Japan: Britain of the Far East?
Image Credit: US Navy

Japan: Britain of the Far East?


Following is the third in our series on Understanding Asia-Pacific Sea Power. In this installment we look at the motivations behind development of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force.


Sea power isn’t a natural attribute of statecraft. Nation states may, of course, decide to develop potent fleets to boost national power, dispute control of maritime spaces and enhance international status—just take the examples of the ‘treasure fleets’ of the Ming dynasty or the High Seas Fleet of Imperial Germany. But generally speaking, a government’s commitment to continuously funding, expanding and modernising the naval core of its military capabilities is tied to how much the country’s economic survival depends on doing so. For such nations, naval forces safeguard crucial economic interests ferried at sea, meaning the pursuit of sea power isn’t a political choice, but a strategic imperative.

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Japan is one of these nations. Resource poor and with an export-oriented economy, it relies on energy shipping and maritime trade to fuel its industrial might. For Japan, a maritime strategy based on constant access to sea routes is a matter of national security. It’s a lesson the country learned the hard way in the second half of the Pacific War, when the US submarine campaign against shipping crippled its war machine and brought the nation to the brink of economic collapse.

Before the war, Japan had built up its fleet with the intention of annihilating peer competitors on the high seas as a way of shielding the country’s ambitions first on the Asian mainland, and later in the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. In its aftermath, the forerunners of Japan’s post-war navy—the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (MSDF)—made sure that the service would be the primary tool for tackling structural vulnerabilities and defending economic activity. Meanwhile, Japan’s new constitutional prohibition on using force to settle international disputes provided a suitable framework for a palatable maritime strategy based on sea lane defence.

But despite the constitutional restraints of Article 9, naval rearmament plans started gaining momentum by the end of the 1960s, and early post-war policies created the conditions for a wider awareness of naval matters. At the outset of the Cold War, Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru had prioritised economic rehabilitation in a formula that came to be known as the ‘Yoshida doctrine’—a strategy that aided the recovery of the 1950s and rapid economic expansion of the 1960s. Maritime transport was central to this economic growth, and influential Japanese academics adopted the term ‘maritime state’, orkaiyō kokka,to explain the distinctive features of Japan’s successful industrial recovery.

But it was the 1973 oil crisis that really proved the dependence of Japanese economic and social life on maritime activities, helping sea lane defence become recognised as a strategic priority beyond naval circles—especially as attention was by then starting to shift to the increasing size and capabilities of the Soviet fleet in the Pacific. By 1976, when the National Defence Programme Outline that defined the guidelines for the rest of Japan’s Cold War defence policy was officially adopted, a growing consensus existed on the role sea power must play in national security. It was already clear that maritime strategy and national defence were now bonded.

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