A tiny speck of reality in “Battleship”

There’s a tradition in American journalism of using a buzzy topic from pop culture as a jumping-off point to discuss the more serious issues of the day. Having just seen the movie “Battleship,” in which Japan and the United States join forces in a war (against space aliens), I thought I’d try my hand at this type of essay, thinking about what a general American audience may not know but might be interested to learn. Here goes:

How can you be friends with a guy who kicks you in the face the first time you meet him? In the new movie “Battleship,” that is exactly how the relationship between the two main characters begins, yet the eventual buddies – a U.S. Navy officer and his Japanese counterpart – go on to save the world from invading space aliens.

Based on the classic board game of the same name, “Battleship” premiered in Japan in April and opens in America on May 18. It may be a splashy sci-fi action movie, but it also provides an opportunity to reflect on the real-life military alliance between the United States and Japan.

Things get off on the wrong foot between mariners Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) and Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) when Nagata’s foot connects with Hopper’s jaw during an inter-services soccer game near Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The blindside kick may not have been intentional, but parallels to the 1941 surprise attack must have been.

Everyone knows what happened after that attack, and how Japan rebuilt its economy from the ashes of World War II. Less well known is that Japan also rebuilt its military to become a sleeping giant in its own right, with more troops, tanks, submarines and fighter planes than Britain, France or Italy.

Such strength is awkward in light of Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, which renounces “war…and the use or threat of force as a means of settling international disputes” and declares that “land, sea and air forces…will never be maintained.” Officially, Japan doesn’t even have a “military.” Instead, it has “Self-Defense Forces” (SDF), the legitimacy and uses of which are well-worn topics of debate in Japan.

On constitutional grounds, Japan contributed money rather than troops to the 1990-91 Gulf War, only to find itself criticized for “checkbook diplomacy.” Therefore, when the U.S. began fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, Japan dipped a toe in the water by sending Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) ships to support the U.S. Navy with refueling operations in the Indian Ocean – an active role, but deliberately far from combat.

The Indian Ocean program lasted eight years. It ended after the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party lost power in a 2009 election and a new government under the generally more dovish Democratic Party of Japan declined to renew the legislation that authorized it.

The new government also threw into disarray a previously agreed plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station within Okinawa Prefecture, a cluster of small southern islands crowded with U.S. bases. The benefits of the U.S. military presence accrue to Japan as a whole, but the burdens fall mostly on Okinawa. Yukio Hatoyama, the first DPJ prime minister, wanted the air station relocated out of the prefecture altogether.

Even as the Futenma issue strained U.S.-Japanese relations, China—whose military has also grown along with its economy—began aggressively asserting claims to Asian waters where other countries have long-standing interests. Recent provocations include 2010 and 2011 incidents in which Chinese Navy helicopters buzzed MSDF ships while Chinese warships passed between remote Japanese islands. A Chinese fishing vessel in disputed waters even rammed two Japan Coast Guard ships in 2010. The fishing captain was arrested but quickly freed in a political move that did little to placate China, which temporarily cut off vital exports of rare earth minerals to Japan in apparent retaliation.

While such incidents make Japan’s civilian leaders appear feckless, the status of the military has been growing. In 2007, the once lowly Japan Defense Agency was upgraded to a cabinet-level Ministry of Defense. In 2011, Japan established its first overseas military base since the end of World War II, an outpost in Djibouti charged with fighting piracy near Somalia. SDF personnel have also joined U.N. peacekeeping operations in places like South Sudan, even if the infrastructure projects they are working on there are distant from violent border areas. And after last year’s horrific earthquake and tsunami, SDF rescuers were virtually the only arm of the government whose actions earned widespread public approval.

U.S. forces also lent a much-appreciated helping hand after the 2011 disaster, and their cooperation with the SDF is set to grow stronger. A breakthrough in negotiations last month will likely lead to the transfer of 9,000 U.S. Marine Corps personnel out of Okinawa, though many will remain (and the Futenma issue is still not fully resolved). As part of the deal, Japan will help to pay for facilities for the shared use of U.S. and Japanese forces in U.S. territories such as Guam and Tinian Island.

The two nations’ military forces were on alert together last month as they awaited the launch of a North Korean rocket. The SDF intended to shoot it down with Patriot missiles if it threatened Japanese territory. A U.S. satellite observed the April 13 launch, but the failed rocket blew up at such a low altitude that the curve of the Earth hid it from ground-based SDF radar. (In “Battleship,” the alien vessels are also invisible to radar, but Nagata devises a clever way to determine their locations – providing one of the movie’s best sight gags.)

On April 30, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and President Barack Obama met at the White House and expressed in a joint statement their commitment to ensuring “responsible and rule-based” use of the high seas and further strengthening of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

As if to put an exclamation mark on that statement, during Noda’s trip to Washington several Chinese Navy warships sailed unannounced through a narrow strait between Kyushu, Japan’s third-largest island (about the size of Maine), and Tanegashima, a smaller island that is the launch center for Japan’s space program.

Maybe it isn’t very likely that space aliens will invade the Earth using weapons derived from a Hasbro board game. But the United States and Japan teaming up to face a common threat at sea? That’s not so far-fetched.

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