By Satoshi Ogawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Washington Bureau ChiefAt the outset of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, more than a few of our readers must be wondering if the alliance between Japan and the United States can be maintained as it was in the past.
A number of remarks made by Trump during the presidential election, ignoring the reality of the alliance, caused this anxiety. On top of that, there is growing concern among Japanese government officials and experts over the fact that there is no one in the current administration who has experience maintaining and managing the alliance.
One person who is well versed in Japan, said to me, “Now you must understand how we felt in 2009 when Yukio Hatoyama took office as prime minister.”
However, this time the alliance has not meandered without clear direction, as it did in 2009.
In a joint statement issued on Feb. 10, Trump made it clear that the United States is committed to defending Japan with nuclear deterrence, including defense of the Senkaku Islands in case of contingencies, and that the United States will maintain and strengthen its military presence in the Asia Pacific region. He had taken a vague stance on these issues during the presidential campaign.
But it was not those who are knowledgeable about Japan who saved the alliance, which could have been on shaky ground. Rather, it was former military officers who had previously seemed to have little interest in Japan.
One of those officers is Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. He served in the Middle East for a long time, including as commander of the Central Command. A Japanese government official anxiously remarked that Mattis might have scant interest in Asia.
However, at a press conference during his visit to Japan in early February, Mattis said that Japan’s cost-sharing of U.S. forces stationed in Japan is a model for other nations to follow. His remarks surprised the Japanese officials in charge.
Another example is Michael Flynn — who recently resigned as Trump’s national security adviser — who is a specialist in counterterrorism and had had little contact with Japan. He is said to have explained the importance of the alliance to Trump from an early stage, mainly in response to the lobbying of the Japanese Embassy in the United States. It is believed that Flynn contributed a lot to the joint statement.
Mattis and Flynn, neither with experience in Japan-related posts, understood as security specialists the importance of the alliance and of Japan as a whole.
Given this, it seems that knowledge about the role of Japan, an ally, is readily shared by the many senior military officers who have worked at U.S. bases in Japan.
People who work at U.S. bases in Japan, along with their families, often come to like the people and culture of Japan.
The Japanese Embassy in the United States has held friendly events in the Japan U.S. Military Program (JUMP) across the country since 2015. The aim is to grow the number of people who support Japan, as the Japanese defense attache in Washington put it, by organizing events for servicemen and servicewomen and their families. More than 50,000 people follow its Facebook page.
The Japan-U.S. alliance has been diligently maintained and managed, mainly by diplomats and those well-informed about Japan. These people are described as “gardeners.”
The presence of those in the U.S. military who understand the importance of the alliance can thus be regarded as soil in which to nurture trees and plants.