The commanding general of US Army Japan recently persuasively argued that as part of the joint force’s “contact layer” on the frontier of the Pacific in the first island chain, Japan is the ideal location to station a US Army multidomain task force.
Japan’s geographic location as the backbone of the first and second island chains indeed makes it a critical strategic location. Pending Army innovations such as the multidomain task forces and long-range precision fires could provide tremendous contributions toward regional deterrence of neighborhood great power adversaries and rapid response should that fail.
Certainly, there is room for US Army growth in Japan. Although home to approximately twenty thousand US Navy sailors, twelve thousand US Air Force airmen, and nineteen thousand Marines, the Army casts a faint shadow in Japan. There are only 2,600 US Army soldiers stationed in all of Japan—fewer than in one standard brigade. This is a gross imbalance with the roughly 140,000 troops of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF), which represent nearly two-thirds of Japan Self-Defense Forces personnel.
This spring, Chief of Staff of the Army General James McConville said he would like three of the service’s planned five multidomain task forces to be located in the Pacific region. Basing one of these in Japan would be a meaningful sign of US Army commitment and would contribute to regional deterrence of China, Russia, and North Korea, as well as deepening bilateral integration with the JGSDF. The absence of any significant Army combat arms unit permanently stationed in Japan means that unlike units stationed in South Korea, for example, operational integration between the Army and Japan’s ground forces is comparatively undeveloped and familiarity with and experience in Japan is desperately wanting.
Given that Japan is an ideal archipelagic staging area in the western Pacific and that further US Army–JGSDF integration is imperative, this begs the question: Where precisely in Japan could, and should, the US Army footprint expand?
Contrary to what one might expect, the most strategically effective and geopolitically ideal location for increased US Army presence is not in Japan’s south. It is on its northernmost island, Hokkaido.
The Most Strategically Important Location the Army Has Never Thought About
The immediate geopolitical concern regarding a potential US military response to a Taiwan contingency leads to an obvious focus on Okinawa and the Ryukyu Island chain as a desirable military staging area for the US Army. Being obvious does not make it strategically prescient, however. It is less than ideal for the US Army to try to base assets in a small, concentrated land area already hosting over twenty-five thousand active duty troops (primarily Marines and airmen) and approximately 70 percent of all US military bases in Japan. This is especially true given the Japanese government has worked to reduce the existing US military footprint in Okinawa, which has dropped by 35 percent over the past forty years.
Rather than attempting to wedge itself into the vicinity of Okinawa the Army should instead expand its geographic horizon and look north to Hokkaido. The advantages for the US-Japan military alliance are as bountiful as they are unrecognized. For instance, Hokkaido has ample open space, low population density, and dispersed JGSDF bases that could be jointly used by the US military.
Hokkaido is the northernmost of what are considered Japan’s four primary islands. With a land area of eighty-three thousand square kilometers, it is the twenty-first largest island in the world and roughly the size of the entirety of Ireland. Hokkaido’s population of 5.26 million residents approximates that of the state of South Carolina However, it is not only its size but more importantly its geographic location that is strategically consequential when considering the current global atmosphere of renewed great power competition.
Hokkaido is bordered by the Sea of Japan to the west, the Sea of Okhotsk to the northeast, and the Pacific Ocean to the southeast. Toward its south it is separated from the Japanese island of Honshu by the Tsugaru Strait, while the Russian island of Sakhalin is only forty-three kilometers away across the Soya Strait to the north.
Both the Soya and Tsugaru Straits are vital for Russian and Chinese military and commercial shipping access through the Sea of Japan to the Pacific. Since forcibly taking the Japanese territories of southern Sakhalin (known in Japanese as Minami Karafuto) and the Kuril Islands at the close of World War II, the Soviet Union—and, since its collapse, Russia—has maintained military forces there as a protective gateway for Pacific access from its Far East port of Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan, home of the Russian Pacific Fleet. Russian presence in the Hokkaido vicinity also serves to deny US military access to the Sea of Okhotsk.
China’s ambitions are multipronged, and it is not monomaniacally strategically focused on Taiwan. In its increasing cooperation with its Russian “no limits” partner China has characteristically maneuvered into an advantageous strategic position. It is well known that China is eagerly eyeing the Arctic both for the plentiful resources there as well as shipping access through the Northern Sea Route. Deepening cooperation with Russia is a means to this Arctic access. Both commercially and militarily traversing the seas around northern Japan is part and parcel of this future Sino-Russian Arctic expansion.
As the Ukraine War continues, it appears Russia will be increasingly dependent, both economically and militarily, upon China. While expending minimal resources and ensuring ample access to Russian fuel products, China is positioned to leverage this dependence and influence and control a weakened and addicted Russia, offering support in exchange for Arctic tradeoffs. In fact, this Chinese expansion is well underway. For example, Russia has recently agreed to grant China commercial shipping access to Vladivostok. This is the first time Russia has granted China such access since obtaining this territory from the Qing Dynasty under one of what China refers to as the “unequal treaties” 163 years ago.
