How Japan’s Military Should Change
Image Credit: flickr/ U.S. Pacific Fleet

How Japan’s Military Should Change


There's been a flurry of defense-related news out of Tokyo this week. More is doubtless in the offing as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his lieutenants revise Japan's National Defense Program Guidelines, the government's most authoritative statement of how it sees the security environment and intends to manage it.

A Chinese correspondent emails to ask the Naval Diplomat's views about all of this, including such matters as revising the postwar "peace" constitution to "normalize" the status of the Self-Defense Forces as a regular military force, and perhaps rename the SDF as such; undertaking collective self-defense measures alongside U.S. forces; mounting a more active defense against ballistic-missile attack; and reorienting forces toward defense of the southwestern islands. Whew! Is that all?

My answer, in brief, is that Tokyo should proceed on all of these fronts except the renaming issue, and that any constitutional revisions should spell out, explicitly and unambiguously, that the SDF will never go on the strategic offensive. Abe & Co. must elucidate their purposes with utter clarity, even as they shift to a less passive operational and tactical stance that's less dependent on the United States. They should forego certain options in advance. In that sense, the Japanese military should remain abnormal.

This is a Thucydidean answer, I suppose. Regular readers of these pixels know that I heartily endorse the Greek historian's maxim that fear, honor, and interest constitute the prime movers driving human actions. Japan's leadership must consider how the NDPG, and its efforts to put the document into effect, will play with each regional audience in each of these domains. Providing the best defense possible while affronting the fewest audiences possible should be Tokyo's goal. The leadership should understand, however, that it cannot satisfy some important audiences — read China — short of granting them a veto over its defense strategy.

Japan has some things going for it. It is a deeply conservative power, for instance. It wants to conserve what is, namely the liberal, American-led maritime order. Apart from the perpetually aggrieved in Beijing, few sincerely believe that adjusting the SDF's posture to hit back against North Korean missile sites after Pyongyang strikes the first blow, or to repulse an amphibious assault on the Ryukyu Islands, augurs a new Japanese rampage through Asia — a campaign that would gut a status quo that benefits the island nation so handsomely. The capacity to do so just isn't there, and won't be even should Tokyo undertake a sizable boost in defense spending. Nor is the will.

Why is renaming the SDF a big deal? The Bard suggested that names matter little. I disagree, in this case at least. Presumably the point would be to state the obvious, namely that Japan does indeed field an army, navy, and air force. The leadership may also intend to telegraph resolve to audiences in China, and thus to deter. The former is a semantic endeavor, hardly worth incurring any blowback. The latter is more portentous.

Here's my Thucydidean counterpoint: rebranding the SDF might broadcast fortitude, but it would also trigger honor and fear reflexes far beyond Beijing. "Self-Defense Forces" is an umbrella term to which regional capitals have grown accustomed over the course of decades. Their relative comfort affords Tokyo some latitude to tinker with roles, missions, and force structure. But changing the name while simultaneously girding for active defense would imply a revolution in Japanese purposes as well as Japanese power.

That Tokyo wants a revolution is the last message any prime minister should want to send. Shift strategies by all means. As an American I would welcome a more equal security alliance. Indeed, Tokyo should consider increasing the defense budget substantially to fund such an arrangement, rather than seeking the trivial uptick in spending that Abe has floated.

This is less radical than it may sound. Japan could double defense spending, informally capped at 1 percent of GDP, while remaining firmly on a peacetime footing. Look at NATO, which fixes its defense-spending benchmark for member states at 2 percent of GDP. Japan inhabits a hardscrabble neighborhood. Embracing the standard set by an alliance that faces no plausible threat hardly equates to rearming for conquest.

Japan should explain its purposes early and often — and act.

Brett Champion
July 25, 2013 at 22:41

The reason why Imperial Japan's history has stuck so closely to modern Japan can be seen in Germany's history since the end of WWII. Nazi Germany has the darkest history of any currently existing state, yet it has managed to largely overcome that history, while Japan, which has a dark history as well, is still paying the price for it. The reason why is that Germany has prostrated itself before the world and has openly and regularly acknowledged its wartime guilt. Japan has largely eschewed that strategy. In fact, not long after the war ended, an important faction of Japan's ruling elites developed a narrative of the war that Japan was in fact an aggrieved nation because of the US nuclear attacks on Hirsohima and Nagasaki. Unlike in Germany, those factions in Japan's ruling elite who refuse to acknowledge Japan's wartime atrocities have never been purged from the respectable national parties. In Germany they have been relegated to a disrespectable fringe, while in Japan they periodically hold important positions of power in the government. While I agree that it's ridiculous to think that Japan could start a war of aggression today like it did back in the early 20th century, those peoples who suffered the most at the hands of the Japanese in the 1930s and 40s have a right to be upset that the Japanese government has never fully acknowledged what its predecessors did in places like Nanjing.

