The Political Science of Basing in Japan

Kerri Ng, PhD Candidate, Department of International Relations, School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University [About | Email]

Volume 13, Issue 4 (Book review 5 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 15 December 2013.

Suggested citation: Kerri Ng, "The Political Science of Basing in Japan." electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies volume 13 issue 4 (15 December 2013). Available at

Calder, Kent E. (2007) Embattled Garrisons: Comparative Base Politics and American Globalism, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, ISBN: 978-0-691-13143-6, hardback, 340 pages.

Cooley, Alexander (2008) Base Politics: Democratic Change and the U.S. Military Overseas, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, ISBN: 978-0-80144605-4, hardback, 328 pages.

Since the end of the Cold War, the necessity of US military forward deployments around the world has become increasingly contentious. Although strategists and policy-makers agree that US military deployments remain instrumental for maintaining global security (e.g. Obama 2011; Pettyjohn 2012), they differ over the exact form of those deployments. Further, in the wake of the controversial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, US facilities around the world seem to be increasingly contested, even amongst America’s traditional allies. The protests against the expansion of Camp Humphreys in South Korea and the proposed relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa are two significant episodes. These challenges, therefore, raise some important questions about the long-term viability of the US global posture in the post-Cold War world.

Emerging Scholarship on Comparative Base Politics

Recognising these trends, scholars have begun examining what might be referred to as “the political science of basing” (Calder, page 2). In particular, several major studies have been developing theoretical frameworks that can be used to understand why host nations might contest basing agreements, thus offering some guidelines for policy-makers, activists and scholars alike.

One of these works, Kent Calder’s Embattled Garrisons: Comparative Base Politics and American Globalism, seeks to identify and examine the various international and domestic factors that affect basing politics around the world, both positively and negatively. Calder contends that the mix of factors that apply in a particular host country leads to a pattern of base politics based on one of four paradigms or ideal types. In Japan, Calder argues (page 136), the “compensation” paradigm that emphasises benefits over coercion is the main reason behind the persistence of bases in Okinawa, despite the emergence of a number of anti-base movements over the years.

Another study, Alexander Cooley’s Base Politics: Democratic Change and the U.S. Military Overseas, analyses a subset of these factors. Setting up comparisons between pairs of US allies in Europe and East Asia, Cooley explores how host nation elites politicise or depoliticise basing issues for their own domestic interests. According to Cooley’s framework, the process of democratic consolidation can enable elites to depoliticise these issues through the legitimisation of the basing presence and the creation of interest groups invested in it, as has occurred in mainland Japan. On the other hand, a degree of decentralisation of political power has enabled Okinawan leaders to use base politics as a negotiating tool in their own relations with the Japanese central government. Base Politics presents an interesting framework for understanding these developments, although its focus on political leaders marginalises the influence of civil society actors on basing agreements.

These two books make important contributions to the understanding of basing politics, both worldwide and in Japan. Calder emphasises the importance of applying a more systematic study to the field, clearly identifying many of the factors that need to be considered, and suggesting further avenues for scholarship. Cooley examines how the particular variables of regime change and anti-base activism influence the persistence of facilities in any one country. Admittedly, neither book fully tackles the question of change, particularly with regard to host elites and activists at the local level, but also in terms of how a shifting US global posture might affect the local level.

Laying the Groundwork

Calder is the first scholar to attempt to bring “more systematic analytical attention to the forces that support and erode foreign basing” through his comparative study of US military facilities across the globe (page 3). His analysis is divided into three parts, with the introductory chapters outlining the history of US basing, its evolution since the end of the Second World War, and the US defence posture around the world today. Calder outlines the five hypotheses he seeks to test so as to explain the “propensity of host nations to retain foreign bases once they are established” (page 75). A contact hypothesis specifies that a facility located in a community of high population density leads to more contentious base politics. A colonisation hypothesis contends that countries that were previously colonised by the basing nation are more likely to contest the foreign military presence. An occupation hypothesis proposes that a liberating occupation is likely to lead to more stable base politics; however, a non-liberating occupation “can lead to broad popular resentment of the occupiers” (page 76). A regime-shift hypothesis postulates that there is a high possibility for changes in the host-nation regime to lead to the withdrawal of the basing nation. Finally, a dictator hypothesis looks at the idea that the US “tends to support dictators in nations where it enjoys basing facilities, and often condones their creation in such nations” (page 76).

