Photo/Illutration The U.S. Air Force's Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Japan reached agreement with the United States to ramp up its annual host-nation support for U.S. forces stationed in Japan, which will require close monitoring as it could have serious ramifications for Tokyo’s defense spending and the bilateral security alliance in general. With the two governments stressing the importance of enhancing the alliance, the accord could lead to sharp future increases in the financial burden borne by Japan and significantly affect its defense budget and equipment procurement requirements.

Under the agreement, Japan’s yearly contribution to host U.S. bases will total 1,055.1 billion yen ($9.2 billion) for the five-year period from fiscal 2022 through fiscal 2026. This translates into an annual average payment of about 211 billion yen, nearly 10 billion yen more than the 201.7 billion yen Japan pays under the program for the current fiscal year.

When Donald Trump was president, the U.S. administration made exorbitant demands that threatened to scuttle trust in the alliance. The transfer of power to President Joe Biden spared Japan the problem of having to deal with such unreasonable demands. Still, the new agreement introduced a new budget section to help finance the procurement of state-of-the-art equipment and materials used in U.S. military drills.

The Japanese government asserts that such spending will help beef up the capabilities of the Self-Defense Forces and expand defense cooperation between the two nations since the equipment will be used in joint Japan-U.S. military exercises.

But we will not know for sure until we carefully examine how the new procurement program operates. Japan’s expenditures for this budget section in the next five years will reach 20 billion yen at most. But the amount could grow later if Washington demands greater Japanese contributions to fund such purchases.

The U.S.-Japan Status of Forces agreement stipulates that the United States, in principle, will bear the costs of maintaining and operating U.S. forces in this country. But in 1978, the Japanese government started shouldering part of the costs due to rising prices in Japan and a growing U.S. budget deficit. Initially, it covered a portion of the labor costs for Japanese workers at U.S. bases, but was steadily expanded to cover other outlays, including funds for housing and other facilities for U.S. service members as well as utilities expenses and costs of U.S. military training relocation.

As a result, Japan emerged as the most generous host nation among all the U.S. allies with U.S. forces on their soil. According to U.S. government data published in 2004, Japan contributed 74.5 percent of the operating costs of U.S. forces in Japan. This is far higher than the figures for Washington’s other allies. The ratios for Italy, Germany and South Korea were 41 percent, 33 percent and 40 percent, respectively. It is safe to assume that the picture has remained basically the same.

Certainly, the security environment in East Asia surrounding Japan has become more fraught and unpredictable, highlighting the importance of close defense cooperation between Japan and the United States. Even so, the host-nation support program should be reviewed constantly so as to win the support of Japanese taxpayers in light of the nation’s fiscal crunch.

Under the new agreement, Japan’s funding for facilities within U.S. bases, such as bomb shelters to protect aircraft, will increase, while Japan’s outlays for utilities costs will be reduced gradually in five years to 13.3 billion yen from 23.4 billion yen for the current fiscal year. This indicates a shift in the focus of the program from financing running costs for U.S. forces to bolstering operational capabilities.

Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told a news conference that the government will stop using the popular term “omoiyari yosan” (sympathy budget) in referring to the host-nation support program, officially referred to as “Cost Sharing for the U.S. Forces Stationed in Japan,” and start calling it “domei kyojinka yosan” (budget to enhance resilience of the alliance).

“We will work to further enhance the deterrence provided by the Japan-U.S. alliance,” Kishi said.

The government plans to sign a special bilateral agreement to implement the new deal early next year and seek Diet approval during the regular session to be convened in January.

We urge the Diet during the upcoming session to thoroughly delve into issues related not just to the funding program but also to Japan’s foreign and security policy in general and defense buildup.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 23