I recently embarked upon some OCONUS (Outside Continental United States) military leave in Japan.Among the items I brought in was a Bible for some spiritual solace in my travels — an act that for centuries in Japan would have gotten me perhaps the death penalty, let alone even setting foot in the nation outside of special port zones, under the 220-year “Sakoku” anti-foreigner and anti-Christian policies.
Japan is a nation that has seen immense change in recent times.
Just 75 years ago it was a determined U.S. enemy, striking us at Pearl Harbor, American troops fighting it island by island, and even it being the only nation for us to have used nuclear bombs on — to prevent millions of deaths from an invasion of mainland Japan given the savagery shown by the Japanese militarists. Nowadays it is a steadfast U.S. ally, enormous trading and cultural partner, and absolutely fundamental to our Asian security strategy.
At the same time Japan also rose from a devastated post-war ruin to briefly challenging the U.S. as the top world economy circa the late 1980s and early 1990s. The century prior it had gone from one of the world’s most modernization-resistant countries to embracing reforms and technology the quickest and most thoroughly of all the Asian nations.
Some of those trends have continued. One of the developments that became most apparent to me in Tokyo was how seamlessly integrated technology was into daily life everywhere and anywhere. Ubiquitous was the WiFi and high speed rail system, the self-opening doors and food ordering stations. Combined with the cleanliness, low level of crime, and a general sense of efficiency and order it was easy to see the high level of infrastructure and quality of life the Japanese have embraced.
It also was clear how strong the modern links between the U.S. and Japan are.
Besides the numerous U.S. military bases dotted across the country, I was amazed at the prevalence of American commercial brands and how it often seemed English was as common, if not more so, as Japanese was in signs and literature.
Modern Japan appears to be a pleasant nation that embraces the noble aspects of its history while having let go of the evil that led it in World War II to slaughter tens of millions of innocents — and causing 426,000 U.S. casualties in the Pacific Theater — in horrifying fashion everywhere from the Bataan Death March to the Rape of Nanking to the human shields of Okinawa civilians just less than a century ago.
Since U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry “opened” Japan to the world in the 1850s, America has always had a role to play with this nation and region all the way across the world. It was America that put an end to the authoritarian oppression of Japan’s racist militarists, brought those responsible to justice in the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, and gave the nation the tenants of liberal democracy and human rights as America did with Germany too.
Japan has influenced the United States as well. Some key parts of our popular culture come from Japan in the form of video games, cuisine, and television shows and movies. Tourism and exchange between the U.S. and Japan is top among America’s partners.
Japan has come a long way over the centuries. It is a beautiful, advanced, and free nation — and in many ways that liberty and prosperity has been secured and protected, to this day, by the blood of the American servicemember.
Undoubtedly over the next decades Japan will continue to play a key role as America’s friend and partner for Asian and world security and peace as well as in trade and cultural exchange. I was honored to have had the chance to witness this fascinating, humble, and rich in culture and soul country myself.
Re-prints of some of my columns. NOTE: I ran a national weekly column from 2017 to 2018 printed/distributed by newspapers in dozens of states across the country. The 2017-2018 blogs in this section are re-prints of the national column.