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What Prompted Japan to Adopt Its ‘Earth-Shattering’ Military Buildup Plan?
Postwar pacifism jolted by China fears, Ukraine war, questions about U.S. dependability
For longtime observers of Japanese politics and society, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s announcement last week that Tokyo would not only double its defense spending from 1% of GDP to 2% in the next five years, but also acquire counter-strike capability to hit enemy missile launch sites, is nothing less than “earth-shattering,” as one veteran Japanese diplomat put it.
Even more astonishing is the fact that these dramatic changes in Japan’s defense policy don’t seem to be getting much of a push back—either in the Diet (parliament) or on the street—even though Kishida wants to fund the additional spending with tax increases.
Since his announcement last week, there has been some expected criticism from opposition parties, mainly about tax hikes. Japan’s NHK public television network showed a small crowd of about 300 people with “No to war” placards demonstrating outside the Diet building. But the Mainichi newspaper poll taken over the weekend found 48% of respondents agreeing to the defense budget increases, with 41% opposing. The percentage of opposition to spending increases was higher among those 60 years and older, but the younger generations were more supportive of the new policy.
Kishida’s proposals, articulated in the new “National Security Strategy” and two other accompanying documents, represent a clear and bold departure from Japan’s post-war defense posture, both in scope and mindset. Throughout the postwar years, every big and small proposal to expand the use of military resources—whether a security treaty with the U.S., participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations, or sending minesweepers to the Persian Gulf after the Gulf War—was met by mass demonstrations and disruptive legislative tactics by opposition parties. Every prime minister that tried to break the 1% ceiling for defense expenditure, set in 1976, faced not only domestic protests but also the ire of other Asian capitals, most notably Beijing, decrying Tokyo’s lack of contrition for atrocities committed by its imperial predecessor. Any acquisition of weapons—including Patriot missiles and the Aegis ballistic missile defense system—was carefully calibrated and presented as purely defensive, with no ability to project power.
But now Tokyo is in talks with Washington to acquire Tomahawk long-range cruise missiles that can be launched from submarines and can strike targets deep inside China, reports say. The NSS also talks about extending the range of indigenous ground-launch missiles for strikes across the East China Sea.
In short, Japan is dispensing with its traditional role as a “shield” while the U.S. played the role of a “spear.” The strategy of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) will shift from intercepting incoming projectiles to striking back at military sites in enemy territories. “The counter striking capability will be an essential part of deterrence,” Kishida told reporters last week.
How did the Japanese so quickly and decisively shed their pacifist tendencies, which were so deeply ingrained in their psyche for almost eight decades since the country’s devastating defeat in World War II? There are several factors.
The most obvious, of course, is heightened perception of increased threat from China. In the 1980s and ‘90s, factors that rattled Japanese feelings about China were constant accusations by Chinese leaders that Tokyo had failed to show sufficient remorse for its wartime atrocities, along with increasing challenges to Japanese economic supremacy in Asia and around the world by Chinese industries. These days, with PLA Navy vessels constantly lurking around Japanese waters, it’s Beijing’s military activism and bellicose rhetoric that worry the Japanese. Just as Kishida was unveiling Tokyo’s intention to acquire counterstrike capability, an unusually large flotilla of PLA ships, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning and several destroyers, was observed sailing between Okinawa and Japan’s outlying Miyakojima island into the Western Pacific Ocean for open-sea landing drills.
Earlier this year, the Foreign Ministry’s survey on Japanese perceptions of the world found only 20.6% of Japanese respondents professing to have “friendly feelings” about China, while 79% said they do not. A scant 14.5% felt that the bilateral relationship was “good,” while 85.2% disagreed. That’s a stark contrast to the same survey conducted in 2002, when positive and negative feelings were equally split, with both sides at just below 50 percent. Interestingly, Chinese feelings about the Japanese had been improving constantly in recent years, a trend that seems to be continuing today. That’s perhaps because the Chinese no longer see Japan as a threat, or even as a rival, in its quest to expand its influence around the world.
Another important event that jolted the Japanese out of their pacifist beliefs was the war in Ukraine. While Beijing has always insisted that Taiwan must be “reunited” one day, the Russian invasion of Ukraine suddenly made the possibility of reunification by force seem realistic—or even imminent—with its uncertain ramifications for a U.S.-China conflict, to which Japan is certain to be drawn in. Beijing’s brutal suppression of dissidents in Hong Kong, meanwhile, had erased any wishful thinking about the character of the Communist regime.
Perhaps more importantly, the Japanese could see that the Ukrainians have been able to secure unwavering support from NATO and other Western countries because of their extraordinary resolve to fight against the Russian invaders. In other words, the lesson of Ukraine for Japan is: Heaven helps those who help themselves. Former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, may have tipped the Japanese understanding of national security when he said, in April 2022, “What’s most important is an effort to help ourselves.“
Another reason for greater effort for self-reliance is a lingering unease about dependability of the U.S. security guarantee. Though the U.S. is obligated to defend Japan in the event of a foreign invasion under the bilateral security treaty, there has always been an uncertainty about how Washington would interpret that obligation—precisely because coming to Japan’s defense would almost certainly involve a direct confrontation with China. That uncertainty became almost unbearable for Japan under former President Donald Trump, who openly disrespected traditional U.S. allies while cultivating authoritarian strongmen. Fortunately for both Tokyo and Washington, their military forces made sure that there was no disruption in their work for greater cooperation and integration.
In fact, military cooperation between the U.S. and Japanese forces today is arguably better than ever, thanks to heightened common threats—China, first of all, but also North Korea and now Russia as well. But while working together and having trust in each other is a good thing, it doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome. Among Japanese defense experts, it is a well-known fact that every time the Americans conducted a war game simulating Taiwan contingencies in the last few years, the U.S. was defeated by China. So, no wonder the Japanese are feeling an urgency to arm themselves better.
Ayako Doi was a co-founder and editor of The Japan Digest.
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