Japan’s controversial security bills have passed the Upper House of the Diet, ushering in a new era in Japanese security policy. Although there was little doubt the bills would pass, the groundswell of disapproval from the public – drawing tens of thousands of protestors – and opposition lawmakers ensures the bills will be under close scrutiny for the months to come. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe contends the security bills will help protect Japanese at home and abroad, allow Japan to play a greater role in the international community, and fulfill its commitments to the US-Japan Alliance. Abe’s reassurance that the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) would still operate under strict regulations and Japan would not be entangled in foreign wars did little to appease the skeptical public: According to a recent Asahi Shimbun poll, 54 percent of Japanese do not support the security bills. As a result, the Abe administration has suffered a precipitous drop in its approval ratings over the last few months, a trend that is likely to continue.
Abe had painted himself into a corner, having promised to a Joint Meeting of Congress that the security bills would be passed by the end of summer back in April 2015. If the bills had failed to pass, especially after U.S. President Barack Obama reassured Abe that Japan’s dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands was covered by the U.S.-Japan security treaty, the Alliance would have been suffered and Abe’s legacy, already marred by his resignation in 2007, would have surely been ruined.
Unlike the tepid support at home, Abe’s push for a more proactive Japan has been met with open arms by the U.S. government and Western security experts. Asia strategist Keith Henry likened Japan to a “42-year old kid still living in the basement of the United States,” and said that by adopting the new security bills it was finally “‘growing up’ and moving beyond vague concepts of peace and democracy that are no longer practical given today’s rapidly changing geopolitical landscape.” Yet, 42-year old kids tend not to adjust well to the “real world.” Japan will have difficulty fulfilling the new responsibilities brought on by the new proactive security posture. Beyond increased resistance to related domestic security issues due to passage of the bills, namely the Okinawan base and nuclear power plant issues, economic and demographic issues will hinder the growth of Japan’s security footprint.
Any meaningful expansion of the JSDF will require additional defense spending. Many called attention to the record 4.98 trillion yen ($42 billion) defense budget and 5.09 trillion-yen ($42.39 billion) requested budget for 2016 as evidence of a normalizing Japan. However, when taking into account the weak yen, Japan’s modest military-industrial complex and hence reliance on imports (not yet rectified by the changes to the non-export principles), as well as the high cost of non-military expenditures (such as salaries and host-nation support costs), its defense budget is unremarkable. Although the defense budget has increased over the past few years, the increases followed a decade of decline and the budget has yet to cross the 1 percent of GDP normative threshold. Many within the government do not believe it would be politically feasible to increase the defense budget beyond 1 percent, and it is anyway unlikely as Abe shifts his focus to economic matters following passage of the security bills. Over the last two decades, defense expenditures comprised roughly 2.5 percent of the overall budget, the lowest among East Asian states. With Abenomics stalling, Abe’s intention to increase the defense budget through economic growth is unlikely to succeed. China, normally cited as its biggest threat, has far outspent Japan – having overtaken it in 2005 and spending more than five times as much as Japan in 2014 (more than $150 billion). If the security bills are intended to balance against the growing Chinese threat, Japan won’t be able to afford it.
Moreover, the new security bills may stretch the JSDF thin. The 247,150 member JSDF, the oldest in the region (the average age of a JSDF member is 35-years old, roughly 10 years older than the average soldier in East Asia), may be large enough to monitor and defend the main islands short of a full-on war, but will struggle to add missions to its agenda. According to a MOD defense white paper, “the number of those aged 18 to 26 who are eligible for recruitment as SDF members was around 17 million in fiscal 1994, but in fiscal 2014 is was only around 11 million, a drop of some 40 percent over 20 years.” The new security bills will likely lead to weaker recruitment and resignations in the JSDF (the JSDF is an all-volunteer civilian force and members can resign at any time). Already, concerned parents are suggesting their children quit the JSDF if it gets “too dangerous.” A recruiter for a Kanto region provincial cooperation office lamented in an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun, “We’ve started having cases where volunteers’ mothers are resistant, asking if the job is dangerous. It’s a sellers’ market, and then there are the security bills, which all make things harder for us.” More generally, the declining and aging population will further suppress Japan’s ability to find willing and able-bodied volunteers to conduct the new security missions. According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, Japan fell below the population replenishment rate back in 1974. By 2020, 35.12 million Japanese will be of retirement age and by 2060, 40 percent of the total population will be over the age of 65. Not only will the demographics problem limit the pool of potential recruits, it will further strain the economy (fewer workers and more pensioners), thus making it harder to increase the defense budget, as mentioned earlier.
Ironically, the very reason why Abe has pushed for the security bills – a more assertive China and dangerous international security environmental – reveal that the JSDF is already stretched thin. According to the Ministry of Defense (MOD), in the first quarter of FY 2014 alone, the ASDF scrambled its jets 340 times, an increase of 225 times, or a threefold rise compared to the same period of previous year and largest number of scrambles since the ministry started keeping track. With China growing more assertive near the Senkaku Islands and in the South China Sea, the JSDF will need to spend more time at home than taking on new missions abroad. Moreover, under the new security bills, the JSDF will have the right to rescue hostages and defend peacekeeping operations forces. However, due to 70 years of a limited security posture, the JSDF is woefully underprepared for such responsibilities. The MOD’s rapid reaction force, the Central Readiness Force (4500 personnel) will need intensive training to respond to new threats. Even the U.S. has had difficulty extracting hostages abroad; it is unlikely Japan will be more successful. Lastly, Japan has committed to helping Southeast Asian states to shore up their HA/DR and defense capabilities, another time-intensive and costly endeavor for the Abe administration to worry about.
After two Japanese were kidnapped and killed by Islamic State terrorists, the public was quick to blame Abe for what they saw as unnecessary meddling in international security affairs. Abe had promised $200 million in non-military aid to countries fighting ISIS, and his largely symbolic gesture was met with concrete consequences. As the JSDF engages in more dangerous missions under the new security bills, a single death may lead to relentless opposition to any future mission that would need to be approved by the Diet. Former Primer Minister Taro Aso once proudly proclaimed, “Japan’s Self Defense Forces, for 60 years has not shot a single round of artillery, nor a single bullet from a gun.” Japan has been fortunate enough to avoid the ugly realities of international conflicts, partly due to the U.S. security guarantee and partly due to Japanese aversion to militarism, but this will no longer be the case. It may have been inevitable that Japan would “normalize” its security posture, it has been doing so since the early 90s, but this may be a case of too much, too soon. Within the last three years Japan has amended its arms export principles, adopted collective security, and changed dozens of security-related laws. These changes have angered Japanese, and for security bill proponents in the West who are expecting a powerful new military force fighting for democracy, disappointment awaits. The new security bills will do little to deter China or North Korea, and the JSDF is not large or strong enough to turn the tides of war in international peacekeeping and possible U.S.-led war efforts.
Tom Le is an Assistant Professor of Politics at Pomona College and Non-Resident Sasakawa Peace Foundation Fellow at CSIS Pacific Forum. He recently completed a 2013-2015 Fulbright Fellowship at Hiroshima City University in Japan.