The subsequent chapters in Embattled Garrisons consist of a detailed exploration of “the varied yet generalizable patterns that host-nation base politics typically assume” (page 2–3). First, Calder examines the “individual decision maker” at both the state and grassroots levels, highlighting their interests and strategies (Chapter 4). These decision makers are not restricted to national political elites involved in the production of basing policies; rather, they also comprise local level politicians and interest groups with complex relationships to the American military presence. As Calder observes, the two-level nature of basing negotiations means that a “failure to understand the importance of [these actors], and to compensate [them] adequately for the costs [they incur], can greatly increase the instability of base politics” (page 77). Calder subsequently tests his five hypotheses, examining how particular actors and other socio-political forces often drive base politics in host nations around the world (Chapter 5). Based on the results of these tests, Calder then outlines and discusses four paradigms of base politics under which host countries can be classified (Chapter 6). His argument is that, depending on the varying socio-political contexts in which the bases have been constructed and maintained, host-nation elites manage basing relations in different ways. Japan is a key example used to describe a “compensation politics” paradigm, whereby many benefits are provided to host communities via institutions such as the Defense Facilities Administration Agency (page 133). In the following chapter, the basing presence in Okinawa is one of three case studies presented. Calder then closes by considering the implications of his analysis for scholarship and policy.

As the first major comparative study conducted on this topic, Embattled Garrisons makes a substantial contribution to the field. Calder tests a number of factors that may seem obviously correlated with the incidence and persistence of sentiment against the US forward military presence, whether from the host country’s elites or from local citizens and interest groups. Importantly, this is done in a balanced manner that brings new insights to the study of alliance politics in Japan. Basing politics is not portrayed as a straightforward contest between rational interests, such as “national security,” and ideological beliefs, such as anti-militarism. Challenging longstanding constructivist arguments that Japan’s unusually restrained security policy is due to a norm of anti-militarism (e.g. see Katzenstein and Okawara 1993; Berger 1993), Calder observes that both anti-base and pro-base factions often have pragmatic interests that influence their stances. For example, reliance on the US-Japan alliance for Japan’s security was seen by political proponents as a means for the nation to focus on economic development. Similarly, the integration of the local political economy of base hosting communities with the continued presence of the bases—whether through land rental, engaging local contractors for construction or maintenance, or the patronage of local establishments by military personnel—has created pragmatic interests in favour of the US military presence. Conversely, issues of criminal jurisdiction and environmental pollution associated with bases are two major reasons behind anti-base sentiment in the same communities.

Of the five hypotheses examined in Chapter 5, Calder’s analysis suggests that the occupation and colonisation hypotheses are the most applicable to an analysis of Japan’s bases. Indeed, the situation in Okinawa is largely in accordance with the tenets of the colonisation hypothesis. The fact that the US military retained control of Okinawa until 1972 and expanded its basing facilities (particularly in the 1950s), despite island-wide protests, has been used by anti-base activists to paint the prefecture as a colony that has yet to be liberated (Yoshida 2008). Furthermore, the way in which the US and Japanese governments employed land rental payments and other economic incentives to persuade or, alternatively, coerce prefectural residents into accepting the facilities strongly fits into the compensation paradigm of basing politics. Also of interest, however, is Calder’s “bazaar politics” paradigm, in which political leaders leverage local discontent with the foreign military presence in order to increase the benefits associated with hosting them (page 140–3). Although Calder focuses on the bargaining tendency of national leaders in countries such as the Philippines in 1991 and Turkey in 2003 (pages 141–8), some observers would suggest that the ways in which Okinawan politicians and interest groups use the bases to further their own interests echoes such behaviour, albeit at the sub-national level. These two paradigms thus offer salient frameworks through which basing politics within Okinawa can be understood.

On the other hand, the applicability of Calder’s occupation hypothesis to Japan is not clear given the complexities of the Japanese case (e.g. see Schaller 1997). Occupations perceived to be freeing the people from an oppressive government are argued to be an important reason for the relative stability of base relations in states such as Japan and Germany (page 103–5). However, whilst the US Occupation successfully brought a number of democratic reforms to post-war Japan, there are questions over whether the Japanese government was unambiguously perceived by the Japanese people to be an oppressive government. Unlike the South Korean case, it was certainly not an occupying force. The US’s “liberation” of Japan is therefore more complicated and less easily categorised than many other cases (Dower 1993; Takemae 2002). Furthermore, although some wartime leaders were indeed purged during the early years of the Occupation, developments in China and on the Korean peninsula in the late 1940s and early 1950s led to the so-called “reverse course,” where many of the purged were pardoned and reinstated into politics so that Japan could become a “bulwark against communism” in East Asia. This development raises further questions for the occupation hypothesis. If the US Occupation was one of liberation, how can the bases have remained stable given this reverse course (and the implied return to oppression)? Alternatively, if the Occupation was not one of liberation, why was there not more “popular resentment” prior to the reverse course?

