Japan: Britain of the Far East?

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Japan: Britain of the Far East?

In the third in our series on Asia-Pacific navies, Alessio Patalano argues that Japan has had no choice but to develop a powerful navy.

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.

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.

Under the defence programme, the Japanese fleet’s target was set at about 60 surface vessels for conducting anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations, 16 submarines and some 220 patrol aircraft. Two years later, the adoption of the Guidelines for US-Japan Defence Cooperation offered the MSDF a clear framework for implementing the content of the national naval strategy, enhancing operational experience, testing equipment and refining doctrines. In 1981, Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki’s pledge to commit Japan to the protection of its sea lanes out to 1000 nautical miles further reinforced the choices made in the NDPO. For the remainder of the Cold War, sea power constituted the first line of defence for the country’s economic interests. Against this backdrop, the navy developed into a professional, technologically advanced, highly-trained force—a central piece of the country’s national security and alliance commitments with the United States.

By 1995, fleet targets had been met, and Japan now possessed the most powerful and advanced Asian ASW force. Organised in 4 escort flotillas, it included the first of 4 Kongō class AEGIS destroyers, the 3 Towada class of ocean-going fast combat support ships, 16 very quiet submarines with the lead boat of the new generation of ‘leaf-coil’ hull design Oyashio on the way to completion, all integrated with a little under 100 P3-C patrol aircraft. At a time when regional actors like South Korea and China were considering the naval capabilities necessary to operate beyond coastal waters, the Japanese were fielding a fleet ready to secure key strategic objectives in the region and beyond (albeit with some deficiencies in fleet air defence).

But throughout the following decade, a series of domestic and systemic factors affected Japanese security and maritime strategy. Domestically, Japan entered a period of economic stagnation, known as ‘the lost decade,’ and saw a political shift marked by the end of the decades-long dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party. Internationally, the increase in the number of unstable areas around the world was coupled with unresolved regional tensions across the Strait of Taiwan, on the Korean Peninsula and in the disputed islands of the East China Sea.

To understand how Japan responded to this post-Cold War world, it’s important to consider two documents—the 1995 National Defence Programme Outlineand the 2004 Defence Programme Guidelines. Both sought a blend of capabilities to meet a more pro-active international military profile, but one that wouldn’t undermine Japan’s ability to address nearby sources of military (and naval) concern in North-east Asia. Indeed, North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship and 1998 missile tests, along with China’s military modernisation and naval activities in the East China Sea and in the vicinity of the Ryukyu Islands, were uppermost in the minds of those devising Japan’s new strategy.

One thing was now clear—the Japanese armed forces had to restructure, and the inherent flexibility of naval assets enabled the MSDF to be at the forefront of defence transformation. Expeditionary capabilities were regarded as a key area for meeting new international missions, although in the face of emerging potential naval competitors like China, the defence of adjacent seas and the safety of maritime traffic remained essential to national survival. As a result, reductions in the pennant list conformed to the economic atmosphere of the time, even though the fleet’s overall tonnage increased from 346,000 tons in 1995 to 426,000 in 2004.

The MSDF offered something both practical and symbolic for Japan. For example, the 1991deployment of minesweepers to the Persian Gulf and the 2001 refuelling operations in the Indian Ocean, redefined Japan’s willingness to participate in efforts to ensure international stability. For the Indian Ocean mission, which lasted for 8 years, Japanese units refuelled coalition vessels close to 1000 times. Meanwhile, three Ōsumi class amphibious ships proved their usefulness, enabling the deployment of personnel and equipment in high profile activities such as the 2004 reconstruction mission in Iraq and the 2005 disaster relief operation to the tsunami-affected population of Sumatra.

Closer to home, operations in 1999 and 2001 against suspicious vessels saw Japanese commanders engage in situations where they acquired the authority to use weapons if necessary, while guidelines for joint patrolling with the Japan Coast Guard were also established. Flat-nosed shells and machine guns were introduced on board of major surface vessels and six 44-knot capable Hayabusa missile patrol boats were procured; a special boarding unit was also established. Such moves allowed the MSDF to gain experience of security and interdiction operations that could be utilized in the Proliferation Security Initiative and the recent anti-piracy mission off the Somali coast.

By 2007, the lead boat of a class of two 13,500-ton flat-top helicopter destroyers, JDS Hyuga, had empowered the fleet with more independent air defence cover, enhanced ASW capabilities and command functions for overseas deployments in international relief operations. Shortly after, the retrofitting of the first three Kongōdestroyers with missile defence capabilities and the addition of two improved AEGIS Atago class destroyers confirmed the advantages of a maritime strategy for addressing defence, deterrence and international status. In 2009, the 2,900-ton submarine Sōryu, a stealthier and more operationally flexible boat propelled by an Air Independent Propulsion system, ensured that the MSDF had the credentials to be a major naval force in North-east Asia.

