The Sympathy Budget: Get Cracking on Overhaul Debates

The Abe administration, in deepening its relations with the U.S. through security guarantees, has a problem that cannot be overlooked. That problem is the sympathy budget allocation covered by Japan for the cost of stationing U.S. troops within Japan.

Last week, the central government and the U.S. government agreed to terms for increasing this sympathy budget to a total of 9.5 trillion yen total over five years beginning in 2016. The total budget was set at more than 9.3 trillion yen from 2011 to 2015.

Japan passed security legislation for deepening the coalition between Japan and U.S. military forces. Public finance is also in a tough situation. Though massive cutbacks are sought, nothing comes of it.

In the beginning of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement that established the administration and operations of U.S. military bases, there was no onus on Japan to provide payment to U.S. forces. Eventually, the central government compromised and agreed to the U.S. request for payment without any real explanation to the Japanese people.

How long does the central government plan to continue budgetary measures that make no sense? A radical overhaul of the current status is necessary.

This budget has a long history. It started in 1978, when Defense Agency director at the time, Shin Kanemaru, made a statement calling on Japan to “have sympathy in dealing [with U.S. forces],” and the Japanese burden of fringe-benefit costs for on-base personnel began. Currently, while salaries still are the primary cost, the budget has been extended to include utilities as well as training and relocation costs. (SEE HERE)

The initial cost was 62 billion yen and increased annually to 2.8 trillion yen in 1999. Though there was a downward trend after that, the cost increased again in 2015 to 1.9 trillion yen.

At first, this sympathy budget was a service provided by Japan with no actual legal obligation. In 1987, official agreements began. And then somewhere along the line, the sympathy budget was taken as a matter of course by both Japan and the United States. From all perspectives, it has now become a blockade in negotiations and has resulted in a situation where Japan has trouble contesting it. While there are strong demands to reduce the budget, the reason Japan shies away from directly confronting the U.S. about this issue is probably connected to Japanese concern about creating any fissures within the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Negotiations for the next budget began in July. The United States – now working toward the Asia rebalance strategy – did not budge from its requested increase in the budget. The reason given was the structural buildup effort being conducted, including the deployment of Aegis ships to the Yokosuka naval base. The Japanese side could do nothing but give in to the increased burden.

The sympathy budget is connected to tax burdens and is a problem for each and every Japanese citizen. Japan’s financial situation is currently the worst among first world nations. The government has done nothing to cut into this issue.

Even if it is difficult to curtail this issue all at once, we must firmly explain Japan’s circumstances to the U.S. and make an effort to reduce the amount of the budget. The current agreement requires Diet approval by March. This paper hopes each political party makes genuine efforts in negotiating an overhaul of the agreement.

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