The Debate

How Japan Sees its Military

Recent Features

The Debate

How Japan Sees its Military

Those worried about Tokyo’s military don’t appreciate how the Japanese view their ‘defense’ forces.

(The following is a guest editor's entry by Dr. John W. Traphagan, University of Texas at Austin)

Recently renewed concerns in Beijing, Seoul, and elsewhere about Japan’s military strategy for the future following the publication of the country’s most recent white paper on defense point out an interesting disconnect in how Japan is perceived when it comes to its military.  While, as noted in the Diplomat, there have been incremental changes in the Japanese defense policy for some time, what is often lost in the discussion—particularly in places like China and Korea—is how the Japanese public perceive of their own military and its defensive capabilities.  Awareness of these public perceptions is particularly important when some more extreme critics are stating that Japan desires to develop nuclear weapons.

Over many years of conducting research in Japan and talking with Japanese living in the U.S., I have made it a point to ask a simple question:  Do you know where Japan ranks internationally in terms of defense spending?  Most of the people with whom I’ve spoken do not have an answer to this question, but the assumption is that Japan must rank very low.  When I explain that Japan is typically one of the top ten defense spenders in the world, the response is usually one of considerable surprise and even some doubt that I have my facts right. 

The first response to this by non-Japanese might be that the people with whom I’ve spoken are rather naïve about Japan’s military, and there is certainly some truth to this.  But these reactions also point to the fact that most Japanese have a different conceptualization of their military than do citizens in many other countries, even other democracies.  In fact, usually when I intentionally use the word “guntai” to describe Japan’s military, I am immediately corrected that the term should be “jietai”.  The U.S., as I have been often told, has a guntai or military force; Japan, by contrast, has a jietai or self-defense force. 

This distinction is not trivial because Japanese people see their own military as an entirely defensive force and, in terms of its international activities, a force that is focused on helping people in other countries but not on fighting wars.  In recruiting advertisements, the Self- Defense Forces typically represent their activities as providing medical assistance or engaging in rescue operations both domestically and overseas.  It is difficult to imagine a recruitment poster or commercial in Japan presenting members of the SDF as warriors, which is a typical approach for the U.S. Army or Marines, because the notion of the SDF as a group of warriors does not sit well with the Japanese public and they do not perceive of their military forces as warriors, rather they are defenders and helpers.

When the U.S. imposed Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution—through which the Japanese renounced both war and the maintenance of a military—on the Japanese government following World War II, Japanese politicians were less than enthusiastic.  But they didn’t have any real choice in the matter.  It was not terribly long before the U.S. concluded Japan would embrace democracy and, thus, not present a military threat in the future.  This, in turn, (ironically and rather hypocritically) led the U.S. government to pressure the Japanese to re-arm and join the U.S. in a military alliance.  The Japanese government willingly cooperated and has progressively interpreted itself about as far from Article 9 as possible over the past fifty years, to the point that the passage renouncing maintenance of a military in that article is now largely meaningless. 

Nonetheless, how the Japanese public responded to Article 9 is quite a different matter.  In fact, most Japanese take the idea that their country renounced war and lacks a true military quite seriously.  And there is a strong sense that the Self Defense Forces represent an entirely defensive organization not designed to make war offensively, but to defend the Japanese archipelago.  Participation in UN peacekeeping operations in the 1990s generated considerable debate within Japan over the extent to which (or even whether or not) Japan should be involved given the interpretations of Article 9 that had been in place up to that time.  It was difficult to rationalize how sending Japanese defense personnel overseas and into war-torn areas, including participation in the Gulf War, was aligned with the notion that the Japanese military was intended as a purely defensive force.

In short, while the Japanese government has tried to cautiously distance itself from a rigid interpretation of Article 9 for several decades, the Japanese public have embraced the notion that Japan is a country that has renounced war and does not maintain a military; instead, from many people’s perspectives it maintains a force similar to the U.S. Coast Guard and nothing more than that. Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution in many respects is deeply culturally embedded in a way not unlike the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution.  It is perceived as something that contributes to defining who the Japanese are collectively as a nation. 

When it comes to nuclear weapons, it is very difficult to imagine a Japanese public that would tolerate a government intent upon overtly developing or deploying this technology.  While Japan certainly has the capacity to design and deliver nuclear weapons, the general public has little stomach for nuclear weapons and is, in fact, highly sensitive to the potential horror of nuclear warfare—perhaps more so than any other population on earth.  Those who argue that the Japanese government desires nuclear weapons should be reminded that Japan remains the only country to have experienced nuclear warfare first-hand; and memories of that experience have resurfaced following the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. 

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the perceptions that Japanese have of their own military, the fact remains that most Japanese do not see the SDF as a military force per se, nor are they comfortable with it becoming an offensive military force in the future.  Analysts in China and Korea (and elsewhere) concerned with a more conservative Japanese military policy need to recognize that the Japanese public remains wary of a military that moves beyond the scope of self-defense and is deeply resistant to the notion of a nuclear-armed Japan.  Were it to become public knowledge that the Japanese government was intent upon becoming a nuclear power, it is difficult to imagine the leaders pushing for that goal staying in power for very long.