The world has leaped to Japan’s aid in the wake of the March 11 disaster. Hosoya Yuichi, a specialist in diplomatic history, argues that the support of the United States in particular marks a significant evolution in the Japan-US alliance, and calls on Japan to develop its spirit of international cooperation further as a means of expressing gratitude for the world’s support.
Things are gradually returning to normal after the chaos and confusion that marked the immediate aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake. On April 14, the government launched its Reconstruction Design Council under the chairmanship of Iokibe Makoto, president of the National Defense Academy. Work on putting together a reconstruction plan has begun in earnest. Although the mood remains somber, the time has come for Japan to look forward with hope for the future and to make a start on rebuilding.
Light from Across the Seas
The events since March 11 have moved and surprised many people in Japan. Shocked by the horrific scenes of devastation in Tōhoku, people around the world have extended a helping hand and joined in rescue and relief operations in Japan. Before the earthquake, the mood in Japan was pessimistic, with national confidence badly shaken by two decades of economic stagnation and political confusion since the collapse of the bubble economy in the early 1990s. People had turned their gaze inward, the number of young Japanese studying overseas was falling steadily, and internationalization initiatives had lost their momentum. But amid the darkness and despair of this terrible disaster, bright lights have reached us from across the seas.
Famous artists and actors have sent messages of affection and support, and world leaders have backed up their offers of help with concrete actions. This is a happy turn of events indeed. Never before has Japan received so much attention, affection, and support from the rest of the world. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as of April 20, 146 countries and 39 international organizations had offered help in the wake of the disaster. To date, 21 countries and regions have sent emergency rescue and medical assistance teams. The support provided by the United States stands out in particular. More than 20,000 US troops have made vital contributions to rescue and relief operations. Additionally, 20 naval vessels and approximately 160 planes helped make “Operation Tomodachi” a major success. One of the officers involved said he felt prouder to have played a part in this mission than in any other.
Disaster, War, and Japan-US Relations
There have been two previous occasions when the United States has given major assistance to Japan following a crisis, each quite different in character. The first was after the Great Kantō Earthquake of September 1, 1923. The New York Times reported the disaster as its front-page lead on September 5, and the United States government under President Calvin Coolidge offered prompter and wider-ranging assistance than that any other country. Many Americans came to Japan to take part in relief activities, but the Japanese Army was wary of large numbers of Americans milling around Japan gathering intelligence and worried that US assistance might lead to an upsurge of pro-American sentiment. As a result, a decision was taken to accept only a limited amount of assistance from the United States. Even so, this was the time of the so-called “Taishō Democracy” in Japan, when party politics was beginning to take hold, along with a spirit of Japan-US cooperation, and Japan’s relations with the United States continued on a stable keel for some time after the earthquake.
The second instance of major American support for Japan came during the postwar occupation, which began in September 1945. Tokyo was reduced to ruins by Japan’s defeat in the war, but under General Douglas MacArthur as commander of the occupying Allied forces, large numbers of Americans helped to resolve Japan’s food crisis and carry out the reforms necessary for rebuilding the country. The United States confronted the twin challenges of rebuilding Japan and addressing the threat of communism as the Cold War loomed. As a result, the United States embraced Japan as an ally, and paved the way for Japan to emerge as an autonomous economic superpower.
The Embodiment of Friendship
The earthquake and tsunami disaster of March 2011 mark the third time the United States has come to Japan’s aid. Superficially, there were similarities between recent relief operations and the aid offered by the United States after the earthquake in 1923. But in character, the two were quite different. This time, the United States extended a helping hand to Japan as an ally and friend. (The US military’s Operation Tomodachi took its name from the Japanese word for “friend.”) The American offer of assistance was a demonstration of friendship. Palpable in the American response was a deep understanding of Japanese society stemming from the close ties that have been developed through many decades of alliance and the affection and friendship cultivated by cultural exchange programs such as the JET program, which brings young people to Japan to teach English in schools. Since the Democratic Party of Japan government came to office under Hatoyama Yukio in September 2009, tensions over relocation of the US Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma, Okinawa, had led to simmering distrust on both sides, causing what some commentators were describing as a “crisis” in Japan-US relations. The recent disaster allowed the true nature of the friendship, built on more than half a century as allies, to come to the fore.
This marks a major psychological change. In the past, despite the presence of 30,000 US troops in bases in Japan, many people were skeptical about whether the United States would actually come to the aid of Japanese lives if push came to shove. The recent disaster made the true nature of the alliance clear beyond any doubt. American soldiers threw themselves into rescue work—exposing themselves to the dangers of radiation, exchanging kind words with survivors, inspiring, encouraging, and consoling. People all across Japan witnessed these scenes, either in person or via their television screens. As a result, the Japan-US alliance has become a true bond between our countries, bringing people together, heart to heart.
Opening Up to the International Community
In the closing stages of World War II, many of the world’s countries turned their attention to Japan—but with a view to attacking and overthrowing the Japanese state and delivering defeat to the Japanese people. This time, things are different. This time, people from 146 countries and regions have demonstrated their friendship and affection for Japan, and government representatives and volunteers from many countries have come to show their support. After the Pacific War, no country took a tougher line with Japan than Australia; today, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has gone out of her way to visit disaster areas in Tōhoku and has only kind words of sympathy and encouragement for the people living there.
When the Great Kantō Earthquake struck nearly 90 years ago, Japan received assistance from 57 countries—more or less all the independent nations that existed at the time. Twenty years later, however, the havoc wreaked by Japan’s military government made the world its enemy. Japan refused to open itself to the international community, instead shutting itself away and turning inward. This narrowness of perspective fostered a sense of self-righteousness and plunged the nation into war. Among other things, this betrayal trampled on the good faith that the world had shown to Japan after the 1923 earthquake. Today, Japan is an open, democratic country that enjoys the faith and trust of the world. For this reason, it is important that Japan not attempt to use the huge amounts of money necessary for rebuilding as an excuse for reducing the amount it spends on official development assistance or turning its back on the poverty that still exists around the world. Instead, Japan should make itself more open than ever to the world and work to build an even greater spirit of international cooperation. What better way could there be to demonstrate how grateful we are for the support and assistance that countries all over the world have extended to our country in the wake of this terrible disaster? (Written on April 25, 2011.)
In This Series
Looking to Past Diplomatic Relations for Recovery Ideas
The Dawning of a New Age of International Cooperation (April 25)
Calm Words from London (April 1)
Graduated from Rikkyō University. Completed his doctoral studies in politics, and earned a Ph.D from Keiō University. Has taught at Hokkaidō University and at Keiō University, where he is now a professor in the Faculty of Law. His published works include Rinriteki na sensō: Tonī Burea no eikō to zasetsu (Ethical Wars: The Glory and Failure of Tony Blair).