US-Japan Unifying Command Structure

A long overdue strengthening of a key alliance.

Reuters (“US eyes change to military command in Japan as China threat looms, sources say“):

U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will agree next month to tighter military cooperation, including talks on the biggest potential change to Washington’s East Asia command structure in decades, two sources said.

Washington will consider appointing a four-star commander to oversee its forces in Japan as a counterpart to the head of a proposed Japanese Self Defense Forces (SDF) headquarters overseeing all of the country’s military operations, said the sources, who have direct knowledge of the plan.

Biden and Kishida will unveil their plans when they meet on April 10 in Washington, the Financial Times reported.

“We are in discussion about how our planned joint command can strengthen cooperation with the U.S. and South Korea,” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi said on Monday at a regular media briefing when asked about the reports.

The agenda for the Biden-Kishida summit has not yet been decided, he added.

Kishida wants to establish the joint command headquarters before the end of March 2025. Tokyo has said it has “serious concern” over China’s growing military power and the threat it poses Taiwan, just over 100 km (62 miles) from Japanese territory.

Unlike in neighbouring South Korea, where U.S. and South Korean troops can operate under a unified command under a four-star general, U.S. air, land and sea forces in Japan have a three-star commander and do not have any authority over Japanese troops.

A four-star commander – the highest peacetime rank in any of the U.S. service branches – would match the rank of the Japanese counterpart in the new headquarters. A U.S. officer of that rank might lay the groundwork for a future unified Japanese-U.S. command, experts say.

Some U.S. officials, however, want any new U.S. commander there to be responsible only for joint exercises, training and information sharing with the new SDF headquarters, said one of the sources, both of whom asked not to be identified because they are not authorised to speak to the media.

Japan Times (“U.S. eyes revamped military command in Japan, reports say“) leads with:

Washington and Tokyo are planning to announce an agreement to restructure the U.S. military’s command in Japan when Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visits the White House next month, media reports said Monday, in what would be the biggest upgrade to the security alliance in decades.

The deal would help strengthen operational planning and exercises between the countries, the Financial Times and local media reported Monday, as the allies look to build up their joint response capabilities to what they say is the growing threat from China — especially in the event of a crisis over Taiwan.

and adds:

One model Washington is reportedly considering involves creating a new U.S. military joint task force that would be attached to the U.S. Pacific Fleet, one of the component commands at the Hawaii-based Indo-Pacific Command, the FT reported. Under this scenario, the fleet’s four-star commander would look to spend more time in Japan, and would have a bolstered support structure in the country. Eventually, the task force, which would be composed of different parts of the U.S. military, would shift to Japan.

Tokyo has long asked for a four-star commander to be based in the country, and a simple upgrade of U.S. Forces Japan could also be in the cards.

Kyodo News (“U.S. military to strengthen functions of Japan command headquarters“) leads with:

The U.S. military plans to strengthen the functions of its command headquarters in Japan, as it aims for smoother cooperation with the Asian nation’s Self-Defense Forces in tackling security threats posed by China and North Korea, diplomatic sources said Sunday.

and adds:

Japan is set to establish a joint headquarters to command its ground, maritime and air forces by the end of March 2025. Kishida’s government is aiming to deepen cooperation between the U.S. military and the joint headquarters.

Currently, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, responsible for Japan, has its headquarters in Hawaii and the different time zone and physical distance hampers the efficient interaction of Japanese forces and the U.S. military.

There is concern that if the U.S. military in Japan reinforces its functions along with the SDF, it would be difficult to separate its jurisdiction and authority from that of the Indo-Pacific Command, some analysts said.

Taipei Times (“US eyes change to military command in Japan“) leads with:

The US is contemplating plans to strengthen the functions of the US Forces Japan Headquarters to promote cooperation between the US military and the Japan Self-Defense Forces due to concerns about a potential Taiwan contingency, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported yesterday.

and adds:

As China is stepping up its military coercion in East Asia and there are concerns about the possibility of a Taiwan contingency, some are worried that it would be difficult to make timely responses under the current system, which requires coordination between Tokyo and Hawaii due to the time difference, it said.

The adjustment under discussion aims to expand the authority of the US Forces Japan Headquarters without taking away the command authority of the US Indo-Pacific Commander, it said.

There is a proposal to give the Tokyo headquarters authority to plan joint Japan-US exercises and training, as well as to work with the joint headquarters that is to be launched next year on coordination, information sharing and distribution of materials, it said.

Another possible arrangement is to establish a permanent joint team in Japan to ensure closer coordination between the Japan Self-Defense Forces and US forces in Japan, it said.

This move is long overdue. We’ve had unified commands for Europe and Korea for generations now and it only makes sense to bring the most capable American ally in the region into a similar arrangement.

Granting that I’m relying on English-language sources, the move is welcome in both Japan and Taiwan. While the former has long had an uneasy relationship with US forces stationed there—particularly the large Marine contingent in Okinawa—the assignment of a four-star US commander there signals a stronger alliance and US commitment to their defense.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Chris says:

    As the great American General James A. Van Fleet said, “I’m always willing to accept change, just as long as it isn’t change for the sake of change. If that change will result in a better way of doing things, then I’m all for it.”

  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    This is the kind of unglamorous, meat-and-potatoes work that gets done when you have an experienced president and competent FP and Defense team. Also helps that the Chinese are so regularly shooting themselves in the foot with their obnoxious behavior, both diplomatically and militarily.

    China’s having serious economic problems while motivating greater defense co-operation between the US and Korea, Japan and the Philippines, along with AUKUS. For all the talk of China having a more long-term perspective than the US, Xi has jumped the gun and engendered a co-ordinated response far earlier than necessary. Chairman Xi is maybe not very bright.

  3. Beth says:

    Overall, this seems like a good thing. Especially if the Japanese are for it. I think I’m missing something though. I don’t see why adding a 4 star to Japan seems to take away from the Command in Hawaii? Is it just because it creates a, at least in my mind, a much more prestigious command?

  4. DK says:

    Long way from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to here. But a common enemy makes all kinds of remarkable partnerships possible.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Beth: I don’t understand that complaint, either. Indo-Pacific is a massive command—far and away the bigger of our unified commands—and has had a sub unified 4-star commander in Korea since 1957 (and a different structure with an 4- and even 5-star command going back to 1950).

  6. Beth says:

    @James Joyner:

    Thanks, I appreciate your response.

  7. Richard Gardner says:

    I like it, but I just don’t understand the Goldwaters-Nichols. Administrative, operational. who reports to o whom?

  8. James Joyner says:

    @Richard Gardner: Details aren’t fixed yet but I assume this would be a subunified command, just like US Forces Korea, that reports to the INDOPACOM GCC.