response to this has been typically subdued. Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso has said that a launch by North Korea would be a violation of United Nations resolution 1718. At the most recent G20 meeting in London, he also called for a new UN resolution against North Korea. There will also be an extension of Japanese sanctions against North Korea, which include a ban on North Korean ships entering Japanese ports and importation of all North Korean goods, as well as a crack down on bank transfers from the Zainichi community. Tokyo has also refused to join the other six-party members in providing fuel oil to North Korea under the “denuclearization-for-aid deal”, citing a lack of progress on the “abduction issue”, North Koreans having kidnapped Japanese citizens during the Cold War. This long-standing dispute has been a major obstacle to normalizing between Japan and North Korea.

The SDF responded to the proposed missile launch by stating that it might shoot down a rocket flying over Japanese airspace. Japan’s warships are equipped with Aegis combat systems, which enable them to track and shoot down missiles, but the SDF quickly backtracked, stating it will only launch interceptors if debris from a failed Korean missile appears likely to hit Japanese territory. Japan fired no interceptors when the April 5th test missile few over Southern Honshu.

One of Tokyo’s greatest concerns, is that the U.S. will move to a de facto acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear status, which will be an unacceptable position that will sour U.S. – Japanese relations, as well as global nonproliferation efforts. This would be the point at which Japan may not only remilitarize but also go nuclear.

The U.S.

In 1994, the United States and North Korea signed a framework where the North Koreans agreed to shut down their nuclear facilities and accept weapons inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency in return for normalized relations with the United States and large sums in aid and fuel from Japan, South Korea and the U.S. 15 years later, the U.S. is still trying to get North Korea to adhere to this agreement.

The Japanese have made the Obama administration fully aware that Japan disagreed with the Bush Administration removing North Korea from the terrorism list and how this has complicated negotiations. Likewise, the Japanese have been informed that the U.S. will give priority to the nuclear proliferation issue over the Japanese abduction issue. Despite this, Secretary Clinton visited with abductees families in Tokyo on her last visit. This signaled that the U.S. understood Japanese concerns, but not much else.

It is widely believed in Japan that the Bush Administration engaged China at the expense of Japan, especially when Bush visited China before Japan during his last trip to the Pacific Rim. The Obama Administration, cognizant of this, sent Secretary of State Clinton to Asia on her first trip abroad. Stopping first in Japan was seen as a reaffirmation of the U.S.-Japan alliance. This act was supposedly confirmed by the subsequent visit of Prime Minister Taro Aso to the United States, but many Japanese complained that the visit received little of the usual fan fair, citing this as a show of disrespect to Japan.

A Possible Future

North Korea has repeatedly violated Japanese airspace; purposefully imports illegal drugs into Japan; admitted to abducting Japanese citizens from Japanese soil; and has made several military threats against Japan. In the latest round of threats, North Korea stated that “the Korean People’s Army will mercilessly deal deadly blows not only at the already deployed intercepting means but at major targets [in Japan, etc.].” If any nation behaved this way toward the United States it would undoubtedly be considered a provocation deserving of an immediate and severe military response. Japan should not just have to be content to follow America’s lead. Japan can say, “No”! The best way to do this is to make it immediately clear that the SDF will shoot down any missile that violates Japanese airspace which comes from North Korea, because it is a violation of previous UN resolutions. Japan should not ask permission to protect its citizens and the territorial integrity of its nation, America; Russia; and China definitely would not.

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama stated that he expected North Korea to live up to the terms previously agreed on or harsh actions would be taken in addition to current sanctions. Japan should hold Obama to this promise by pressuring America to do two things. Firstly, the U.S. should insist that the UN Security Council adopt a new resolution which makes sanctions mandatory and authorizes military enforcement be taken if North Korea continues its present course. Any sanctions will be useless if Russia and China do not approve. It is highly unlikely the U.S. and Japan will be able to obtain the cooperation of Russia and China, because both are hesitant to say that the test violates any UN resolutions, due to Pyongyang’s claim of a satellite launch. Despite this, the U.S. should at least make the effort. Second, any Six-Party Talks agreements must contain an agreement by North Korea to set up a joint committee with Japan to reinvestigate the abductions of Japanese citizens in return for Japan lifting its sanctions. The Japanese have the leverage to do so; the only question is if the Japanese leadership has the will.

Japan’s leverage is due to the fact that the United States needs Japan. The U.S. needs Japan to contribute to its triangulation strategy involving the Indian and Australian navies, an attempt to check China’s ambitions in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Japan can hurt the U.S. by giving more weight to China’s wish to use IMF SDR’s as a true international reserve currency to replace the dollar. Japan can also threaten to reduce its American military presence, especially in Okinawa. Japan can threaten to sell certain military technologies that it produces to China and Russia. Lastly, Japan could threaten to go nuclear if it feels the U.S. is not adequately promoting its national security interests in regard to North Korea.

For Japan’s part, it should do more to establish an independent international personality, outside the financial realm. The Japanese can accomplish this by modifying their constitution through a campaign targeting Japanese national pride, so that they can commit more troops to UN Peacekeeping operations. They should work more closely with China and serve as a go-between for Washington and Beijing. They will have more room to negotiate with China when they have a true military power status more independent from the U.S. This leverage can be used to gain a concession from China on Japan’s ascension to the U.N. Security Council, but in return Japan must stop blocking greater Chinese participation in various international financial groups. If Japan wants to be a leader in Asia it must speak for Asia and not just expect Washington’s Asia policy to be synonymous with Washington’s Japanese policy.

Lastly, Japan should publicly call for the formation of an international historical “truth and reconciliation” council of East and Southeast Asian (and possibly neutral Western) historians to make an authoritative report on Japan’s role in WWII. Whatever the final report says, Japan should adopt as their official history, to finally lay this issue to rest and clear the road for Japan’s remilitarization. If Japan does these things they will effectively be able to normalize themselves as a nation. Will the Japanese government have the fortitude to exploit this opportunity and finally say, “No”?

What do you think?

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