The Effects of Democratisation on Basing Politics

Base Politics offers a more focused examination of the changes in the sentiment directed at US facilities overseas. Looking to answer the questions of “when and why bilateral military basing agreements become accepted, politicized, or challenged by host countries” (page 3), Cooley argues that the key factor is change in a host’s domestic political institutions. Such change affects what benefits elites can derive from the US military presence, and thus how likely they are to challenge the existing basing contract. Like Calder, Cooley employs a broad two-level games framework. First, he considers the details of specific basing-related contracts and the issues that arise from them (pages 34–9). For example, the storage and transport of nuclear weapons within a host country’s territory can be an extremely contentious issue, as has been the case in Japan. The other areas of major contention identified are those of sovereignty and criminal jurisdiction, and the economic and political quid pro quo that host countries receive for allowing US facilities and troops to operate within their boundaries. Cooley then presents three hypotheses on how host governments approach basing contract negotiations (pages 23–4). Authoritarian rulers can be expected to focus on extracting private goods that they can distribute in order to ensure their survival. If existing agreements were negotiated and signed by such regimes, elites in democratising states should politicise and potentially contest them. Conversely, Cooley predicts that elites in a consolidated democracy should “honor prevailing bilateral contracts that were signed with a democratic government, regardless of their policy differences with the basing power” (page 24). This implies the basing issues are depoliticised as democracies mature.

Cooley compares and contrasts four pairs of hosts, with each pair comprising one alliance partner in Europe and one in East Asia, in order to “show how rulers of these base hosts, especially during democratic transition and consolidation, strategically politicized and contested the base issue in response to domestic political pressures and institutional changes” (page 51). The case studies are chosen so that the contextual situation of base hosting is as similar as possible between each pair, meaning that differences in the processes of politicisation and depoliticisation can be analysed. Okinawa and mainland Japan are treated as different cases; the former is compared with Portugal’s Azores Islands (Chapter 5) and the latter with Italy (Chapter 6). The analysis of Okinawa and the Azores reveals how a regional government within a host country may become a significant player through its own negotiations with the central government, transforming what is normally a bilateral issue into “some form of triangular relationship in which the central government’s preferences may not necessarily mirror those of the actual base-hosting locality” (page 173). The contrast between these two cases is interesting, in that antagonism towards the base presence in Okinawa is overcome by substantial economic incentives, whilst a more positive attitude towards the bases results in fewer rewards for the Azoreans, especially as the strategic value of the base decreases. Cooley then employs process tracing to show that Japanese politicians in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War were able to use two-level games to cement leadership amongst conservative factions domestically, as well as negotiate concessions with regard to the US-Japan alliance. For example, by politicising the issue in a democratising environment, the Yoshida government was able to obtain residual sovereignty over Okinawa despite the desire of the US military to “permanently sever Okinawa from the main islands” (page 178). Conversely, after the reversion of Okinawa to Japan in 1972, the national government succeeded in depoliticising the basing issue by shifting attention to other aspects of the alliance, and by creating new domestic constituencies and interest groups that were invested in the continuation of the base presence (pages 193–5).

Cooley’s exploration of the ways in which host country elites politicise or depoliticise basing issues links changes in basing politics to the regime shift hypothesis that Calder first elaborated. However, rather than focusing just on extreme cases of base withdrawal, as occurred in the Philippines in 1991, the analysis in Base Politics recognises that elites can also use basing politics to extract concessions from their alliance partner, as well as to consolidate their own domestic power. This explains why the issue tends to become more politicised when a host country democratises, especially if the original basing contract is perceived to have low legitimacy because it was signed by an earlier non-democratic government. The framework also accounts for the relative depoliticisation of basing issues as elites are able to legitimise alliance contracts through democratic processes such as parliamentary debate and the cultivation of interest groups invested in the continuing base presence, as has occurred in Japan. The evidence provided for Japan stands up well against the alternative explanations that the author posits, since strategic threats, troop levels and base-related incidents do not account for the politicisation of the basing issue during the 1950s or the relative depoliticisation of the issue even in Okinawa after reversion (pages 255–62). The anti-base protests in Okinawa following the 1995 rape are acknowledged as an exception, and the 2009 election of the Democratic Party of Japan on a platform advocating revision of an agreement that would relocate the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa could challenge Cooley’s framework—or at least the codification of Japan as a consolidated democracy. However, the consideration of Japan and Okinawa as two different types of base hosts suggests that Okinawa represents a special case. Further investigation of the triangular relationship between the US and the host country’s central and local governments in other similar cases may produce more insights into how this set-up complicates these particular basing relationships and thus how change in basing politics occurs.