This is a looming great power conundrum the US Army could address by providing a forward-based permanent military presence, logistical support, and US-Japan alliance coordination in Hokkaido. Not only would such a presence deter North Korea’s ongoing bellicosity and Russian and Chinese expansion in the northern Pacific’s path to the Arctic, but permanent basing west of the international date line would allow for much more rapid deployment to support a Taiwan contingency than basing alternatives in locations such as Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, or even Guam.
Hokkaido’s Historical Military Connection
Of concern to the government and citizens of Japan, the population of Hokkaido has been both rapidly declining and significantly aging in recent years. The demographic change to Hokkaido has had a predictably deleterious effect on local economies, particularly in smaller towns and rural areas. This situation has made areas of Hokkaido particularly vulnerable to predatory investment from China-connected entities.
Although this Chinese economic incursion is concerning, it also highlights an opportunity for Tokyo and Washington to proactively present an increased US Army presence in Hokkaido as an economic stimulant to local communities and an alternative to depressed communities being forced to take Chinese investment funds.
Moreover, due to its history of frontier development, and a corresponding culture supportive of the JGSDF, communities in Hokkaido are more likely to be open to an increased US military presence than any other area of the country. In sharp contrast to Okinawa and areas of Honshu, Hokkaido itself is Japan’s lone colonized frontier and Japan’s modern military was integral to its settlement and development in the nineteenth century.
In ancient Japan Hokkaido (then known as Ezo) was at the distant northern outskirts of the realm. By the early nineteenth century, the increasing encroachment of the West and Russia sounded an alarm within then-shuttered Japan of the necessity to secure its northern border. With the fall of the shogunate in the 1860s and the advent of the Meiji Restoration, organized settlement of Hokkaido and beyond began in earnest in conjunction with Japan’s rapid industrial modernization.
A core endeavor of the settlement of Hokkaido was the tondenhei, or “colonial troops,” system. In 1874 the new government of imperial Japan instituted a homesteading/military program in which former families of the now-disbanded samurai class were provisioned, housed, and received land in exchange for emigration to Hokkaido from other areas of Japan. For the government, the benefits were multifold, as these tondenhei not only helped settle Japan’s undeveloped northern frontier, but also served as a military bulwark against Russian encroachment from the north.
Thus, since its beginnings, the military in Hokkaido has been at the nucleus of the foundation of many local communities. At the close of World War II, Imperial Japanese Army forces in Hokkaido were instrumental in defending against the Soviet invasion and occupation of southern Sakhalin and the Kurils, in violation of the Soviet-Japan neutrality pact. Little known in the West, the bitter fighting between Japanese forces against this Soviet invasion in Japan’s north continued after Japan had already surrendered to the Allies on August 15, 1945
As part of Cold War strategy against the Soviet Union following World War II, the JGSDF grew into the primary role of defending against a Soviet ground invasion from the north. With the Soviet collapse, Russia was no longer viewed as a military threat. Consequently, with the military rise of China and the perceived threat to its south, the JGSDF has focused on pivoting to deploy units to its southern Nansei Islands in the event of a contingency.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its increasing chumminess with China have called into question this post–Cold War southern focus, however. Japan has in effect been lowering its hands to guard against a gut punch in the south. This shift, combined with a nearly total absence of US military presence in Hokkaido, is increasingly exposing a vulnerable northern Pacific glass jaw.
Viewed through the lens of history Japan faces military threats not only from the south, but also from its north in what is essentially a massive pincer. Recognizing this geopolitical situation, the US Army is in a unique position to address this vulnerability of Japan while simultaneously preventing the creeping autocratic hegemony of China in the Pacific.
The Modern JGSDF in Hokkaido
From its colonial beginnings, Hokkaido has evolved to become the traditional home of the JGSDF. The northern island of Japan hosts thirty-eight different decentralized JGSDF bases of varying sizes. As part of the JGSDF Northern Army two JGSDF divisions, two brigades, and three surface-to-ship missile regiments are based in Hokkaido in addition to numerous smaller units of various types and roughly one-quarter of JGSDF personnel.
Despite this, US military presence in Hokkaido is virtually nil. There are no permanently stationed US units of any service based in Hokkaido, even though under the US-Japan status of forces agreements combined JGSDF–US Army basing can be executed provided the US and Japanese governments agree to do so. US forces already have temporary use rights at many Hokkaido facilities and areas that allow for combined training with the JGSDF for exercises, such as Yama Sakura and Orient Shield. This provides a logical stepping stone to permanent US basing in Hokkaido.
