On V-J Day, U.S. Pushes for a Stronger Japanese Military
Seventy-five years after Japan surrendered in World War II and scrapped its armed forces, the Trump administration is redoubling efforts to get Tokyo to be more aggressive in countering China.
In the hours before Japan surrendered to end World War II, on Aug. 15, 1945, while American bombers blanketed the island with leaflets, an influential coterie of military and civilian leaders was working late into the night to craft U.S. policy for the post-imperial nation.
While crowds jammed into New York’s Times Square, the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee, a precursor to today’s National Security Council built to address the postwar occupation of Japan, decided that the nation would be “completely disarmed and demilitarized,” with militarism “totally eliminated” from political life. Under Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who acted as virtual viceroy during the postwar occupation, the changes were made part of Japan’s new constitution, dismantling one of the world’s biggest militaries and shuffling the remnants of the defense industry into business conglomerates.
That decision made sense at the time, less than four years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but its impacts are still being felt today, as the United States searches desperately for stronger security partners to help it push back against a Chinese military whose navy, air force, and missile forces have grown exponentially in the last two decades.
“Japan is not imperial Japan,” said Jeffrey Hornung, a political scientist at Rand Corp. who specializes in Japanese security. “The things that made sense back in the early 1950s don’t make sense anymore because there’s no threat that the military is going to take over the government and lead Japan into a war. The things that made sense in the occupation look antiquated now.”
Two years after the war, U.S. officials were already worrying they’d gone too far and thus allowed the creation of the precursors to Japan’s Self-Defense Forces that today remain its main military force. But a lifetime later, Japan’s postwar pacifism remains a huge challenge for both U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Trump wants allies like Japan to spend more on defense to acquire higher-end platforms that could help the United States keep the military edge it has had in the Pacific since 1943 but which is now threatened. Abe has certainly tried, reinterpreting a constitutional provision to expand Japan’s ability to engage in “collective self-defense,” which would allow Tokyo to more readily link up with the United States in military action. He has also sought to deck out the Self-Defense Forces—which spent the Cold War as a second-fiddle adjunct to the U.S. military—with more modern weapons systems.
In 2013, Abe pushed through a rewrite of Japan’s national defense guidelines with an eye to China’s increasingly brazen incursions into the Senkaku islands, which stretch away far to the southwest of the Japanese home islands. That nearby security concern has dictated a lot of Japan’s recent modernization: Abe also championed the development of a rapidly deployable amphibious brigade that could defend the Senkakus, in the East China Sea; placed surface-to-air missiles on the islands; and refashioned a destroyer as a baby flattop to carry American fifth-generation F-35 fighter jets.
But former officials still aren’t sure that Japan has the capability to help out if a conflict kicks off farther away from home. That matters to U.S. planners because Washington wants to be able to count on Tokyo’s help when it comes to, among other things, Chinese militarization of the South China Sea and its growing efforts to elbow aside India in the Indian Ocean, as well as revamping the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue that includes Australia and India. But Japan has spent so many decades playing in front of the goal that some experts fear it can’t move much further afield.
“They’ve had their own realignment within Japan to meet the challenge in the south because they themselves had a legacy posture for the Cold War,” said Randall Schriver, a former assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs during the Trump administration. “When you get farther away, it gets more difficult because they weren’t built for that.”
Abe is taking steps there, too. His Liberal Democratic Party has set up a working group that’s considering the possibility of adding conventional missile strike capabilities to Japan’s arsenal, a major move that would potentially expand its reach to launch attacks onshore in China. But Japanese law still prohibits the purchase of full-scale aircraft carriers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and, of course, nuclear weapons.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations voiced concerns about the slow pace of change in Japan’s military upgrades. Those bilateral tensions are on the rise after Tokyo balked at stationing American missiles that extend beyond Cold War-era treaty limits and suspended the deployment of the Aegis Ashore missile defense system, which could knock down an incoming strike from North Korea.
“My point to the Japanese is that they’re playing with fire if they don’t increase their efforts. They have less margin of security with such a powerful China and the Americans can’t shoulder the burden so disproportionately,” said Elbridge Colby, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Trump administration. “Japan can head off problems by spending more on defense.”
Colby is supportive of a Japanese conventional strike capability so long as its integrated with the U.S. architecture; Japan could helpfully focus on developing anti-ship missile capabilities and other advanced munitions, he believes.
But even Abe can’t push string. Lingering trepidation in Tokyo is due partly to the country’s ingrained pacifism, as well as byzantine property rights that give local authorities outsized say in where the military can base troops and weapons. Like Germany, another U.S. defense partner whose paltry spending has exasperated Washington for years, Japan was seared by the events of 1945.
“I do worry that the U.S. pushing too hard, too quickly without proper consultation could be destabilizing,” said Jessica Lee, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft’s East Asia program. Consultation with allies, she said, “is taken as an afterthought.”
Japan traditionally spends 1 percent of GDP on defense, an informal mark set decades ago to placate the then-powerful Japan Socialist Party, and even Abe has not been able to move the needle. (In contrast, NATO countries are expected to spend double that, while the United States spends about 3 percent of GDP on defense.) Lee said a push from Congress to cut the U.S. defense budget could push Japan to compensate. But Tokyo also has a slow lead time for weapons development, coupled with deep popular skepticism of anything that smacks of militarism, that has frustrated U.S. officials.
“It’s as if you’re playing chess, and as you’re pondering your first move, your opponent makes three moves,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation and a former CIA deputy division chief for Korea. “By the time you make your first move, the situation is outdated. The populace is very wary of any changes to Japan’s security posture.”
Trump’s campaigning for allies to pay more for U.S. basing has also introduced greater tension into the relationship, as former National Security Advisor John Bolton led a delegation to Japan last year demanding that it quadruple payments for American forces based there, as Foreign Policy first reported in November, amplifying calls made by American policymakers since the 1980s. The United States and Japan are set to meet this fall for burden-sharing talks that experts expect to be contentious—and which may well fail to nudge Japan away from seven decades of pacifism.
“[Trump] sees alliances as a business relationship, in very transactional terms,” Klingner said. “He’s seeking to make a profit off of stationing U.S. troops overseas.”