Some Unsolicited Advice To The New U.S. Ambassador To Japan


Four years ago the United States had a new President and a new Ambassador headed to Japan. This writer wrote up some advice for the new Ambassador. Now four years later the United States has a new President and a new (though as yet unidentified) ambassador heading to Tokyo. In the spirit of foisting unsolicited advice on a bi-partisan basis I’ll offer it again. 

My original article still reads like the last four years didn’t happen. It wouldn’t be the first time this writer’s advice has been ignored.

Here’s the updated “unsolicited advice…”

The United States has a new president and shortly afterward will have a new ambassador to Japan.  The Tokyo envoy will no doubt study up on the issues, but here is some unsolicited advice anyway:

You’ll hear that the U.S.-Japan relationship is the “most important bilateral relationship, bar none.”  It is.  You’ll also hear that “it’s never been stronger.”  It isn’t, but with some effort, it could be. There is more to the relationship than the military angle, but that is the most important part. Here are a few things to consider.

Don’t pick a fight with Japan over Host Nation Support (HNS) as your boss, Mr. Trump, suggested he would — even if Japan can indeed afford to pay ten times more. That isn’t the issue.  (2021: This one is easy. Just don’t do it.)

Most of all, America needs more combat power from Japan, and it needs to better align and integrate this combat power with U.S. forces. The Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF) needs to improve and it needs to be able to operate much better with U.S. forces.

A more capable and powerful JSDF reduces Japan’s dependence on the U.S. military, relieves the burden on U.S. forces defending Japanese interests farther afield, and potentially augments overstretched U.S. forces in the region.

And don’t forget the political knock-on effects of more effective Japanese forces, solidly linked and able to operate with U.S. forces. China was counting on splitting the U.S. and Japan alliance. American and Japanese forces operating together makes this much harder to do.

The JSDF looks impressive on paper, but is less than the sum of its parts. The main problem is that the three Japanese services are mostly incapable of operating together.  Correcting this requires a desire on the part of Japan’s Government (GOJ), and finding (by firing if necessary) senior JSDF officers committed to building a joint capability.

‘It’s too difficult’

In response to the above, expect to hear that “it’s too difficult.”  (You’ll hear this a lot to suggestions you might make.)

“Too difficult” means a Japanese person somewhere (or the Asahi Shimbun newspaper) might complain. You might point out to GOJ that explaining to U.S. voters why American servicemen must die for a Japan that won’t do its share is also “too difficult.”

Be prepared for some of your embassy staff to make the “too difficult” case on Japan’s behalf.  There are several sub-themes of “too difficult” you should be aware of:

  • Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution. Read it.  Having long since been re-interpreted out of any connection to its plain meaning, it has become Japan’s go-to excuse when it doesn’t want to do something. Japanese are not ‘snowflakes’ and can and will do whatever they need to do.
  • Japanese are Pacifist. If so, it’s a curious form of pacifism that is happy to have Americans exterminate Japan’s enemies. And, oh yes, the JSDF is indeed a military – despite its name.
  • There’s a Japanese election coming. Japanese claims of “too difficult”’ are often made with a request to help out the GOJ just one time, since “there’s an election coming.” The ‘bait’ is that after the election the Japanese will do whatever it is that is too difficult just now. However, there’s always an election coming – and help needed, just this one time.

More money, please

To fix the JSDF is the main thing, but the other main thing is money. If Japan won’t spend the money, it’s not serious and is ultimately just doing the minimum necessary to keep Americans on the hook. Getting $25 billion annually in free defense coverage for decades is addicting.

Japan’s defense “increases” of the last few years are chimerical. Have your staff do the math for you.

How much is needed? About 10% increases for the next five years. What to spend it on?  Be careful.  Some more ships, planes, and equipment will be helpful, but there is no “hardware solution” to Japan’s defense. Raise spending by $5 billion and the cost of equipment magically increases by $5 billion, defense industries being what they are.

‘Severe fiscal condition’

Instead, the money should be spent on JSDF training and improved terms of service for JSDF personnel.  The aforementioned “jointness” costs nothing – only requiring doctrine, practice, and changed mindset.

Expect to hear the GOJ bemoan its “severe fiscal condition” for why it can’t spend more on defense. Note that Japan recently found $8 billion for the Philippines, $30 billion for Africa, and another $100 billion to stimulate the Japanese economy for the umpteenth time in the last 25 years.  (2021: The specific amounts and recipients will vary from 2017, but Japan still finds all the money it needs for things other than defense.)

The world’s third largest economy has the money – but the GOJ is more afraid of the Ministry of Finance than the US Government.

This spending approach hinders “jointness” – as the services are so starved of funds that they view each other the way survivors in a lifeboat see each other once the water and food run low. One tends to want what the other fellow has, or even to eat the other fellow.

‘But China will complain’

You’ll hear this a lot and from your own people as well, especially if the “it’s too difficult” line isn’t persuading you.  The point is, China will complain about anything Japan (and the U.S.) might do short of surrendering.  

Japan has been a model of responsible international behavior and consensual government for 70 years now. Japan is a threat to nobody. It lacks the manpower, hardware, know-how, and most importantly, the desire to threaten its neighbors.

And there’s more to Asia than China and Korea. Get around a bit and you will find the Japanese are well regarded just about everywhere else in the region. A billion-plus Indians well disposed toward Japan ought to count for something.

Appreciate Mr. Abe – while you have him

Whatever Mr. Abe might think about WWII, he is the first statesman Japan has seen for decades, and is doing his best to bring Japan’s defense policies back to the center.

