The Japanese-American Alliance

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 Not long ago, the Japanese purchased billions of dollars worth of the U.S. debt from China, surpassing them to become our chief creditor. The general speculation surrounding this choice relates to the strain that has challenged the American-Japanese alliance in recent years--Okinawa.



The United States' presence on Okinawa. Credit to globalsecurity.


Simply put, there are not a small number of people who want to see the eight thousand-odd Marines stationed on Okinawa and Kyushu and various others of the outlying Japanese islands gone. Residents nearby to the bases complain of the noise and crime that accompanies their presence; right-leaning politicians feel that the American presence is tantamount to an occupation that has never ended, and that it represents a national humiliation. Even those more sympathetic to the United States are wont to admit that far from protecting them, they think that the strategic arrangement we have with Japan only provides its possible enemies (China) with a justification to attack, where one might not have existed before. Therefore, the presumed reason for Japan's purchase is as leverage in negotiations to have the bases relocated or returned to their control, or to have the level of stationed personnel downscaled.


The background of how this all came to be is a unique case in America's East Asian diplomacy that stretches back long beyond the time of the Second World War. Historically, our involvement and influence with the nations of Asia has been through the medium of missionary Christianity--in South Korea, in China and in Vietnam, the leaders who were backed by the United States all had ties to the American missionary establishment. Not so in Japan--since the time of the third Shogun of the Tokugawa Bakufu, Christianity was banned. It wasn't on ideological grounds; East and South Asia both are absent of conflicts comparable to the various Crusades and pogroms, the Thirty Years' War, or the Reconquista, all of which were primarily driven by questions of dogma.


Perhaps way to describe it is to say that if there have been wars with religion, there have not been any religious wars according to the Western understanding of the term. For example, Japan - from the Heian period (roughly 600 A.D.) to the time of the fourth Sengoku Jidai (lit. Warring States era, lasting till around 1600 A.D.), Buddhist temples were tremendously powerful. Many of them had territorial holdings rivaling those of the most powerful daimyo (feudal lords) and private armies numbering in the thousands. The complex on Mount Hiei alone could claim more than ten thousand warrior monks at the height of its power.



A sohei in his traditional garb. Credit to tamamushi.


Naturally, as potent an organization could not help but be involved in politics. Throughout the whole millennium of their existence, but especially during the late Heian period, the Buddhist establishment was alternately ally to the Emperor, Kingmaker and daimyo in its own right, and closely examining the record of their variegated maneuvers reveals a certain trend: there are many instances where Buddhist temples went to war over pragmatic concerns--disputes about their domains, ensuring that the rights of their petitioners were honored, general political expedience--but there are no instances of hostility over the actual interpretation of religion.

This truism extends to Japan as a whole. When Buddhism was violently suppressed by Oda Nobunaga (one of the three figures responsible for the unification of Japan in the 1500s), the reason he explicitly gave was that it was because of their meddling in matters of governance, not because of their creed. Incidentally, it was for this same reason that Christianity was eventually banned in the 1800s.


Mounthiei.jpgA scenic view of Mount Hiei, home to what was once one of the most powerful monasteries in feudal Japan. Credit to taleofgenji.


When the first missionaries (Portuguese and Dutch) first began appearing in Japan, they were initially mistaken as preaching a new kind of Buddhism (Mahayana Buddhism is incredibly syncretic). Even after this mistake was widely known and corrected, there was no hostility to Christianity as a religion, whether for its foreignness or any other reason--after all, the version of Buddhism that appeared in Japan originated out of the Chinese form of an Indian faith. As long as the Christians paid their taxes and obeyed the dictates of the government, said government would find no fault with them.


The problem came in the form of the Shimabara Rebellion, a massive uprising in the late 1800s, the leaders of which were discovered to be Christians. It was precisely because of this incident that Christianity became prohibited, and it was precisely because of this incident that the U.S. had much less direct power over Japan vis-√†-vis the rest of Asia until the end of the Second World War, when China turning Communist necessitated a shift in America's plans (the resources that were intended for rebuilding China all went to Japan at the outbreak of the Korean War, for example). Since then, Japan has even been an important ally of America, and with the end of the Cold War ushering in a new age where the fulcrum of world politics has moved steadily into the East, it's arguably become the most important. If the Japanese government cools down towards the U.S. to become closer with China, then the delicate balance of regional politics (S. Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the United States in opposition to N. Korea, China and Russia) changes entirely.

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