By Alex Bregman
As tensions escalate in Asia with nuclear North Korea setting the region on edge, Japan is America’s most important ally in Kim Jong Un’s backyard.
But not so long ago, things couldn’t have been worse between the two nations. There was the attack on Pearl Harbor, which led to the U.S. declaring war, to President Franklin Roosevelt ordering the internment of Japanese-Americans, to President Truman dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So how did Japan and America go from being sworn enemies then to key allies today?
After the war, Allied forces occupied Japan for seven years, during which time the U.S. helped turn Japan into a capitalist constitutional democracy and the two nations built a strong diplomatic relationship. But the U.S., wary of Japan’s aggressive military, wouldn’t allow the country to rebuild its fighting forces.
Fast forward to 2017: The key to Japan’s security is still America’s military presence, with thousands of U.S. troops stationed there, most of them on the island of Okinawa.
Even though that continued presence has at times created controversy in Japan, it isn’t going anywhere. Japan is where the U.S. projects power throughout the region. It’s the staging ground for American military exercises — and a check on the alliance between the Chinese and North Koreans. Remember, an isolated North Korea depends on Chinese economic aid.
America’s relationship with Japan isn’t just a security alliance; it’s an economic one too. Japan is America’s fourth-largest trading partner. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, negotiated by President Barack Obama, was supposed to boost that relationship. President Trump had other ideas, and abandoned the agreement within days of taking office.
Japan was upset about that, but that didn’t keep Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, from being the first foreign leader to visit the president-elect at Trump Tower. Abe was also the first foreign leader to spend time with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago, a weekend that included golf and reviewing a North Korean missile test in full view of the club’s guests.
There was also that awkward handshake between the two leaders at the White House that lasted a full 19 seconds.
Despite occasional bumps in the road, Japan and the U.S. have a special relationship — a bond that is now even more important as North Korea becomes more threatening. When it comes to the history of America’s relationship with Japan and where it stands today, at least you can say: Now I get it.
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