In a Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of 1,000 likely voters in the US on 27th January 2011, 48% answered that the US should remove its troops from Japan. What does this say about the US-Japanese alliance?  Not a lot, perhaps, as the survey was conducted in response to the Congressional scrutiny of  the future defense budget in which billions of dollars-worth of cuts are expected.

Rasmussen Reports survey

Protestors demonstrate against U.S. bases in Okinawa on May 4, 2010 (Source: Reuters/Toru Hanai)

Protestors demonstrate against U.S. bases in Okinawa on May 4, 2010 (Source: Reuters/Toru Hanai)

From the results, those who identified as Republican wanted troops to remain, whereas a majority of Democrats or unaffiliated voters wanted the troops out. This reflects a generally common view that Republican presidents are good for Japan, Democrats not so much – a view that was firmly entrenched following Clinton’s vow to fight the Japanese trade surplus in the early 1990s. For what its worth, self-identified Tea Partiers showed little significant difference in results than those that don’t consider themselves Tea Partiers – unsurprising given the plurality of the Tea Party movement.

The base issue

The presence of US military bases are a source of tension throughout the country, largely due to the resultant noise pollution of low-flying jets and helicopters and national reports of crime and disturbances by US servicemen and women. This tension is most intense in Okinawa, the subject of intense debate between US and Japanese officials in recent years.

Location of US facilities in Japan

Location of US facilities in Japan (Source: Tokyo Progressive)

The result of the Rasmussen Reports could be the result of a deeper difference in understanding between the Japanese public, for whom the defense arrangement is essential for their security, and the American public, many of whom are possibly unaware of the role of US forces in Japan.

2007 Yomiuri/Gallup poll

A joint poll run by Yomiuri Shimbun in Japan and Gallup in the US provides a more nuanced approach to the question than Rasmussen Reports:

Currently, under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, there are numerous U.S. military bases in Japan. Do you think U.S. military forces stationed in Japan should be strengthened, maintained, or reduced? Or do you think U.S. forces should be withdrawn completely from Japan?

In the November 2007 Yomiuri/Gallup poll, 42% of Japanese wanted a reduction in U.S. bases in Japan, while 40% wanted to maintain the current level. Those who wanted the US completely out of Japan outnumbered those who wanted an increase by nearly 10 to one (9.8% to 1.3%). The same is not true of American respondents, among whom maintaining the status quo received an significant majority, nearly five times the level of responses than the next second most common, “Should be reduced”. Keen-eyed viewers will not that those who said “Yes” to the Rasmussen Reports survey make up only 10% of the responses in the November 2007 poll. This would appear to suggest that there is less to the Rasmussen Reports poll than at first glance.

2010 Asahi Shimbun survey

As a final word on the difference in US and Japanese thought on the necessity of US bases in Japan, let’s look at this December 2010 poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun:

Based on the U.S.-Japan Defense Treaty there are around 47,000 American military personnel currently stationed in Japan. What do you think is the reason these soldiers are stationed in Japan? (Answer text edited for brevity)
Why are the US military in Japan? - Asahi poll results from 1999 and 2010

Why are the US military in Japan? - Asahi poll results from 1999 and 2010 (Source: Asahi)

It is clear from this question that the Japanese and American public have very different perspectives on the US mission in Japan. For the Japanese, it is necessary to believe that the US military are there to protect them, if not, why would they allow them to adversely affect their lives?

The image on the right is a translated scan of a chart from the Asahi Shimbun article on the poll detailing the change in responses since 1999. It shows that more Japanese have come to believe that the US bases are there for their own good, and that perhaps fewer Americans are concerned about Japanese militarization. Perhaps then, some Americans believe that their post-war work in Japan is done – hence why they respond that US forces should leave Japan and Western Europe. It is impossible to say for sure.

For the US public, it is necessary to justify the presence in terms of not only US strategy, i.e. Cold War-era containment and regional balance of power, but also as part of an mutually appreciated security agreement. There are no complaints about US forces being stationed in the UK, so why is Japan such a hot issue? The key is the US Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma.

For the Japanese, the necessity of the USMC presence is questionable: ignoring the Corps’ practically tri-service nature, it remains at its heart an expeditionary force. An expeditionary force that hasn’t launched an expedition from Okinawa since the Vietnam War. Expeditionary forces are not static defensive forces – they are mobile and offensive. Whereas the USAF and US Navy are contributing to the defense of Japanese territory and airspace, the Marines in Okinawa just sit and wait, taking up time, space, and capital – both financial and political.

As former Ambassador Michael Armacost told an audience at Claremont McKenna College in April 2010:

We’re at risk of allowing a second-tier base issue – i.e. whether to move a Marine air station from Futenma, a highly populated urban area, to a more remote location in Northern Okinawa– to become a litmus test for our alliance with Japan. This is stupid. It is not entirely clear what the Marine Corp contributes to the defense of Japan. Our Marines do a lot of training – which is useful – with other services, and engage in a lot of highly worthy disaster-relief missions elsewhere in the region. Is this critical or just “nice to have if the costs are reasonable?”

The Futenma issue is the recognizable face of the US military presence in Japan and it obscures a lot of the good work and strong relationships at work between US and Japanese military and civilian officials. It also undermines support for US forces in mainland Japan and back in the US, where it might seem that the Japanese are ungrateful to the US. However, very few Japanese (but sadly a very vocal bunch) are advocating US withdrawal from Japan, just a realignment or reduction – and no doubt that reduction would come from the controversial Futenma base. The Japanese belief that the US is providing a significant portion of their security and they are willing to accept it.

For its part, however, the US must consider defusing the Futenma issue, which means that they should compromise on their prior agreement. The 1996 agreement to return Futenma in return for receiving a new base in Okinawa presupposes that the USMC presence is essential to regional security. If anything, the Marines have been undermining their purpose by allowing Japan to take on a greater burden through training GSDF rangers. Relocating Futenma personnel to another part of Japan or outside the country would help defuse the tension that underlies the current US-Japan relationship, and it would stop the issue cropping up in American media outlets.

The US needs to find a solution to Futenma while also educating the US public about the role the US plays in Japanese security and why it is important for the US to be there. With the rise of China, the North Korean missile threat and the nascent ballistic missile defense system, the US has plenty of strategic reasons for being here. The US public can understand why these are important to their national security a lot more than simply defending the Japanese – and in not explaining this background, the Rasmussen Reports question can be considered highly leading as well as simplistic.

The Rasmussen Reports survey showed clear support for US forces in South Korea. Why? North Korea, of course. US forces in Japan face the same threat – and if the US wants to maintain its bases here, it has to do more to show the public that understand protests of the Okinawan people are not true for the rest of the country (not since the tension around MCAS Iwakuni died down, at least). It won’t be easy when the Japanese appear to be attempting to push US forces over into Guam, but that is the story they must tell before the public decide that there is no reason to stay in Japan. Japan needs US protection and the US needs the strategic bases it has created here.

[Special thanks to Corey Wallace]

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch