Gracie Bingham

Gracie Bingham

Cooperation between the United States and Japan through Operation Tomodachi in the wake of the disasters stemming from the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake gave citizens of both countries reason to reflect on the importance of the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance. Although there is always plenty of media coverage in Japan about U.S.-Japan relations, “American View” wanted to focus on what young people in Japan think about the U.S. military in Japan and their disaster relief activities conducted through Operation Tomodachi. “American View” teamed up with the Cultural and Programming Office at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to organize a two-day program in which Japanese students and young professionals visited a U.S. military base and interacted with military personnel who were involved in Operation Tomodachi for the first day, and then discussed their impressions of the base visit with American student interns and Embassy personnel on the second day.

On the first day of the program, a group of about 40 Japanese students and young professionals met early in the morning in central Tokyo to take a chartered bus to Yokota Air Base, a U.S. Air Force Base located in Western Tokyo. Headquarters, U.S. Forces, Japan (USFJ) is also located on Yokota Air Base. USFJ, with its U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Air Force elements, consists of approximately 38,000 military personnel, 43,000 dependents, 5,000 civilian employees, and 25,000 Japanese workers.

A group of students and young professionals visited Yokota Air Base and interacted with U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan.

To give the participants an opportunity to learn more about the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance and U.S. Forces, Japan, they took a tour of the base by bus, listened to a briefing about USFJ and Operation Tomodachi, and participated in group discussions with some of the U.S. servicemen and women who played active roles in Operation Tomodachi. During the tour, the students, many of whom had never visited a U.S. military base before, were surprised at the size of the base. Mitsuhiro Kawashima, a junior at Keio University said, “I realized the military support from the U.S. is more extensive than I expected when I saw the air base.” Another student noted that “the airfield is much bigger than I expected. I can’t believe it’s in Tokyo.”

However, during the briefing about Operation Tomodachi, several of the officers shared their personal experiences about contributing to the relief efforts, which apparently left positive impressions on several of the group members.

“During the briefing, what left me with the strongest impression was when they said, ‘We always have an objective in mind and do everything in our power to achieve it.’ I felt as though this motto must be the true origin of American leadership,” said Takashi Gonda, a sophomore at the Tokyo University of Science. “They also said that they felt confused at times because there were discrepancies between what the U.S. military was trying to do through Operation Tomodachi and what the Japanese government wanted the U.S. military to do. This made me realize how important it is for Japan and America to communicate effectively.”

Upon hearing about some of the officers’ desire to help out directly in the disaster-stricken region, Nami Akinaga, a University of Tokyo graduate student said, “Actually I feel exactly the same way! At the time, I went there to see if there was anything I could do to help from Tokyo as a student. But when I came back, I felt so helpless because there was nothing I could do to help directly from Tokyo. I was overcome by the feeling that I wanted to stay there for a few days and help with the cleanup work.”

Mayu Kinoshita, a sophomore at Keio University said, “I appreciate their courage in going to the disaster-stricken areas amid fears of radiation and their supportive attitude.”

The participants split up into discussion groups to exchange views with U.S. military personnel.

Some of the officers also discussed how they prepared for their work in Japan once they found out they would be stationed there. Tomohiro Kato, a junior at Hosei University said, “What impressed me most was when they said during the briefing that the soldiers study a lot about the history of U.S.-Japan relations and the U.S.-Japan Alliance when they find out they are going to be stationed in Japan. When I heard this, I felt that the soldiers who are protecting Japan must have more complete knowledge about the U.S.-Japan Alliance than the general public and even the politicians in Japan.”

During the base visit, the participants also had a chance to sample authentic American fast food when they had lunch at the food court there. “I didn’t know they had Taco Bell!” one student remarked.

After lunch, the students and young professionals were divided into smaller groups to participate in discussions with officers about Operation Tomodachi and the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance. Yuki Kawakami, a sophomore at the University of Tokyo, said “When I actually had a chance to talk to them, I had the impression that they are just ‘regular’ people like you and I. When they started talking about Operation Tomodachi, it was clear to me that they simply felt that they wanted to help the disaster victims. This made me realize that in addition to the military aspects, stationing the U.S. military in Japan also has the added benefit of making it possible to swiftly dispatch rescue units in emergency situations like this.”

On the next day, “American View” in cooperation with the Cultural and Programming Office conducted a discussion forum during which a group of college students shared their impressions about the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance and their visit to the base over pizza. The discussion also gave the students a chance to use English to talk about what might even be difficult for many native English speakers to discuss. The students’ enthusiastic attitudes showed that they were eager to share their impressions of Operation Tomodachi and learn more about U.S.-Japan relations. It is hard to encapsulate the complex nature of the U.S.-Japan Alliance into a couple of sentences, but the students’ responses showed that they had already put a great deal of thought and effort into understanding it.

During the discussion forum after the base visit, the participants were eager to learn more about the U.S.-Japan Alliance.

Shota Sekiguchi, a sophomore at Aoyama Gakuin University said, “At first, I had a negative impression of the Alliance, but after visiting, I was impressed at what the U.S. military thinks of Japan, so I don’t have a negative impression now.” He added, “Because of Operation Tomodachi, we saw some beneficial aspects of the U.S.-Japan Alliance so that many people can see the Alliance neutrally.”