As 2009 dawned, theJapanese naval leadership decided to embark on a reassessment of the first two post-Cold War decades and drafted a new maritime strategy. It articulated the role of Japan’s seapower into a ‘commitment’ and a ‘contingency response’ strategy. The former reaffirmed sea lanes defence as the ultimate goal of Japan’s maritime strategy and identified two different approaches for pursuing it.

Within the Tokyo-Guam-Taiwan triangle—an area where sea lanes overlap with disputed maritime and resource-rich spaces—the MSDF was expected to undertake a wide range of missions, from maritime security to missile defence and sea control. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities were regarded as the minimum additions necessary to allow Japan to patrol and deter effectively (at affordable costs), this core area. Indeed, last year’s tensions following a Chinese trawler collision with Japan Coast Guard patrol boats in the disputed Senkaku (or Diaoyu in Chinese) Islands were just the latest example of how closely these missions are related.

This ‘commitment strategy’ restated the value of the partnership with the United States in preserving the naval balance in North-east Asia. However, outside the TGT area, it pointed to an increase in ad hoc forms of naval cooperation with key actors like Australia, India and South Korea, renewed efforts in the capacity building of regional naval forces in South-east Asia, and interventions in key strategic flash points such as the Gulf of Aden. The capabilities needed to pursue the commitment strategy were to offer a pool of resources to serve in ‘contingency responses’ to international crises in which the Japanese government decided to contribute militarily.

So where do things stand now? The release in December of a new NDPG rewarded the navy’s strategic approach and reaffirmed its centrality to national security. Core capabilities—notably the navy’s submarine assets—are set to expand (although there was no substantial corresponding boost to the budget).

The force of 16 boats (18, including 2 training submarines) is to expand to 22 units by 2015, a goal that will be achieved by leaving the current procurement process unaltered and extending the life of each submarine to 25 years. Off-shore island-based signal intelligence facilities, satellite and maritime air surveillance and two additional 19,500-ton DDH flat-tops (capable of operating 14 helicopters, and with the potential to operate naval unmanned combat air systems or sky-jump, short vertical take-off and landing aircraft), form the other pieces of the Japanese defensive trident.

All this underscores the fact that the Japanese post-war navy is no child of regional armament races—for Japan, sea power is simply the kind of strategic necessity you’d expect of a maritime country. And, unlike other Asian state actors, Japan isn’t in the process of amassing hardware to raise its naval status. The MSDF is the child of an export-oriented post-war economy and of a naval leadership’s desire to take advantage of an insular geography to address longstanding strategic vulnerabilities. Cuts affecting defence budgets for the past two decades and the constant need to ‘tailor’ capabilities to meet strategic goals highlight the fact that Japan can’t be regarded as an emerging naval power.

The MSDF also isn’t the child of post-Cold War militarization. It developed across six decades into one of the world’s finest fleets and today it fields a surface component more than twice the size of Britain’s Royal Navy’s and a submarine force twice that of the French Navy. Its weak spot, fleet air defence, has been studied for the past two decades. However, a blend of helicopter carriers, missile destroyers and the next generation of DDH vessels (which look capable of accommodating a fixed-wing air component—manned or unmanned) are poised to address this issue, increasing operational mobility in the East China Sea vis-à-vis emerging peer competitors.

So what does this say about Japan’s place in the world? Based on the nature and purpose of its navy, Japan is a maritime middle power, with an established professional force. Some have argued that Japan should become the ‘Britain of the Far East,’ although this analogy lost favour when it became clear the transatlantic relationship wasn’t going to provide a good template for the US-Japan security alliance.

Yet the reality is that Japan is becoming increasingly similar to Britain. Like Britain, Japan has a military posture with a strong maritime balance, one in which naval forces provide the operational flexibility to deter, defend and intervene in the region and beyond. Like Britain, Japan allocates naval means to achieve strategic ends against an austere economic climate, seeking to maintain a range of capabilities to effectively defend its own core interests and wider bilateral and ad hoc partnerships. Like Britain, Japan endorses a maritime strategy in which the safeguard of crucial sea lanes sits at the heart of national security, and in so doing, naval forces empower the government with the choice to deploy forces wherever core economic interests demand.

Over the coming years, as Japan implements its new national defence outline, sea power will continue to inform national policy, while a blend of capabilities for localised sea control in the East China Sea—and maritime security and operations around strategic flash points—will continue to underpin what exactly Japan develops.

So actually yes, Japan really is becoming the Britain of the Far East.