After five years of solidifying Japan-US security relations under the leadership of former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, the alliance over the past year has lurched into a sharp decline under his successor Shinzo Abe and Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda because Tokyo has reverted to the insular politics of yesteryear.
At issue has been a cynical ploy of the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, Ichiro Ozawa, to use what he perceived to be public disapproval of Japan's maritime support for the US in the Indian Ocean to force out Fukuda, of the Liberal Democratic Party. Fukuda, in turn, dallied in a half-hearted effort to bring Ozawa around.
Both, it seems, misread public opinion. Polls taken by the Asahi, Yomiuri, Mainichi, and Nihon Keizai newspapers, and the Kyodo News Agency, found that 44 to 49 percent of Japanese approved of Japan's naval deployments. In contrast, 30 to 43 percent, a wider spread, disapproved.
As the Economist magazine said in an editorial: "So is this the Japan of old: self-absorbed, unashamed at leaving others to do the hard military tasks?"
Fukuda, who has been in office less than two months, was forced to withdraw Japanese vessels from the Indian Ocean because he had not persuaded the Diet to extend the law authorizing them to refuel ships of the US and three other nations there. In six years, the Japanese had performed 780 refueling operations. A less visible airlift in which Japanese military planes ferried people and cargo on 380 flights within Japan also ended.
Lieutenant Colonel Scott Graham, a US Air Force operations officer, was quoted in Stars & Stripes, the US military newspaper, as saying: "It allowed us to dedicate our aircraft to other missions," including flights into Iraq and Afghanistan.
A year ago, Japan pulled its contingent of 500 soldiers out of Iraq, where they had been assigned non-combatant tasks. The Japanese had rotated 10 such units through Iraq for six months at a time, the first overseas deployment of Japanese soldiers since World War II.
Moreover, several Tokyo press reports said Fukuda's government was planning to reduce its financial support for US forces in Japan when the fiscal year begins next April. Japan pays for most of the yen costs at US bases in Japan, such as rent, labor, and utilities. That runs to US$4 billion to US$5 billion a year, or about 10 percent of Japan's military budget.
Into this valley of disarray rode US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates seeking to get the alliance back on track. He told Fukuda, Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura and Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba last week it was "unfortunate" that the refueling operation had been suspended and urged Japan to "resume its leadership" in Asia. He told them the US was trying to mitigate the loss of Japan's fuel supplies.
US military officers informed on events in Japan contended, somewhat anxiously, that the damage to the alliance would be limited to the political sphere.
They said they expected agreements already reached with the Japanese, such as putting a US Army corps headquarters in Camp Zama alongside a Japanese headquarters, would go forward.The government in Tokyo, moreover, has agreed to pay for 60 percent of the US$10 billion cost of moving 8,000 US Marines and 9,000 dependents and civilian employees to Guam from Okinawa, leaving just under 10,000 Marines on Japan's southern island. That move is to be completed in 2014-2015.
Even so, the law of unintended consequences seemed to be at work. Japan's emergence from the postwar cocoon in which it had wrapped itself after World War II and from which it seemed to be shedding has come into question. Japan's hopes for attaining a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, always tenuous at best, have been set back.
The "Asian Gateway Initiative" proclaimed by Abe last spring appears in jeopardy. It was to have eased Japan into a "responsible role in the development of Asia" and to have had Japan take the lead in forging "an open regional order," emphasizing economic progress.
Just after he took office, Fukuda said in a policy address: "Maintaining the solid Japan-US alliance and promoting international cooperation are the foundation of Japan's diplomacy." He pledged "that Japan will realize its responsibilities commensurate with its national strength in the international community, and become a country which is relied upon internationally."
Those aspirations have dropped below the horizon, at least for the immediate future.
Richard Halloran is a writer based in Hawaii.