Japan Awakens

The Japanese military is emerging from decades of pacifism. But do the country's political leaders have the vision and the will to make the country strong again?

By , a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

The meeting of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda with U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington made few headlines this week, but quiet changes underway in Japan's decades-long tradition of pacifism will have profound implications for the balance of power in Asia.

The meeting of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda with U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington made few headlines this week, but quiet changes underway in Japan’s decades-long tradition of pacifism will have profound implications for the balance of power in Asia.

Generating headlines is perhaps not the point; this transformation is proceeding slowly but steadily. In taking many small steps, Tokyo is setting the stage for a potentially larger regional role in coming decades. Yet the country still lacks a broad vision of its goals and commitments in Asia and beyond. Should Noda or a future leader provide this, Japan could one day take a leadership position on regional security that could, in its turn, transform Asian military relations.

Noda came to Washington bearing a small gift for Obama. As the fourth leader of Japan to meet the American president in just three years, Noda represents a country whose close alliance with the United States has been put under significant strain since 2009. In that year, when Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) became the first opposition party to gain control of the government in half a century, new premier Yukio Hatoyama derailed a 2006 agreement between Washington and Tokyo to relocate Futenma, a controversial U.S. Marine air base, within Okinawa. Since then, both Hatoyama and his successor, Naoto Kan, have left office after just one year, and the agreement has remained in limbo.

Last week, just days before Noda’s arrival, however, the two allies formally agreed to delink Futenma from a larger plan to realign U.S. forces in Japan. With powerful local Okinawan groups still opposed to the new location for the helicopter squadron in the less-populated north of Okinawa at Henoko, Washington and Tokyo have decided to put any new base on hold while moving forward with deploying 9,000 Marines off Okinawa. This is a central part of a plan to increase the flexibility of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region by dispersing them more widely. At least 5,000 of the Marines will be based in Guam, while the remaining number will likely rotate through the region, some going to Darwin, Australia, under a new U.S.-Australian agreement; others going to Hawaii and elsewhere in the Pacific.

For Noda, the deal is smart politics. While the ultimate irritant in the relationship, Futenma, has been left to fester, the prime minister has succeeded in putting it on the back burner, and therefore has moved the U.S.-Japan relationship off this sore spot. He and his American allies are now free to focus on other issues, such as North Korea and China’s military buildup. As the main provider of bases for America’s forward military presence in Asia, Japan remains the indispensible element in Washington’s decades-long strategy to prevent the rise of any dominant military power in the western Pacific. The two sides thus continually talk about "deepening" the alliance and further "enhancing" each partner’s "roles, missions, and capabilities" — in plain English, their responsibilities to each other in times of peace and war.

Japan, however, has long been hampered from playing a larger role in Asia, despite its wealth, size, and stability. Its postwar constitution, essentially written by the United States, forswears the maintenance of offensive military forces, and subsequent interpretation of this clause has led to a prohibition on participating in collective self-defense efforts that don’t directly impinge on Japanese national interests., such as helping third-party military forces or civilians in danger. Combined with a traditional cap on defense spending of 1 percent of GDP, Japan has long punched below its weight in international affairs. This, despite its modern, well-trained Self-Defense Force (SDF), has led many to write off Japan as an effective provider of regional or global public goods, and has raised questions for the United States about the ultimate reliability of its ally. It hasn’t helped that Japanese politicians, such as DPJ kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, have long mused about reducing the U.S. military presence in Japan and curtailing the scope of the 50-year-old alliance.

Japan’s position began to change starting a decade ago. After being derided for refusing to contribute troops during the 1991 Gulf War to help secure the oil supplies on which it was dependent, and being ridiculed for instead writing a multi-billion dollar check to pay for American military operations, Tokyo reacted with alacrity to the 2001 al Qaeda attacks on the United States. Then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party forged a close relationship with President George W. Bush, dispatching support and reconstruction troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and beginning what would turn out to be an eight-year maritime allied refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of anti-terror operations. More recently, Japan also sent ships and planes to the Horn of Africa to conduct anti-piracy operations; this deployment has resulted in Japan building its first overseas base since World War II, in Djibouti. The combined effect of these overseas missions has been to develop a generation of SDF air, sea, and land officers with extensive operational experience and the confidence of dealing with foreign partner militaries.

At the same time, Japan was partnering with the United States in responding to a direct threat to its security, North Korea’s ballistic missile program. After Pyongyang launched a Taepodong ballistic missile over Japan’s main island of Honshu in 1998, Tokyo started a major program to build up sea- and land-based ballistic missile defense. It outfitted four destroyers with Aegis capabilities and installed advanced SM-3 interceptor missiles, while building up its radar network in conjunction with the Americans and deploying PAC-3 batteries on land. By any measure, Japan has become America’s closest ally on missile defense, cooperating especially closely with the U.S. Navy, and is currently jointly producing the next version of the SM-3.

For all the DPJ’s rhetoric, Noda has continued the spirit of the late LDP governments, not only in continuing missile-defense activities, but in other procurement and policy decisions. After several years of delay, Tokyo decided earlier this year to purchase the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as the replacement for its obsolete F-4s and F-15s. This decision will give Japan 40 or so of the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world (should the program live up to its billing) by the middle of the 2020s, and provide a long sought-after ground attack capability, given the continuing North Korean threat. A joint air-defense center (formally called the "bilateral air component coordination element") at Yokota Air Base in Japan already has U.S. Air Force and Japan Air Self Defense Force officers jointly working airspace defense, and both sides are pledged to more bilateral planning and coordination.