He also understands the value of the U.S.-Japan defense relationship – and what Japan gets out of it. Remember that Mr. Abe faces immense opposition – even within his own party. Some of this opposition is principled. Much of it is not.  And no, he is not a fascist hell-bent on moving the nation back to 1933.  (2021: Japan has a new Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga.  ‘Defense’ isn’t his thing but he is trying to keep Abe’s ideas – including ‘the Quad’ – going. He faces opposition just as Abe did. Also, Suga may not be around long – as Japan tends to discard Prime Ministers every few months. Abe’s long tenure was unusual.)

A word about ‘gai atsu’ (also known as “foreign pressure”): This usually applies to trade matters, but it works just as well with defense policy – and Japanese reformers will appreciate the help.

However, if you or the U.S. government are going to talk tough to the Japanese – and you might need to given the tenacity of the “too difficult” and “severe fiscal condition” crowd – do it quietly. Be prepared for the Japanese to shop around for somebody in the U.S .government who will take up their arguments. A united front is important.

Linking Japan and U.S. forces

Except for the shining example of the U.S. Navy and the Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF), American and Japanese forces can barely operate together.

Go down to Yokosuka Naval Base at your first opportunity and see what the two navies have quietly accomplished over the last 60 years. vApply what you see to the overall defense relationship.

The Japan-U.S. Defense Guidelines were revised over a year ago and allow Japan and the U.S. to do whatever is necessary to establish genuine operational linkages. For example, the Guidelines call for an “Alliance Coordination Mechanism.”  

Ask what concrete progress has been made to link U.S. and Japanese forces?  Is a standing, permanently staffed joint headquarters in the works?  If there’s nothing concrete, or if it is still being discussed, raise an eyebrow – and expect to hear “it’s too difficult.” (2021:  Get angry. Don’t only raise an eyebrow.)

The hotel taxi

The idea that the U.S. might actually have to fight to defend Japan was mostly an academic exercise until late 2008 – when China started throwing its weight around in the East China Sea. Fighting and dying on Japan’s behalf, especially “over some rocks” is not a vote getter in Washington, DC.

Both governments must defang, in advance, the argument that the China lobbyists will make – that Japan thinks it can call up U.S. forces to die for it just the way it would whistle up a taxi outside a hotel.

Japan needs to show in every possible way that it’s pulling its weight. Otherwise, expect serious political opposition in Washington when push comes to shove. “Too difficult” and ‘”evere fiscal condition” will not persuade many Americans.

Be prepared for a surprise as you may sometimes get the impression from Japanese officials that they are doing the U.S. a favor by allowing America to fight (and die) on Japan’s behalf.

Does Japan have any good defense options that don’t involve close ties with the U.S.?  No.  And it has no options at all that don’t involve nuclear weapons.  You will need to make your case clearly and often.

Which Japanese?

Japanese do not all think alike. Among Japanese officials, politicians, and the media there is a range of opinions about defense and the U.S.-Japan defense relationship – just as there is in the United States.

Get out and talk to as many Japanese as possible – not just the “usual suspects” deemed suitable to talk to an Ambassador.

Probably the larger numbers of Japanese recognize the need for an improved JSDF capability, much bigger defense budgets, and seamless ties to the U.S. forces.

Others see no need to do more, viewing the Americans as “guard dogs” (yes, the word slips out now and then) who just need to be given some water and a bone, and set loose in the front yard.  A smaller number are reflexively anti-military, and some are resentful of the U.S. presence – a reminder of how World War II ended.

If you need a break from the Tokyo elite, get out and meet younger JSDF officers and “jieikan” (regular troops). Even most Japanese know little about these people. (2021: Japan’s servicemembers are some of the most impressive Japanese. Get to know them.)

Fortunately, the Japanese public is intelligent – and when things are explained to them, better understand and support Japan’s defense requirements than many Tokyo politicians and bureaucrats.

Regarding Okinawa

U.S. handling of Okinawa issues has been largely incoherent for the last 20 years. That’s another matter, however. (2021:  Make that 24 years.)

Okinawa is Japanese territory and the Japanese central government is responsible for doing what is necessary to ensure U.S. operations on the island.  The GOJ’s failure to take on a noisy Okinawan opposition – that is raking in huge amounts of money in central government payouts (have your staff do the math to calculate the jaw-dropping amounts) – is the ultimate problem.  Okinawa is not America’s fault.

Have your staff count the number of times the GOJ has promised to keep its promise (to keep its promise, to keep its promise) to build a replacement for Futenma Air Station.

As for the Henoko solution being the only possible solution: Don’t be afraid to ask why this is so – and even better, ask how the decision to build a really long heliport to replace the functions of Futenma’s 10,000 foot runway was arrived at?

One wishes a fraction of the effort that’s gone into solving (or not solving) the Okinawa real estate problem over the last 20 years had been applied to creating a competent JSDF fully linked to U.S. forces. It’s never too late to start.  (2021:  It is now 24 years and counting.)

Best wishes Ambassador.  You will watch history being made, and indeed, might even make it yourself.  If at the end of your assignment things are in as good shape as when you began, you will earn a “gentleman’s C.”  But if the JSDF is able to conduct joint operations, is adequately funded, and is able to really operate with U.S. forces, you’ll be remembered for a good long while.  (2021: How did the previous guys do? Just a “C.”  Maybe not a ‘gentleman’s C’, but a C nonetheless when graded by the specific measures Japan and the U.S. needed to accomplish. It didn’t help that Ambassador William Hagerty resigned two years into his tour – and a replacement Ambassador was not fielded.)

While the concrete progress with “the Quad” was impressive, as was the JSDF getting out and about in the region more than ever before, the Japanese themselves deserve credit for most of that.

As you can see, the 2017 advice still mostly applies – four years later. That’s not a good thing.  

And unfortunately, the People’s Republic of China’s military build-up during the last four years deserves an “A+.” The Chinese now smell blood.

A “C” this time around will just be a “gentleman’s F.”)