Officially a pacifist nation, Japan struggles with living in a tough neighborhood. In just the last two months, North Korea has sunk a South Korean naval ship while China's warships conducted naval exercises near Japan without informing Tokyo. One Chinese military helicopter even buzzed a Japanese ship.
Such aggressive actions by these two authoritarian regimes in the Far East were a strong reminder for a democratic Japan that it still needs the deterrence of US forces on its soil, even 65 years after the end of World War II. So on Sunday, its prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, backed down from a campaign promise to drastically cut the American military presence in Japan. He cited "political uncertainties" in East Asia. US Marines will now remain in the southern island of Okinawa.
President Obama had to play diplomatic hardball with Mr. Hatoyama to win this concession, a sign of how much Japan is struggling with remaining under the American wing for its defense even as it faces a China that insists on Japan paying due deference to its rising power.
Tokyo has plenty of practical reasons to bow to Beijing. Its trade with China recently exceeded that with the US. The Chinese navy is snatching up Russian submarines, using its naval base on Hainan Island to patrol Asian waters in an attempt to keep the US Seventh Fleet in check. China is winning over Southeast Asian nations and can influence the future of North Korea's nuclear-weapons and missile programs.
But practical does not always mean ideal.
Japan's real strength, as with America's, resides in the values of being a democratic nation. My father, who served in Japan as a US Naval officer during the American Occupation, helped oversee the revival of Japanese democracy. I later witnessed it in full force as a news correspondent in Tokyo. He and I often talked about the progress of Japan in becoming a "normal" country.
Japan's heart lies with the West even if Japan Inc. looks toward the giant market of China. If it succumbs to Beijing's threats and manipulations, it would be throwing away its postwar modern ideals.
Not all Japanese accept this. That is why most of them prefer that Okinawa bear the brunt of the US military presence rather than distribute that burden around the country. And many Japanese leaders think their country of 130 million people can soon have enough military might without US help to stand up to a China with 1.3 billion people. They ignore America's stabilizing role in a region fraught with tensions and historic enmities.
Japan has plenty of time to sort out its relationship with China. The US military will remain dominant in Asia for decades. Meanwhile, Japan's leaders can better educate their people about the importance of defending democratic ideals in a part of the world that still needs them. Those ideals are the enduring strength of a nation.