Another potentially significant change Noda has instituted is to begin revising Japan’s decades-old prohibition on arms exports. The so-called Three Principles have prevented Japanese defense contractors from jointly developing arms or exporting it to any country other than the United States for joint defense purposes, a ban originally instituted in 1967 against communist countries. This has led to Japan being left out of such multinational defense projects as the F-35 consortium and has been a drag on the competitiveness of Japan’s defense industry. Relaxing the prohibition could allow Japan not only to find new export markets, but also integrate it into a larger global scientific-technological community working on defense-related products and their spillover applications. Given the generally high level of Japan’s science sector, this could prove to be a major area of international cooperation in the future.

What is driving such changes, and what more needs to be done? Decades of Japan’s security thinking are crumbling in no small part thanks to growing fears about the trends in Northeast Asia. North Korea remains a constant irritant and threat thanks to its missile and nuclear programs. More worryingly for the long run is the China’s rapid rise in military strength and the growing assertiveness of China’s leaders to press territorial claims. This was driven home to Japan in the fall of 2010, when Beijing and Tokyo clashed over Chinese fishing boats around the disputed Senkaku Islands. China’s willingness to put extraordinary pressure on Japan to release an arrested fishing captain only reinforced fears that a strong China would use all means at its disposal — including force — to protect its interests.

The evolution in Japan’s security thinking was captured in the 2010 National Defense Program Guidelines, a sort of national security strategy. The document reoriented Japan’s security posture away from the long concentration on the country’s northeastern border with Russia and focused instead on threats to Japan’s southwestern islands. This chain of islands, including Okinawa, forms the eastern boundary of the East China Sea. The southernmost islands are located just off the coast of Taiwan, close to mainland China. Japanese defense planners talk openly of strengthening the country’s "southwestern wall" to maintain control over Chinese ability to penetrate into the western Pacific and the eastern approaches to Japan’s main islands.

Yet much of this is taking place in a rhetorical vacuum and through a fragmented policy process. The changes Japan is undergoing are real, yet they lack a coherent political articulation and have not been supported by a national debate over Japan’s role in Asia and the world. This is the overriding challenge facing Noda and his successors: to stitch together the pieces of Japan’s security transformation into a global vision for the country’s future. Former LDP premier Shinzo Abe began to articulate just such a vision, but resigned before he could plant the seeds deeply in social or political soil. Like many countries, Japan is afraid of running afoul of China, its largest trading partner, yet China’s military poses the only real security threat to Japan for the foreseeable future. How can Japan square the circle of justifying a military buildup to blunt China’s advantages while continuing to develop economic ties? A new vision is desperately needed as Japan’s military begins to transition away from decades of purely defensive thinking toward the new rubric of "dynamic deterrence" and purportedly closer cooperation with its sole ally, the United States.

In addition to sharpening their rhetoric, there are other things Japan’s leaders can do to further solidify the country’s new era. Among the key needs is a general law allowing for the overseas dispatch of SDF units, who currently require passing a special law for each deployment. This is a time-consuming legislative process that often makes Japan lag behind other nations in responding to challenges, such as the months it took to dispatch the anti-piracy mission to Africa. Streamlining this system would make it more likely that Japan’s military could deploy as soon as needed both regionally and farther abroad.

Perhaps even more importantly, Tokyo should revive Abe’s efforts to revise the prohibition on collective self defense. Recognizing Japan’s responsibility to help provide public goods such as participating in multinational maritime task forces, come to the aid of third parties on the high seas, or greater involvement in peacekeeping and stabilization operations would make clear that Tokyo is willing to put its still-significant resources on the line. By doing more to uphold international norms, Japan will put to rest any doubts about its inward focus and lack of sacrifice for global goals.

Japan also has some unique strengths to use in playing a larger regional and global security role. For example, its Coast Guard is among the finest and best-equipped in the world. Tokyo could become the leader in Asia in providing training for regional coast guards, helping to develop the capacity of Asia’s numerous maritime states in patrolling their own littoral. A regional Coast Guard training and information center, located in Okinawa (perhaps on land returned to Japan by the United States), would make Japan an indispensible partner in one of the most sought-after areas of national security.

Similarly, given its resources, Japan could greatly expand and develop its use of drones for maritime surveillance throughout Northeast Asia and even down into the South China Sea. Japan has the means to buy advanced ISR drones and could work with smaller Asian nations to create a more regular Asian monitoring regime for trouble spots and during times of tension or crisis. The SDF could partner with U.S. drones in expanding the area of coverage and being able to respond quickly to problems.

The transformation of Japan’s security posture is slowly changing how the country interacts with the rest of the world. It is more capable, more experienced, and more willing to consider altering decades-old practices. It awaits a clear political vision followed by a mandate to take advantage of the changes it has already made, and to evolve both its partnerships as well as its willingness to shoulder more burdens on the global stage. Given how much it is already changing, Japan’s leaders may find it easier than they think to take the final steps.

Michael Auslin is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the author of Asia’s New Geopolitics: Essays on Reshaping the Indo-Pacific.

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.