This week, champagne corks were popped at think tanks in Washington and Tokyo. Celebratory editorials and columns by diplomats and pundits appeared in many of the world's newspapers. U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama issued warm statements. The occasion? The 50th anniversary of the U.S.-Japan security alliance.
But the revelers got the date wrong, and in so doing they revealed -- inadvertently, one hopes -- their disregard for the no-longer-hidden reefs that threaten the bilateral relationship.
To be clear, there is much to celebrate. The bilateral alliance -- in which the United States provides the Japanese government and companies access to American markets and technology in exchange for the right to base troops in Japan -- has helped deliver stability and prosperity to northeast Asia. The U.S. military presence has enabled Japan to spend little on defense, thereby reassuring its neighbors that Tokyo has fully abandoned last century's imperial ambitions. There are few more successful or sustained bilateral alliances in world history.
This week's celebrations were specifically timed to the golden anniversary of the signing of the U.S.-Japan alliance in Washington, a most cozy affair. Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, a former member of Gen. Hideki Tojo's war cabinet, had made the transition to diplomacy and conferred on the golf course and in the Oval Office with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. They struck a deal in mid-January. All that remained was ratification.
But ratification was anything but a cozy process, for most Japanese had real questions about the pact. Many on the pacifist left wanted to preserve Japanese neutrality in the Cold War, fearing that an alliance with Washington would return Japan to the disastrous road of militarism. Many on the nationalist right accepted the alliance as a bulwark against communism, but also feared it would prevent Japan from regaining great-power status. Both leftists and rightists agreed that allowing American soldiers bases and extraterritorial rights violated Japanese sovereignty.
By May 1960, armed mostly with placards and petitions, tens of millions of citizens had taken to the streets to protest the treaty. Radical students were met by better-armed rightwing thugs, recruited by the government. Blood spilled as protestors literally knocked on the massive doors of the Diet, Japan's parliament. The tumult that followed a late-night, secret ratification of the treaty in June (Kishi used the police to expel the opposition parties from the chamber) prevented Eisenhower from coming to Japan and toppled the Kishi government. These "security treaty riots" defined an entire political generation of postwar Japanese.
Half a century later, the alliance has more than demonstrated its value. There has been remarkably little fighting in a region filled with territorial disputes, rapidly modernizing militaries, widespread nuclear weapons, and other potential sources of dangerous instability. Acceptance of the alliance is widespread.
Still, with the U.S. military enjoying exclusive rights to over 115 square miles of land, three quarters of it in a single province, Okinawa, Japanese sovereignty remains a concern to many. Even mainstream conservatives rail against "the base burden" and U.S. extraterritorial privilege. One former defense minister, Ohno Yoshinori, declared "the occupation-era base structure" to be the single most difficult problem for the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance. And defense journalist Ina Hisayoshi reflects the widely held (and less restrained) judgment that the conduct of the U.S. military in Japan "resembles that of an occupying force."