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Japan’s Ruling Party Wants to Export Its Next-Generation Fighter. The Public Is Reluctant. 

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Japan’s Ruling Party Wants to Export Its Next-Generation Fighter. The Public Is Reluctant. 

The LDP’s coalition partner is opposed to allowing exports of the co-produced fighters, citing public resistance to the idea.

Japan’s Ruling Party Wants to Export Its Next-Generation Fighter. The Public Is Reluctant. 

An artist’s concept image of a sixth-generation fighter jet, a joint project undertaken by Italy, Japan, and the U.K.

Credit: Japanese Ministry of Defense

To “achieve the most effective coordination” on co-developing next-generation fighters, Japan, Britain, and Italy have agreed to establish a new international body to expedite and oversee the process, based on a treaty signed by their respective defense ministers on December 14, 2023. The trilateral scheme aims to enhance the “national security” and “international influence” of each participant by fostering “cooperation in combat air power” while strengthening their defense industrial base. The treaty’s signing is part of the fundamental transformation in Japanese defense policy that has continued under the Kishida Fumio administration. 

Under Kishida, Japan has set course to become the third largest military power in the world by significantly ramping up its defense expenditure in the coming years. Japan adopted an “exclusive defense” policy for almost the entirety of its post-war history, shunning excessive military buildup and shying away from being a geopolitical force to be reckoned with. Kishida has reversed those tendencies by taking a more assertive approach to deal with Japan’s deteriorating security environment – for instance, his government committed to acquiring long-range missiles and launched an Official Security Assistance program to provide defense equipment to nations across the Indo-Pacific region. 

Japan’s decision to join hands with Britain and Italy to co-develop a next-generation fighter should be recognized as part of this ongoing policy evolution. Japan’s policy elite, including Kishida, see the need for a more “realistic” stance on defense – largely due to the reverberating effects of the Russia-Ukraine war, and the growing assertiveness of neighboring China and North Korea

However, policymakers face a reluctant domestic audience. Japan’s general public understands the need to defend themselves – but wants to keep these efforts within self-defined redlines. The debate over the possible export of Japan’s co-produced fighters to nations not involved in the development and production phase shows where one such redline stands.

The Japanese public in recent years has come to embrace more defense spending, and most believe that possessing the capacity to manufacture high-spec fighter jets is net-positive for their security. That said, a majority of Japanese still do not think that exporting “arms” – defined under the law as machinery that is “intended to directly kill or injure people or destroy objects” – is compatible with their nation’s pacifist identity. According to a poll released in early February, just 31 percent of respondents approved of the co-developed fighters being exported to third-party countries – excluding Britain and Italy, which would help Japan produce them – while 51 percent were against such exports.

Reflecting that public sentiment, Komeito, LDP’s normally congenial coalition partner, has been adamant about its opposition to exporting the co-produced fighter jets. This has forced Kishida to extend the governmental coalition discussions on the topic past the supposed deadline of the talks (initially announced as late February). 

Clarifying their reasons against “third country exports,” Komeito leader Yamaguchi Natsuo and his deputy, Kitagawa Kazuo have both announced that the public is still not convinced of the need for such decisions. The Komeito leaders played a crucial role in passing the controversial 2015 security legislation, but are out of sync with the LDP on this issue.

Komeito Secretary General Ishii Keiichi also spoke skeptically of the LDP’s willingness to export the fighters to third countries by emphasizing the importance of “put[ting] certain curbs on the export of deadly arms.” Ishii reiterated his party’s role as being a “brake (hadome)” on the LDP’s hawkish instincts. 

Defense hawks in the LDP are airing grievances about Komeito’s unwillingness to permit exports of the next-generation fighters. The LDP’s Onoda Kimi, who won her seat in the 2022 upper house election by refusing endorsement from Komeito, posted on X that the extension of the fighter talks into March was “unbelievable” and implied that it was “so detrimental to the national interest.” 

In a news program, former LDP Defense Minister Onodera Itsunori indicated that if third-country exports are prohibited, sensitive Japanese technology would only be “exploited,” and stressed the importance of concluding the discussion quickly.

The strict policy of refraining from the export of “arms” – whether to hostile nations or friendly ones – was pronounced in 1976 under the Miki Takeo administration. The ban marked a capitulation to pressure from opposition parties that attacked the government for trying to meet the demands of the defense industry to loosen restrictions on arms exports. However, the Nakasone Yasuhiro administration granted “exceptions” in 1983 to allow military technology transfers to the United States, partly to quell criticisms from the Ronald Reagan administration that pointed out the lack of reciprocity. 

In 2011 Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko of the Democratic Party softened Miki’s restrictions by permitting the “international development” of arms, which opened the path to the co-production projects like the Japan-Italy-U.K. trilateral development of a next-generation fighter. Most recently, in December 2023, Kishida’s government further relaxed the restrictions by permitting the export of lethal weapons to countries that hold the license for such arms – allowing, for example, Japan to export Patriot missile defense systems to the United States, where the technology originated.

Nevertheless, despite the past efforts to reverse the arms export ban of 1976, the main thrust of the policy has remained until this day: Japan is still forbidden from selling lethal weapons to countries that did not help develop those arms. 

Japanese government officials are concerned that Komeito’s opposition to the fighter exports may lead to dissatisfaction from the partner nations, Britain and Italy, both of which have robust defense industries that would be keen to sell the fighter abroad. Resistance at home may result in Japan simply being cut out of export deals, potentially depriving Tokyo of an opportunity to assert influence abroad. 

However, it would be wise for Kishida to avoid pushing hard on such a divisive issue while he is suffering historically low approval ratings. Kishida should heed the advice coming from Komeito, which tends to have a better grasp on public opinion than the LDP. 

Komeito’s resistance against the LDP’s plan to export new-generation fighters to third countries shows that while the upper echelons of Japanese decision-making have shifted to the right on security issues, the pacifist impulse of the public remains fixed, despite showing evidence of openness to focusing more on the nation’s defense. There is still much to do for Kishida to fill in the gap that exists between him and the public on defense issues.