Because attacks on insular Japan are likely by missile, not invasion, Japanese citizens tend to see preventing missile attacks as the best way to defend the country. For example, in recent years a majority of Japanese people approved introducing the U.S.-made missile defense system Aegis Ashore to two locations in Japan. But weaponry alone is insufficient for total national defense. Adding the pillar of civilian participation to Japan’s security is urgently necessary.
The security environment surrounding Japan, including China’s military expansion and North Korea’s unstoppable nuclear program, will remain unpredictable. Technological advancements keep changing the rules and the game. Furthermore, the rapidly aging Japanese population has started facing a shortage of military personnel and more citizens vulnerable in emergencies.
General Sir Richard Barron, the former commander of Britain’s Joint Force Command, said: “Our adversaries’ evolving military strategy no longer focuses on destroying our armed forces but on disabling our critical national infrastructure.” This is as true for Japan as it is for the member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, emphasized the same: “Our military cannot be strong if our societies are weak. Our first line of defense must be strong societies (that are) able to prevent, endure, adapt and bounce back from whatever happens.”
In this spirit Japan ought to consider embracing a concept of total defense that “includes enabling civilians to be able to protect themselves and to also support their nation’s professional armed forces in case of a conflict,” as outlined in the Rand Corporation report “Total Defense: How the Baltic States are Integrating Citizenry into their National Security Strategies.” Currently, Japanese national defense has three pillars: the Self Defense Force (SDF), the Japan-U.S. alliance, and diplomacy. What’s not mentioned is civilian involvement, which is crucial. Along with the existing three pillars, Japan needs civilian-participation programs dedicated to the defense of the nation.
For example, Japan’s cybersecurity force is in dire shape. According to Yukinari Hirose, a former president of Japan’s National Institute of Defense Studies, while China’s cyber warfare unit has 175,000 personnel (among them 30,000 for cyberattacks), and North Korea’s unit has 68,000 personnel, Japan budgeted to have just 290 cybersecurity personnel in 2020. This is an area of critical national security in which civilian engagement could be enormously beneficial.
Giampaolo Di Paola, a former defense minister of Italy, spoke to this very point: “For cyber hacks and attacks on the power supply you need specialists to lead the technical response …. But trained civilians can assist.” Elisabeth Braw, an expert in civilian engagement in national defense, agrees: “Leaving the vast majority of our well-educated populations unskilled in emergency response is wasting an enormous resource.”
The above-mentioned Rand Corporation report offers Japan a blueprint for designing civilian participation defense programs. It recommends two major linchpins: “designing and executing multi-institutional defense and resilience exercises that include the participation of civil society”; and educating civilians on national security “to increase their willingness and interest in participating.”
First, to design and execute multi-institutional defense and resilience exercises in Japan, including for crisis management and infrastructure maintenance, the government can utilize and invigorate chonai-kai, or residents’ associations, voluntary community groups. These associations are well organized for emergency response, numbering 167,158 nationwide in 2019, with a range covering 84.1 percent of all households in Japan. Guided by the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, these resident associations educate their members about how to respond to disasters. They train emergency responders and purchase equipment in peacetime. During a live emergency, they help lead evacuations and rescues, collect information, and provide medical support.
In fact, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) was said to have been modeled after this chonai-kai system. But the U.S. extended CERT to tackle even larger emergencies such as nuclear explosions and cyberattacks. By modeling themselves now in turn after CERT, each chonai-kai can upgrade its defense capabilities by adding activities and trainings in preparation for military contingencies. Members of each chonai-kai can be taught advanced skills in cybersecurity, for example, to help protect community communications networks, adding a back-up to cybersecurity experts recruited to the Defense Authority.
The second linchpin to civil engagement in national security, educating civilians about the importance of total defense, may not be as easy in Japan as it has been in, say, Latvia, where the concept of total defense has been incorporated into youth education. Japan has “a culture of anti-militarism,” to borrow Thomas Berger’s book title, a reflection of both the Pacific War that devastated the lives of millions of people and the ensuing Japanese Constitution that forever renounced war as its sovereign right. This mentality is still apparent. In a survey taken by Asahi Newspaper in 2018, 67 percent of respondents supported Japanese pacifism as guaranteed by the constitution, and 74 percent said no to the question, “Would you fight for Japan by risking your life in case of attack on it?”
However, such pacifist Japanese should welcome the idea of total defense, because it is, in nature, defensive and predominantly nonmilitary, seeking to maintain the status quo, as three Swedish professors wrote in a report for the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the U.S. National Defense University. They defined its primary goal as being “to defeat the adversary’s will to engage in – or continue with – aggression by denying benefits, increasing costs and influencing their perception of both costs and benefits.”
Total defense intends for individuals to defend themselves, their families, and their communities. It intends to lower the threat level by demonstrating social strength against attacks. Done properly, teaching why total defense is actually pacifist in nature will not be too difficult.
The soil for more civil involvement is already there. Another survey taken by the government in 2018 found that 82.8 percent of respondents would be willing to resist in one way or another if Japan was invaded. The government should activate this willingness by providing total defense programs to the public. Increased civil participation in national security carries a variety of other positive social benefits, as well. Di Paola said that civil emergency training “would help young people become more engaged in society and make them more mature citizens.”
Suga Yoshihide became the Japanese prime minister this fall with the following motto: “First, you should help yourself; then the community should support you; public assistance is to be the last resort.” As a self-made man and a long-time local politician, Suga knows what individuals and communities can achieve. He can credibly help convince the people of the importance of their participation in the nation’s security.
Fumiko Sasaki, Ph.D., is an adjunct assistant professor teaching East Asian security and Asia-related courses at Columbia University graduate schools.