In December 2022, Japan announced a new National Security Strategy, including a significant increase of the defense budget and the acquisition of offensive weaponry. While the decision has been praised among the hawks of U.S. and transatlantic foreign policymaking, it is stirring up old ghosts of Japanese militarism in East Asia. At the same time, Japan has been advocating for nuclear disarmament, including at the recent G-7 meeting in Hiroshima; made tremendous headway in mending relations with South Korea; and engaged in meaningful dialogue with China, including a meeting between defense ministers in Singapore on June 3.
Japan is on a multi-dimensional security trajectory, but what does that mean for the future of Asia? This three-part series explores some of the implications. The first article discusses key aspects of Japan’s past security policies; the second article will summarize the recent security debate in Tokyo; and the third article will evaluate the country’s new security strategy.
World politics is, as Prime Minister Hiranuma Kiichiro said in 1939, fukuzatsu kaiki – complicated and inscrutable. Hiranuma had been pushing vehemently for a formal alliance with Germany against the Soviet Union, but the stunning news of the Stalin-Hitler Nonaggression Pact caught his cabinet by surprise. He had no choice but to resign after a mere eight months in office.
A few cabinets later, in April 1941, the bellicose Foreign Minister Matsuoka Yosuke struck another deal, this time a neutrality pact with Stalin. Matsuoka believed he had secured an undefeatable Tokyo-Moscow-Rome-Berlin Axis. Only two months later, he too had to resign when Hitler’s operation Barbarossa again destroyed all Japanese strategies spectacularly.
World politics remained fukuzatsu kaiki. Who, in 1941, could have guessed that the attack on Pearl Harbor would ultimately lead to a Japanese-U.S. security alliance a decade later, lasting well beyond the century? Even U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, the man who bombed the empire to its knees, envisioned post-war Japan as a neutral state, not a military ally. Hence, when his occupation forces imposed a new constitution, they made it abundantly clear that Japan would be pacifist. Article 9 famously enshrines that the Japanese people “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes” and that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”
The peace constitution and the dismantling of Japan’s two notorious military agencies, the Imperial Army and Imperial Navy, were probably the United States’ greatest gifts to post-war Japan. Both institutions were utterly out of control and the prime reason Japan stumbled from one militarist disaster to the next – a prime example of a military tail wagging the state dog.
The Constitution and the Bargain
The Cold War changed U.S. strategic calculations quickly. The Korean War drove home the importance of Japan as a staging ground for U.S. operations in East Asia, while at the same time, there was no appetite in Washington for Japanese remilitarization. Yet, it was equally unrealistic to expect Japan would refrain from building up military forces again if the United States left the island without any defense.
To square the circle, a grand bargain was struck in a series of agreements in the 1950s and ‘60s: Japan (implicitly) accepted to forfeit large-scale remilitarization, continued to host U.S. troops, and, in return, received security guarantees from Washington – including the U.S. “nuclear umbrella,” i.e. Washington’s promise to strike back with nuclear weapons should a third-party attack Japan with nukes (so-called extended nuclear deterrence). This arrangement allowed Japan to focus its limited resources on national recovery, contributing to its stellar rise in the global economy.
Importantly, the core of the deal was to exchange land for security, not mutual defense. The pivotal 1960 Japan-U.S. Security Treaty only demands that Japan help defend the United States in case of an attack on U.S. troops on Japanese soil, not on the U.S. mainland or any other U.S. outposts. The unevenness of the deal has come under U.S. scrutiny recently, especially from military hawks and former President Donald Trump, who wanted to see more Japanese commitment to U.S. defense by paying more money for its military presence in Japan. But as with U.S. criticism of NATO, the presidency of Joe Biden and the war in Ukraine have obliterated the voices in Washington doubting the strategic importance of the Japan-U.S. Alliance.
In Tokyo, the alliance is the alpha and omega of all security thinking. What NATO is to Europe’s (in)security structure, the Japan-U.S. alliance is to the North Pacific. At the same time, the peace constitution is still in place and also Tokyo’s commitment to the “three non-nuclear principles” (no possession, no production, and no stationing of nuclear weapons) restrains the alliance – for the time being.
But the shackles on the militarists are of a legal and normative nature only. For instance, due to the constitution, Japan still calls its men and women under arms the Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF), but Japan’s military by another name ranks eighth on the global fire-power index, above Turkey, Italy, and even France. For all intents and purposes, Japan has a strong military.
Also, it is an open secret that Japan’s nuclear breakout time (the time required to produce a nuclear weapon) is roughly 6 months, since the scientific and military know-how to manufacture weapons has been maintained through its civilian programs.
The nuclear taboo in the population is so strong that no Japanese politician could publicly contemplate such weapons. Behind closed doors, however, the security community remains aware that nukes might become an option if the international environment should change radically. In addition, the JSDF naming and deployment issue is under active debate. Offensive-minded strategists and conservative politicians have been arguing for changing Article 9 to allow for a regular force and increase Japan’s troop presence in East Asia alongside the Americans.
Also in this area, the greatest stumbling block for hawks in Tokyo and Washington has been the pacifist sentiment in the general public. Even Abe Shinzo, Japan’s longest-serving and most powerful post-war prime minister (assassinated in 2022 for unrelated reasons), gave up on the project to change Article 9, since it would require not only a two-thirds majority in parliament – which he had – but also a public referendum. Abe was painfully aware that his legislative majority was based on Japan’s skewed electoral system (a mixed-majority system granting disproportionate power to the largest party), and not on majority support in the general public. In fact, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) only had the votes of one-third of the electorate, and attempting a referendum would galvanize the opposition.
Japan’s conservatives are often associated with right-wing revisionism and pictures of politicians laying down flowers in the notorious Yasukuni Shrine, where Class A war criminals are honored among Japan’s war dead. However, it needs to be stressed that the moderate wing of the LDP and most of Japan’s security establishment harbors no strong views about World War II. Rather, they are motivated by a feeling of alienation from the international community because of Japan’s inability to participate in what they see as important contributions to “peace and stability.”
In this context, one cannot understate the impact of the First Gulf War on the psyche of Japan’s conservative internationalists. Japan imposed sanctions on Iraq, contributed funds, and delivered humanitarian aid to Kuwait, but refrained from sending troops or weapons to the U.N. mission (akin to how Japan is refraining from sending lethal aid to Ukraine nowadays). When the war ended, the Kuwaiti government published a letter of thanks to the countries that supported it – leaving out Japan.
Ever since, the center-right has been campaigning for changing Article 9 to make Japan a “normal country,” as they call it, to allow for proper participation in international peacekeeping operations. (Currently, Japan does participate in U.N. peacekeeping operations but its blue helmets are constrained in their use of lethal force to the point that they cannot help defend against an attack on fellow peacekeepers unless they are themselves under direct attack.)
It is also important to note that the LDP never suggested changing paragraph 1 of Article 9 – the war-renouncing part. They only intend to change paragraph 2, to allow for maintaining regular armed forces, which could then also be deployed alongside the United States and other allies. Japan’s left opposes the change, as they argue it would amount to breaking a post-war taboo and lead to Japanese involvement in foreign wars.
Since constitutional revision has been impossible so far, the LDP resorted to a legal shenanigan in 2015 to solve the deployment constraints. The Abe government “reinterpreted” what the constitution allowed. It declared that the right to self-defense, which until that point was interpreted in a strict sense, would cover the defense of allies if they were attacked in the immediate vicinity of Japanese troops, thus significantly increasing the scope of JSDF action.
However, in the eight years since, the Japanese presence in peacekeeping operations has not increased and no incidents abroad have occurred. In line with its still self-defense-oriented security strategy, Japan has remained cautious with its international troop presence.
But will this remain the case also under the new security strategy Tokyo adopted late last year?