The Japanese government has recently undertaken historic steps to modernize its military and increase its defense budget. In December 2022 the government promulgated its revised National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and Defense Buildup Program. These documents evidence a revolutionary change in Japan’s attitude toward its own defense. Notably, Japan has committed to doubling its defense spending to 2 percent of GDP within five years, which will result in it having the third largest defense budget in the world behind only the United States and China.
Furthermore, Japan has also committed to developing and fielding standoff missile counterstrike capability with ranges to reach targets in other nations. The cornerstone of this capability will involve upgrading the Type 12 surface-to-ship missile to provide extended range to one thousand kilometers followed by development and fielding of a Hyper Velocity Gliding Projectile.
This development provides a great opportunity for US Army–JGSDF collaboration in the coming years. Japan’s counterstrike capability development closely mirrors the Army’s development of long-range precision fires, and its commitment to cross-domain operations echoes the Army’s multidomain operations doctrine. For its part, the JGSDF could greatly benefit from Army expertise in kinetic targeting processes and technology, while the Army could learn about surface-to-ship fires from the JGSDF.
The expanses of Hokkaido would be an ideal place to bring the allies and these capabilities together. Not only decentralized from Tokyo and home to the largest training areas in Japan, long-range fires based in Hokkaido would be an impactful deterrent. From dispersed and mobile locations in Hokkaido long-range missiles could conceivably range Beijing, Shanghai, Vladivostok, the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the entirety of North Korea.
As China has emerged as the United States’ pacing challenge, Japan is now the United States’ “pacing ally.” The long-term vision for both Japan and the United States should be to increase coordination between the JGSDF, US Army Japan and US Army Alaska, as an effective deterrent force against China, Russia, and North Korea while simultaneously covering the northern Pacific in overlapping concentric fields of fire functioning as an indomitable northern Pacific bastion.
Remember the North
No Pacific contingency the United States would conceivably become militarily involved in can be reasonably expected to have a successful outcome without its alliance with Japan. This is true be that conflict in the South China Sea, in the East China Sea, on the Korean peninsula, in the Sea of Japan, or in the Subarctic Pacific Ocean.
Although the relationship between the US Army and JGSDF has historically been overlooked, current geopolitical conditions present a historical opportunity to strengthen the relationship between these ground forces. The geographic fulcrum of Hokkaido has the potential to be a matchless location for future Army-JGSDF cooperation and effective and integrated deterrence in East Asia at the strategic and grand strategic levels.
From a joint perspective, DoD should continue to promote the Marine Corps be the lead force in the southern first island chain. Simultaneously, Washington, US Indo-Pacific Command, the Department of the Army, US Army Pacific, and US Army Japan should expend diplomatic and political capital to establish an ironclad bilateral relationship between the Army and JGSDF in Hokkaido and the northern first island chain. The Japanese archipelago is large enough, and the regional large-scale threats numerous and serious enough, for there to be ample strategic room for both the Marine Corps and the Army to have fighting forces based in different areas of Japan in complementary roles.
Since its incorporation into Japan, Hokkaido has been intimately connected with the defense of the nation. Its history and geography at the frontier of Japan are the foundation of its local culture, and its residents have always been necessarily keenly sensitive to threats from abroad. The historical connection between the JGSDF and Hokkaido, where the force serves as the backbone for multiple local communities, has fostered a local attitude comparatively supportive of the military. The Army should take the opportunity to build on and be part of this foundational relationship, starting with stationing a multidomain task force or other brigade-sized force in Hokkaido alongside the JGSDF.
In looking to permanently station Army forces in Hokkaido it is important for both Tokyo and Washington to keep in mind and promote the benefits of a bilateral Army-JGSDF presence to not only Japan as a nation, but also Hokkaido itself, its constituent communities, and its citizens. The economic benefits an increased Army presence could bring to more rural areas of Hokkaido are considerable and offer an alternative to increasingly pervasive and pernicious China-connected investment. If properly managed by the US-Japan alliance through a bilateral whole-of-government approach, at a grassroots level the cultural cross-pollination from increased interaction between Americans and Japanese in Hokkaido could have a positive cascading effect to both industry and educational institutions. The potential benefits to the US-Japan alliance, the US Army, and Hokkaido itself exist at all levels—from the rural neighborhood to the strategic theater.
In the coming decade and beyond Hokkaido is possibly the only location bilateral Army/JGSDF basing in the Pacific theater can realistically happen. Fortuitously, Hokkaido is also the ideal place that it should. Washington and Tokyo would be well served to broaden their horizons and look to north to Hokkaido as the future of the US Army in the Pacific.
Major Alec Rice is an active duty US Army JAG Corps attorney currently assigned to the National Security Law Division, Office of the Judge Advocate General. He is a former chief of national security law for US Forces Japan and a graduate of the 66th Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Command and General Staff Course.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. 1st Class Justin A. Naylor, US Army