Despite ‘World’s Maximum’ 120 Military Bases, Japan Unhappy With US Presence Amid Growing Chinese Threats

When Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida meets U.S. President Joe Biden on April 10 at the White House, one of the important topics both will deliberate on is the need to restructure the American military command in Japan in the face of growing threats emanating from China.

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If realized, the restructuring could be the biggest potential change to Washington’s East Asia command structure in decades, it is said.

An exclusive Financial Times report, which Tokyo and Washington have not denied, says that “the US and Japan are planning the biggest upgrade to their security alliance since they signed a mutual defense treaty in 1960 in a move to counter China.”

When asked about it, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi replied in a regular news conference on March 25 that discussions on the matter were happening but stressed that nothing had been decided.

He said, “Discussions are underway between Japan and the U.S. regarding the strengthening of cooperation guidelines for command and control to enhance interoperability and response readiness.”

It may be noted that Japan is now committed to undertake significant defense reforms outlined under its latest National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy in December 2022.

While securing a so-called counter-strike capability and setting a defense budget goal equal to 2% of gross domestic product by 2027,  Japan has also pledged in its defense strategy to “further deepen the discussion with the United States on their roles, missions, and capabilities and further reinforce joint deterrence capabilities of both countries in an integrated manner.”

Incidentally, if Yoshimasa Hayashi is to be believed, Japan is working to create its own unified command capable of central, operational control over the three Self-Defense Forces (SDF)—air, maritime, and ground—by March 2025.

But what Japan is finding uncomfortable is the fact that despite the converging stands of Tokyo and Washington on the Chinese threats, coordination between them is far from adequate. Because U.S. Forces in Japan have little command and control authority, Tokyo has been forced to deal more with the Indo-Pacific Command, some 6,200 kilometers away in Hawaii.

Ryoichi Oriki, a former chief of  Japan’s SDF joint staff,  is reported to have said that he had found it inconvenient having to coordinate with the US Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii rather than the USFJ (US Forces Japan) commander, his daily counterpart.

Therefore, Tokyo apparently believes there is an urgent need to put a more senior US officer in Japan as it takes on a bigger regional defense role.

“It sends a strong strategic signal to China and North Korea, and it’s meaningful from the point of view of deterrence to say that the US will strengthen the command structure in Japan,” Oriki told the Financial Times.

Against this background, Tokyo would like Washington to consider appointing a four-star commander to oversee its forces in Japan as a counterpart to the head of its own SDF headquarters so that both will be able to coordinate and oversee all of the country’s military operations if the sources cited by the Financial Times are any indication.

File: US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida

Restructuring the U.S. military command in Japan could result in a combined U.S.-Japanese headquarters, according to many security experts.

“That would put U.S. and Japanese officers together coordinating training, drills, patrols and plans related to Japan’s defense”,  Grant Newsham, a retired Marine colonel and senior researcher with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo, pointed out.

“One wonders if the two sides will come up with an interim – and more immediate response – say, combining naval forces to a greater degree,” he said.

It may be noted that U.S. troops are also stationed in neighboring South Korea under a similar mutual defense treaty. However, there, U.S. and South Korean troops operate under a unified command under a four-star U.S. general with a South Korean Deputy.

But in Japan, the U.S. has a three-star commander, who does not have any authority over Japanese troops. Therefore, it is argued that if a four-star commander — the highest peacetime rank in any of the U.S. service branches — is appointed in Japan, he would match the rank of the Japanese counterpart. Initially, they will coordinate their activities, and if everything goes well, then they might lay the groundwork for a future unified Japanese-U.S. command, experts say.

According to James Brown, an international affairs expert at Temple University’s Japan campus, Japan and the U.S. do not need to amend their mutual defense treaty of 1960 in order to restructure the U.S. command.

“An important change in that regard has already occurred with the reinterpretation of the (Japanese) constitution to permit collective self-defense,” he said, adding, “Rather, this is about making organizational changes to enable the alliance to function more effectively in a crisis.”

However, it seems that instead of acceding to Tokyo’s proposal of a four-star commander to be based in the country, the Biden Administration believes in a gradualist approach and, therefore, may not contemplate a unified Japanese-U.S. Command.

If one goes by the report of the Financial Times, one model the Biden administration is considering involves creating a new US military joint task force that would be attached to the US Pacific Fleet, one of the component commands at Indopacom in Hawaii.

Under this scenario, the fleet’s four-star commander would spend more time in Japan than at present and would have an enhanced support structure in the country. Over time, the task force, which would be composed of different parts of the U.S. military, would shift to Japan, so runs the argument.

Be that as it may, it is being considered safe to guess that while a broad-brush announcement on the shift could come at the Biden-Kishida summit next month, the details are likely to be hashed out only during  “two-plus-two” talks between the allies’ defense ministers and top diplomats due to be held by the year-end.

It is noteworthy here that with 120 active bases, Japan has the highest number of U.S. bases in the world followed by Germany with 119 and South Korea with 73.

As many as 53,700 American military personnel are stationed in Japan (as against 26,400 in South Korea). Roughly 70% of the US military bases in Japan are in and around Okinawa; one island within the Okinawa Prefecture, Yonaguni, is less than 70 miles from Taiwan, which is under constant military threats from China. No wonder Japan is oversensitive to any change to the status quo of Taiwanese autonomy or de facto independence.

Incidentally, while every Japanese government wants a stronger American military presence in Japan, a vocal section of Japanese do nurture a strong anti-base sentiment, particularly in Okinawa.

This sentiment is apparently due to pollution and noise associated with the bases, alongside alleged sexual violence perpetrated by US base personnel against Okinawans. The agitators are not impressed by their national government’s rationale that U.S. bases in Okinawa enhance Japan’s security and that it has allowed the bases in exchange for a U.S. commitment to defend Japan from external attacks.

However, if past opinion polls are anything to go by, the majority of the Japanese, as against the dominant opinion of the Okinawans, do buy the national government’s rationale in favor of the U.S. presence. But, respecting some recent judicial pronouncements, Tokyo has agreed to relocate some U.S. installations within Okinawa province away from crowded places. Works in this regard have already commenced.

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has commented on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. 
  • CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at)
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Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: