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This year, we will hear much about the “50th Anniversary of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.” This is because the current security treaty, officially named the “Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States of America and Japan,” was signed 50 years ago this month, on Jan. 19, 1960.

In fact, the U.S.-Japan security relationship goes back much further. Indeed, we can trace the origins of the security treaty to 1947, when representatives of the Japanese government requested “a specific [security] agreement” vis-à-vis their U.S. counterparts.

Michael J. Mansfield — a former Marine, educator, Senate majority leader, and ambassador to Japan (1977-1989) — described this alliance as “the most important bilateral relationship, bar none.”

Exactly two years after the Allied occupation of Japan started in September 1945, the Japanese government began to question the ability of the United Nations — then in its infancy — to guarantee Japan’s security following a future peace treaty, which had been their assumption for much of their peace treaty planning. They were increasingly concerned about the effect the dawning of the Cold War would have on their security prospects.

U.S. officials, including those in Japan, such as Lt. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger, were also concerned. As the commanding general of the 8th Army, based in Yokohama, Eichelberger asked the Foreign Ministry’s representative in Yokohama what plans Japan had for its future security. Eichelberger told his counterparts that he was scheduled to return to Washington for several months and wished to discuss the issue with policymakers there.

The following day, Eichelberger was handed a four-page memo in English explaining Japan’s thinking. In it, Foreign Minister Hitoshi Ashida stated that Japan desired “the conclusion of a specific agreement between Japan and the United States, by virtue of which the former’s defense is entrusted in the hands of the latter.”

It is unclear what happened to this proposal in Washington, but it seems to have been a few years premature. The U.S. was in the process of re-examining occupation policies for Japan at the time, and exploratory U.S.-Japan discussions on a peace treaty and security treaty would not begin until the middle of 1950.

One thing that moved the discussion along was a request in April 1950 by Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, a former diplomat and foreign minister himself, that the U.S. consider maintaining forces in Japan following a peace treaty. Until that time, opinion was divided within the U.S. government on the question, but Japan’s proposal broke the deadlock.

Yoshida was a firm believer in the importance of the U.S. security umbrella and the eventual U.S.-Japan security treaty. He thus supported Ashida’s earlier idea for a bilateral security arrangement but felt that the proposal (of contingency basing) did not go far enough. For deterrence to work, Yoshida understood, U.S. forces had to be stationed in Japan; anything else would create a dangerous security vacuum.

Interestingly, most Japanese citizens today are unaware that the bilateral alliance and the U.S. presence were both requests that originated from the Japanese side.

There are several reasons why Yoshida looked to the U.S. first, Yoshida saw Japan’s interests and future prosperity inherently linked to its relationship with the U.S. and the West. Japan’s prosperity historically was based on cooperation with the West, not on confrontation. Second, as a war-devastated country, he believed it was important to focus on economic growth and avoid large defense commitments that could bankrupt the country. These tenets became the pillars of the “Yoshida Doctrine” that allowed Japan to become the No. 2 economic power in the world in the postwar era — light rearmament, focus on the economy, and cooperation/alliance with the U.S. Said another way, it is inconceivable that Japan would have become the major economic and technological power and advanced democracy it did without the U.S.

Eventually, following several months of discussions, the first U.S.-Japan security treaty was signed on Sept. 8, 1951, in San Francisco, moments after the Allied peace treaty with Japan, allowing Japan to return to community of nations, was signed.

While the security situation may have required the U.S. and Japan to come together at that time and keeps us together today, it can be said that it is the mutually shared values — democracy, human rights, rule of law, and liberal economies — which have been the glue for our two countries for more than the past half-century.

Robert D. Eldridge serves as the Deputy G-5, Marine Corps Bases Japan on Okinawa, and was a tenured associate professor of Japanese political and diplomatic history at Osaka University from 2001 to 2009. He translated the memoirs of one of the participants in the events above, published as “Secret Talks between Washington and Tokyo: The Memoirs of Miyazawa Kiichi” (Lexington Books, 2007). These are his own views.

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