Another student said, “I also had a negative image of the U.S. military here, but one of the officers said that they’re here not only for military events, but also for 3/11. They can help us by being here, whereas if they come from the U.S., it takes a longer time. By them being here, they are able to take a shortcut to help us. It’s not a bad thing for us.”

According to a Pew Research Center study released in June, most of the Japanese public believe that the U.S. provided generous assistance to Japan in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami. A majority (57%) say that the U.S. provided a great deal of assistance, while another 32% say that the U.S. has given a fair amount. As a result of perceived U.S. generosity, the percentage of Japanese with a favorable opinion of the U.S. rose from 66% in 2010 to 85% in 2011. Student sentiment at the discussion forum echoed these trends.

Kawashima noted that after Operation Tomodachi, “citizens in Japan started to support the existence of the U.S. military power in Japan.” Many students feel that the role of the U.S. during Operation Tomodachi has helped strengthen the Alliance and improve the Japanese perception of the U.S. military presence in Japan.

Kato believes Operation Tomodachi “strengthened the Alliance because although people from many countries participated in rescue activities after the quake disaster, America carried out rescue activities for longer than any other country.” Miki Watanabe, a sophomore at the Tokyo University of Science agreed with him. She said, “I feel as though it has deepened the relationship of trust between the two nations. I think that Japanese people are able to feel closer to America because of the U.S.-Japan Alliance. I think it’s good because it allows the two countries to interact on a deeper level.”

Sara Uenoyama, a sophomore at the University of Tokyo said, “Our relationship has been strengthened through the experience of treating the same problem together.”

Several students admitted that before their visit to the base they hadn’t known a lot about the U.S.-Japan Alliance. “Actually, many people in Japan don’t know much about it. It was true of me too, but I think it’s necessary for both countries and I hope it lasts into the future,” said Kawakami. After their visit to the base, the students gave generally positive assessments of the U.S.-Japan Alliance.

“I think it is an Alliance that shows how positive the friendly relationship between the U.S. and Japan is,” said Watanabe. “I think America is the most familiar foreign country for Japan and the Alliance symbolizes that.”

Kawashima views the U.S.-Japan Alliance as “one of the strongest alliances in the world in terms of the power and the history.”

The U.S.-Japan Alliance “is very reassuring for Japan!” noted Kinoshita. “But at the same time, I think it also poses a threat to other countries.” Since the security treaty was signed in 1960, the U.S. and Japan have worked together closely to counter regional threats, including the rise of China and North Korea.

“(The U.S.-Japan Alliance) is beneficial because it acts as a deterrent to threats in Asia, and it contributes to Japan’s security,” said Kato. “The U.S. military presence is particularly important in terms of security following the quake disaster because Japan will be focusing its energy on domestic reconstruction.” Kawashima agrees that the Alliance is beneficial. “The politics in East Asia is much more complicated than it seems to be, and it’s not something we should treat only by ourselves,” he said.

Despite the strength of the Alliance, the students point out that there are many challenges that the U.S. and Japan will need to work together to face in the coming years. One of these is the rise of China and “the dilemma between growing China’s economic and military power,” as Uenoyama pointed out. “We can’t deny China has played a great role in recovering (from the financial crisis), but at the same time China has strengthened its military power with that money,” she said.

Most of the students mention the U.S. military bases as an issue facing the Alliance. “There are many problems with (the Alliance) including the base relocation issue in Okinawa, but the bases are necessary for America and I don’t think they can be removed,” said Watanabe.

The economic crisis also poses problems for the Alliance. Kato points out that “America’s domestic problem of becoming inward-looking due to the economic crisis and the increased burden on Alliance partners and the new secretary of defense’s policy line of reducing defense spending” is a major issue facing the Alliance.

Another student also brought up the issue of host-nation support as a difficult area between the U.S. and Japan. “The Japanese government sends a large amount of money for the U.S. military in Japan, and the Japanese economy is not so good. I think many Japanese people are against that and that will be an issue in the future,” she said.

Despite the problems, the outside threats, and differences in opinion that the Alliance faces, the students still feel that the Alliance is indispensable to both the U.S. and Japan. As succinctly put by Sekiguchi, “There are a lot of challenges, but it is very important for both countries.”

By visiting Yokota Air Base, the students and young professionals demonstrated their interest in the U.S.-Japan Alliance. Their thoughtful and well-informed responses to important questions are encouraging signs that Japan’s future leaders will work to keep the Alliance the cornerstone of the East Asian and Pacific region. Both the U.S. and Japan face threats, but through the Alliance, both countries will be able to maintain peace and stability in a region vital to U.S. interests. Operation Tomodachi has reminded both countries of the importance of U.S.-Japan cooperation, but now the U.S. and Japan must continue to work together to strengthen the Alliance.

Kato said, “When I heard U.S. military personnel talking passionately about helping Japan, I was able to feel somewhat optimistic that the U.S.-Japan Alliance would continue for another 50 years.”

Those at the U.S. diplomatic missions throughout Japan and in the U.S. military will continue to make efforts to ensure that it does.

Gracie Bingham was the Press Office 2011 summer intern at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. She is a college senior from Idaho and will graduate in December from Boise State University with degrees in Political Science and History. She also completed an internship at the Office of Japanese Affairs with the Department of State in Washington, D.C. in summer 2009.