Brett Champion
July 25, 2013 at 22:26

No matter how well and often Japan declares that whatever increase in military capabilities it eventually seeks is purely for defensive purposes, it won't matter to China or North Korea. For their part, China's leaders probably won't view such measures as much of a threat, but they will be forced into making loud, boisterous statements against it, nevertheless, because the ultranationalists among China's population will demand that they do so. And China's ultranationalists are largely drawn from an influential part of the population–the educated middle class–so the leaders will have to take notice. Even South Korea's leaders will be forced into at least mild criticism as there is a relatively smaller, though still potent, nationalist force in South Korea, which is geared more toward anti-Japanese sentiment than nationalism per se. Japan will just have to take the criticism and hope that the US voices support for such measures in order to keep any resistance to those measures to a minimum in those countries that rely, at least in part, on US military protection.

July 22, 2013 at 05:07

I was stationed in Japan for a bit over two years in the 1970's. I think that you are absolutely correct. A further point in your favor. Japan has a declining population. The numbers just aren't there to maintain a massive Ground Force.

Little Helmsman
July 21, 2013 at 04:29

Too bad Imperial Japan gave modern Japan such a sordid history that it is hard to shake off. Maybe it is a lesson that military men should not rule a country since it will lead to disaster!

I like modern democratic Japan so much better!

July 20, 2013 at 19:42

Japan and the Philippines are already allies, we are even allowing Japanese to use our bases if they need to.

July 20, 2013 at 00:14

"Japan should not rely on any other country to take of its own security and its future survival."

I agree.

July 19, 2013 at 17:17

Excellent.  Japan reinvades Korea, Taiwan and China.  Saves China from needing any propaganda if the Neo-Imperial Japan does it for them.

Jokes aside, many of the points touched upon are needless and only serve to satisfy Abe and his party's ego.  Normally you would think someone of his position would put diplomacy and their country's geopolitical situation in consideration before wanting to achieve something as blatant as planned.  But Abe is an ideologue.  His first time in power revealed his goals, to make the country proud and mighty again to overthrow the nation's pacifist nature, consequences be damned.

We must be watchful for any further developments.

Harakiri DeThang
July 19, 2013 at 12:17

Japan should not rely on any other country to take of its own security and its future survival. Japan should also be allied more with countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Malysia, etc. to ensure that the International LOC/waterway are always open to ALL. Japan should work with the USA, Australia, Korea. Indonesia and other allies to ensure that China will not disrespect for laws of the sea and stop CCP to committing its lawlessness behaviours.  

Dave Collins
July 19, 2013 at 07:07

I agree with Bankotsu.  China needs to see some real pushback on their aggresive testing of the waters.  The other smaller area countries would be reassured I think, rather than paniced.

July 19, 2013 at 06:30

Is desire the same as interest? And what about the scale of rationality or irrational behaviors? Then is honor in the middle because it can be driven by fear or interest regardless of rationality. Isnt this maxim similar to Clausewitz…integrity. They (behaviors) fluctuate depending on parameters of defining

July 19, 2013 at 06:23

A round of applause for you! I am in awe. You make me happy though I have no call for happiness but to just breathe then read. You are everywhere all over the map.truly remarkable…

Chuck Hill
July 19, 2013 at 04:04

China will always put a large percentage of their defense spending in their army and internal security forces. Doubling Japan's defense spending and putting most of the increase in the Navy, Air Force, and Ballistic Missile Defense and relatively little more in the army would allow them to completely balance China's increase in Naval and Air, and possibly make the Japanese MSDF the dominate naval force in the Western Pacific.

Keeping the GSDF (army) small should minimize fear among Japan's neighbors.

Making their already large and well trained Coast Guard a bit more combat ready would probably not hurt.

July 19, 2013 at 01:43

They will do it soon, comrade. Think twice before you wish, Bankotsu. Then your China will be going  back to the Qing dynasty to live with its' old good… glorious days'!

July 18, 2013 at 17:27

Japan should go all out and "normalise" their armed forces into an active and independent military force.

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