Japan and the United States have maintained tight-knit relations for the last seven decades, despite having an ugly past less than a century ago. How could these two nations form such a strong alliance after such a horrifying history as adversaries?

Hiroshima Nagasaki Bombing
Atomic bomb mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right) in August 1945. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

When Japan bombarded Pearl Harbor in 1941, it did not foresee how big of a giant it would have awakened. After nearly four years of intense warfare and thousands of lives lost from both sides, the former militarist country finally conceded following the epoch-defining American atomic bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The blast was literally so powerful that it not only brought the Japanese aggressors down to their knees but also had a long-term impact on its history and growth as a country.

Toward the end of World War II, both countries struggled with how to end the war, having to recognize that neither side had a chance of totally and utterly invading the other. When Japan surrendered, however, the reconciliation process began and progressed so quickly that one might not believe both nations were once archenemies.

During Japan’s independence between 1945-1952, the US occupied and helped rebuild the country from the ashes of war with a strong emphasis on economic growth and stability that would eventually boost the former into becoming among the world’s largest economies. The former’s recovery became one of the biggest economic comebacks in recent history, ranking third place as of 2021 with over $4.9 million in the gross domestic product (GDP).

Aside from the economic rehabilitation, the US also helped Japan develop new deal policies, protect labor rights and unions, overhaul its corrupt education system, and dismantle existing monopolies to promote healthy competition in the market. One of the most significant directions America steered Japan was the introduction of high technologies, which propelled the latter to rose as a manufacturing powerhouse. Washington also introduced Tokyo to democracy, allowing the Japanese people to hold elections and vote freely. By focusing on these efforts, both countries were able to lessen tensions and have instead forged a complementary relationship.

Although it wasn’t always a smooth sailing partnership, Japan has become America’s closest and strongest ally and economic partner in the Pacific while maintaining autonomy in the international system.

Security and Defense Alliance

Japan has played a huge role in keeping peace and stability in East Asia for decades, especially against communist-ruled countries like China and North Korea.

On the other hand, the US has pledged to defend Japan against its adversaries in exchange for maintaining a large military presence with more than eighty American military bases installed in the country even after receiving back its sovereignty. Signed in 1951 alongside the Treaty of San Francisco that formally ended World War II, this agreement is known as the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty and is responsible for allowing Japan to focus solely on economic reconstruction while the US handles security. With this, America will be able to establish a permanent presence in Asia, at the same time, keep an eye on communist countries and suppress their expansion in the region.


Japan surrenders to US
Japan surrenders to the United States, 1945. (Image source: US Navy/DVIDS)

According to the American think tank Council on Foreign Relations, Japan hosts over 60,000 active duty service members and civilian defense personnel as of 2021.

Japan and the United States’ initial security alliance grew over time, with the former beginning to carve out a larger role in the partnership, including collaboration on interoperability, which led to the launch of joint military training and exercises. However, there were still reservations about Japan’s military involvement due to its pacifist constitution, which would be changed and eventually resolved in the early 1990s. By the early 2000s, Japan has now assumed a greater role in defending itself and not relying so much on America’s protection against surrounding threats. The former increased its military capacity to the point where it was able to provide additional assistance to US forces during its campaign in Afghanistan in 2001—the first overseas Japanese military action during a combat operation since World War II.

By 2015, Japan had once again revised its constitution and made a “historic move” by allowing its military to defend allies as well, which included logistical support, providing air defense, securing sea lanes and preserving freedom of navigation, participating in United Nations humanitarian/disaster relief operations, and allowing its forces to engage in armed hostage rescue missions, Defense News reported.

Getting Stronger Over the Years

Over the recent years, particularly this year, tensions in East Asia have again been rising with China’s aggressive claims over its neighboring territories and North Korea’s imminent reactivation of its nuclear program, making the alliance and defense cooperation between Japan and the US more imperative than ever.

Both allies have been sharing technologies, as well as collaborating in research and development—most recently with ballistic-missile and hypersonic technologies, unmanned systems, and artificial intelligence to counter threats from adversaries who are also progressing along the ever-changing tech. In 2020, the US approved the sale of more than 100 F-35 fighter jets to Japan, as the latter committed to working closely on its space, cyber, and maritime awareness capabilities.

While the past remains an irreversible, ugly history for both sides that has cost thousands of lives, the partnership formed between Japan and the United States has defied what people of that generation may have thought would never happen, all thanks to each side’s humanity and generosity.