Nevertheless, Cooley’s focus on political leaders and formal agreements potentially underestimates the influence that civil society actors can have on basing agreements and thus alliance politics. As with Calder, this analysis does not attempt to evaluate the relative importance of factors that lead to changes in the intensity and outcomes of basing politics. Most of the case studies, including those of Japan and Italy, focus on how political elites use basing issues to promote their own interests. When the agency of civil society actors is considered, as in the South Korean case (pages 121–3), their level of impact is evaluated in isolation rather than in comparison to other factors. The analysis of the Okinawan and Azorean cases, on the other hand, considers factors like the host country’s willingness to institutionalise incentives against the petitions of societal groups. The difference in outcomes between these two cases suggests that strategic factors are ultimately more important, as they influence the commitment of the US and the host nation towards the maintenance of facilities through particular incentives. Nevertheless, further testing of these factors may help illustrate more clearly the impact of civil society actors on basing politics and the causal mechanisms by which this occurs. Such analysis is especially important as social movements continue to gain momentum with regard to international environmental and economic agreements, as this momentum may also be significant in the strategic realm.

Basing Politics: Now and Hereafter

Interestingly, neither work fully addresses the question of changing interests in either the host nation or the US military. Cooley comes closest with his focus on regime change, expanding on Calder’s regime shift hypothesis. However, the dynamic processes of his framework—focused on host elites and their actions to politicise or depoliticise basing issues for their domestic politic interests—marginalises what happens in the bases and their surrounding communities. Readers might wonder whether the way in which previous agreements have been implemented has any longer term negative or positive effects on the receptiveness of host communities to the foreign military presence. In some areas, such as Okinawa, some beneficiaries of economic incentives for hosting communities have started turning against the US or the central government (Inoue 2007). Reservations over the potential contamination of land returned by the US military may also impact the willingness of other communities to accept the expansion or construction of more facilities. Furthermore, whilst the strategic importance of the prefecture has so far overridden local efforts to push the two governments towards relocating facilities to the mainland or overseas, operational constraints such as restrictive flight times and paths have been gradually added instead (United States General Accounting Office 2002). If basing issues are not depoliticised, as Cooley predicts, and such constraints increasingly affect the training programs and thus the operational readiness of the military forces in the longer term, there might come a point where the strategic benefits of location are outweighed by the political and operational costs. Thus, changes in the interests of local communities and the US military, and the causal mechanisms by which these changes occur, offer other avenues of enquiry to further broaden “the political science of basing.”

Calder and Cooley both make important contributions to the understanding of basing politics, both globally and within specific host countries such as Japan. Embattled Garrisons identifies many of the factors that influence basing policy and offers a compensation politics paradigm with which to understand the relatively high level of acceptance of US bases within Japan. Base Politics then narrows the focus to examine how politicians use basing politics to further their own interests, particularly during periods of democratisation and where the original basing contracts were made by non-democratic governments. Although this paradigm may be challenged by the continuing standoff between Okinawa and Tokyo (despite Japan arguably being a relatively mature democracy), the analysis of this case as a three-way tussle rather than a bilateral negotiation highlights a more complex interaction that can help explain the variation. Promisingly, these two texts represent just the start of a new sub-field of scholarship, one that tackles the question of change, particularly in terms of the interests of host elites and activists at the local level, but also in terms of the potential for the US global posture to shift due to strategic factors. How these two sides of the coin affect each other will be a key research question for this field into the future.


Berger, Thomas U. (1993) “From Sword to Chrysanthemum: Japan’s Culture of Anti-militarism,” International Security, 17 (4): 119-50.

Dower, John W. (1993) Japan in War and Peace: Selected Essays, New York: New Press.

Inoue, Masamichi S. (2007) Okinawa and the U.S. Military: Identity Making in the Age of Globalization, New York: Columbia University Press.

Katzenstein, Peter J. and Nobuo Okawara (1993) “Japan’s National Security: Structures, Norms, and Policies,” International Security, 17 (4): 84-118.

Obama, Barack. (2011) “Remarks by President Obama to the Australian Parliament.” Speech given to the Australian Parliament, Canberra, 17 November, (02.08.2013).

Pettyjohn, Stacie L. (2012) U.S. Global Defense Posture, 1783-2011, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Schaller, Michael (1997) Altered States: The United States and Japan since the Occupation, New York: Oxford University Press.

Takemae, Eiji (2002) Inside GHQ: The Allied Occupation of Japan and its Legacy, translated by Sebastian Swann and Robert Ricketts, New York: Continuum.

United States General Accounting Office, Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support, Committee on Armed Services, US Senate (2002), Military Training: Limitations Exist Overseas but Are Not Reflected in Readiness Reporting.

Yoshida, Kensei (2008) “US Bases, Japan and the Reality of Okinawa as a Military Colony,” The Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, translated by Rumi Sakamoto and Matt Allen, 2857: 19 August, (05.09.2013).

About the Author

Kerri Ng is a PhD candidate in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University, where she also completed an MA in International Relations in 2012. She also has a BA and a BSc from the University of Melbourne (2006). Between 2007 and 2010, Kerri lived and worked in Okinawa Prefecture, where she learned of the controversy surrounding the Futenma Air Station. Her current research is focused on the impact that domestic interest groups have on the implementation of US military basing agreements in Northeast Asia.

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