Japan’s current defense policy is shaped by three principal factors: domestic politics, perceptions of external threats, and its alliance with the United States. In her new book Japan Rearmed, Sheila A Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, meticulously explores the evolution of Japan’s military policy from the beginning of the Cold War to the present.
Japanese militarism and aggression in the 1930s and during the Second World War cast a potent shadow over domestic policy debates in Japan and reactions to Japan’s military power among countries in East Asia. Article Nine of Japan’s Constitution, a product of the US postwar occupation of a defeated Japan, states, “The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” All of Japan’s postwar leaders, Smith notes, “have grappled with how to ensure their nation’s defenses in the nuclear age while limiting the power of its military.”
Japan’s postwar leaders—especially Nakasone Yasuhiro, Koizumi Junichiro, and the current Prime Minister Abe Shinzo—have cautiously and skillfully increased Japan’s military power, often in the face of domestic political opposition and frequently encouraged by the United States. Japan was a key US ally during the Cold War, serving as a base for US power projection in the Asia-Pacific and a reliable diplomatic and military partner. It continues to play that role in the post-Cold War world, especially with the growing challenges posed by China’s rise and North Korea’s nuclear threat. “Japanese thinking about their military is changing,” Smith explains, “as the possibility of a military conflict in Northeast Asia becomes more easily imagined.”
The most important changes identified by Smith are Japan’s increased willingness to deploy its military forces abroad and its “desire to build greater military self-reliance.” This in turn has led to Japan’s military having more input in defense policymaking because, as Smith notes, “the need for professional military expertise in handling Japan’s rising regional security challenges has grown.” Yet Japan has not escaped its history. Its recent military missions abroad—UN peacekeeping efforts, antipiracy in the Gulf of Aden, logistical support for US forces in the war on terror—have been undertaken with apprehension and considerable self-imposed restraints. Nevertheless, Japan’s leaders and the Japanese public, Smith concludes, are more at ease with deploying their military overseas, albeit in a limited and highly restricted manner.
Another factor in Japan’s more assertive defense policy is the perceived Chinese and North Korean threats to its national security. “Asia’s military balance is changing rapidly,” Smith writes,
and Japan is increasingly at a disadvantage. North Korea’s growing arsenal of missiles and weapons of mass destruction as well as China’s expanding maritime capabilities are changing Japan’s defense requirements.
Smith also believes that Japanese leaders have grown more skeptical of US pledges to defend Japan and its security interests in the Asia-Pacific. Japan’s leaders welcomed President Obama’s “rebalance” to Asia—even though it was more rhetorical than actual. They view President Trump as less predictable and, therefore, more concerning. “President Trump,” Smith writes,
has cast doubt on the notion that the United States remains interested in a global leadership role similar to the one it undertook in the Cold War…
But perhaps President Trump’s repeated call for more allied “burden sharing” is bearing fruit, at least in East Asia. Smith acknowledges that Trump’s stance on this issue
has led the Abe cabinet to consider how to up its spending on U.S. weaponry and to increase its military spending over the next five years.
In the end, the combined effects of external threats and US pressure may result in a more robust Japanese military and a greater political willingness to integrate military power with statecraft. That could benefit both Japan and the United States as they deal with the changing security environment of East Asia and the Western Pacific.
Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.