With a $42 billion defense budget, is Japan a hawk in dove’s clothing?

April 28, 2015
Sailors stand on the deck of the Izumo warship as it departs from the harbour of the Japan United Marine shipyard in Yokohama

Sailors stand on the deck of the Izumo warship as it departs from the harbor of the Japan United Marine shipyard in Yokohama, south of Tokyo. March 25, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Japan’s identity as a pacifist nation, as defined by Article 9 of its constitution, is increasingly at odds with reality. The Japanese Naval Self-Defense Force is the second-most powerful naval force in the region, trailing only its close ally, the United States Navy. Japan has the seventh-largest defense budget in the world; its Ministry of Defense is the largest department in the entire Japanese government.

Strategically, a strong Japanese military allows the United States — a close ally of Japan’s — to maintain distance from any military confrontation with China over territorial claims. It deprives China of the argument that the United States is neither a party to the dispute, nor native to the region. The problem for the United States lies in convincing allies, especially South Korea, that an increasingly robust Japanese military does not risk a return to Japanese imperialism.

Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, adopted in 1947, forbids Japan from having “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential.” The article established Japan as a pacifist nation, but in 1950 change was already needed, as the United States deployed its troops from Japan to Korea and left Japan defenseless. To counter this vulnerability, General Douglas MacArthur authorized the establishment of national defense forces to protect the Japanese home islands. Reinterpretations have continued ever since, to the point that the Japanese Self-Defense Forces are an army, a navy and an air force in all but name.

For all of the reinterpretations, Japanese forces remained confined to Japanese home territories without much change until 1992. At that time, Japanese embarrassment over being unable to contribute anything but financial support to Operation Desert Storm led to the passage of a law reinterpreting Article 9 to allow the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to take part in U.N. peacekeeping operations.

In 2004, Japan sent troops to Iraq to conduct humanitarian relief, where they were only allowed to fire if fired upon, and were not permitted to come to the aid of other coalition troops under attack. The cloak of pacifism, though markedly smaller, still adequately covered all sensitive aspects of the JSDF. But in the last few years, most of the remaining cover has been pulled away.

Last year the Japanese government adopted a new law, reinterpreting Article 9 yet again, this time to allow for “collective self-defense.” Japanese forces can now be deployed to assist allies under attack. While the United States and the Philippines welcomed this development, other countries in the region were less than enthusiastic. It is no surprise that China, which has long criticized Japan for not adequately acknowledging and repudiating its past atrocities, objected to this change. But a sharp negative response from U.S. ally South Korea must have rattled U.S. military planners. Even Australia, generally in lock-step with U.S. defense policies, gave a tepid response.

Already, the widening scope of the Japanese military is changing the defense landscape in the region. Japan has negotiated agreements to cooperate with Vietnam and the Philippines in conducting naval exercises and patrolling disputed areas in the South China Sea, which should give China pause as it considers its next steps in the region.

These agreements continue to stretch the envelope of collective self-defense. Protecting allies from bullying is a far cry from aiding allies in a war. The United States and Japan are walking a fine line, as the United States encourages Japan to be a greater participant in defense issues, well beyond limits on collective self-defense expressed just months ago, while not raising the specter of a Japanese return to militarism.

Japanese Prime Minister Abe has long advocated changing the Japanese Constitution to allow Japan to become a “normal” nation, with a military matching its economic and diplomatic instruments of power. While he is unable to say it out loud, the christening of the Izumo warship last month has normalized Japanese naval power to a great degree. The Izumo is an indigenously developed helicopter-carrying destroyer, and the largest vessel in the Japanese fleet. The Japanese are careful not to call it a carrier, which would make it an offensive weapons system, but in size and capacity, it is very similar to a U.S. Marine Corps’ helicopter carrier. While currently slated to carry only general purpose helicopters, the Izumo could be modified to handle attack helicopters, the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, or even the F-35B, the Marines’ vertical short takeoff and landing version of the new fighter. Configured in this way, the Izumo would be a clear match for China’s lone aircraft carrier.

Today, Japan’s cloak of pacifism has been reduced to little more than a fig leaf.  The Japanese are developing capabilities that allow it to fight any adversary. The fig leaf will soon be gone.





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If your neighbor was a hostile North Korea, you would be building up your defenses too. They are only preparing for a possible defense.

Posted by ah2588 | Report as abusive

Reminds me of their research whaling fleet.

Posted by WCTopp | Report as abusive

Japan needs to play its part in the defense of the region. Japan has a record now of over 40 years of stable democratic government, and I see no reason to believe that allowing them to have a military would mark a “return to militarism”. Concerns over Japan resorting back to its pre-WW2 ways are just as unreasonable as concerns were over German reunification back in 1989. Germany today is no where near its pre-WW2 ways.

Japan does need to do more to acknowledge its guilt for past atrocities, but their reluctance in this regard is in no way indicative of a Japanese return to militarism. The world needs to stop living in the 1930s and needs to realize that countries can and do change. Both Germany and Japan are valuable members of the free world, and they have been so for quite some time. Should we still be concerned over Britain trying to colonize North America again?

Posted by jterek | Report as abusive

42 billion dollar defense budget. That’s cute. That would have bought about one week in Bush’s 10 year-long boondoggle in Iraq.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Obviously this is a belated April Fools joke. Japan’s pacifist public with a marginally hawkish government fielding a marginal, token military versus the sheer weight of the Chinese military.

Posted by BadChicken | Report as abusive

I agree with Mr. Johnsons’s conclusion that “Japan’s cloak of pacifism has been reduced to little more than a fig leaf.” Notwithstanding any rhetoric towards the current American president’s “Pivot to Asia”, the US military draw-down in the Pacific, particularity shifting US forces from Okinawa to Guam, has forced Japan to focus more keenly on its own defense. And that I believe is the key, as the American trip-wire becomes more thin, the more robust the Japan’s defense forces will become.

Posted by JBOKeeffe | Report as abusive

Why even bother? Japan is on China’s fart trail and all the Japs can breathe is the smog coming from China.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Why bother at any tome of the day Japan is in nuclear grip of PRC submarines.

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

42 Billion. Wow, we send out that much food stamp and “earned” income credits in one tax season to the Lazy Obama/Oprah generation. Obama already outspent Bush, Alky, where’s your justification for that? There is none.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

Japan is not a “hawk”. It is entitled to defend itself.

The so-called pacifist constitution is nothing of the sort. It is a single clause inserted by the occupying Americans, in a thoughtless moment. McArthur many times regretted his decision, after North Korea invaded the south. Japan should repeal the clause, and in fact adopt its own constitution, one free from American interference.

Despite most commentators thinking otherwise, Japan’s military is not growing. Its budget and size has been declining for decades. Its budget is the smallest for many years – in fact since the 1950’s. Only if inflation is ignored does Japan have its largest defence budget ever.

Posted by royalcourtier | Report as abusive