Key point: It is no wonder that Japan feels very invested in U.S.-North Korean negotiations.
Tokyo has a population of 13.491 million, making it by far the largest city in Japan and home to more than 10 percent of the nation’s population. The greater Tokyo area, home to thirty-seven million, is the largest urban area on the planet. It is also squarely in the crosshairs of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. In the event of nuclear attack, Tokyo could experience enormous destruction the likes of which it hasn’t experienced since World War II.
Tokyo became the capital of modern Japan in the late nineteenth century, during the Meiji Restoration, part of a broad effort to modernize the country and raise the Japan’s government, science, technology and military to Western levels. Unfortunately, imperialism was one of those imported values, and the country ruled the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. The occupation and guerrilla war conducted by Korean partisans established a deep antagonism against Japan that persists to this day. The North Korean leadership claims legitimacy in part from the partisan activities conducted by founding members of the state. Japan’s later alliance with the United States and South Korea only exacerbated bad feelings against the country in Pyongyang.
Despite such history, in practical terms Japan has only been a secondary player to Pyongyang, with the real enemy being the United States. Kim Il-sung, founder of the North Korean state and grandfather to current leader Kim Jong-un, set a goal of building long-range missiles to strike Japan—not for striking Japan per se, but for striking American military bases there that would be key to a new Korean conflict. Kim wanted a way to strike bases that would host or coordinate the kind of American airpower that flattened Pyongyang during the war.
Most American bases in Japan are near urban areas, a consequence of Japan’s shortage of useful land. The U.S. Air Force has also closed other bases such as Tachikawa Air Base, which was located in the western part of Tokyo. One base in particular, however, that would very likely be struck by North Korean nuclear weapons is Yokota Air Base.