Don’t let the name fool you. Though it’s called the ‘Japan Self-Defense Force' (JSDF), it’s still a modern, highly-capable military. Indeed, the JSDF is the eighth most-expensive military in the world, with a 2017 budget of US$41 billion. That sum pays for approximately 243,000 soldiers, sailors and air force personnel utilising some very advanced capabilities to preserve the country’s national security.
The JSDF’s primary mission is the defence of the Japanese Home Islands. To this end, the JSDF maintains strong detection capabilities, designed to detect and track any violations of Japan’s air and marine territory. It supports this protection mission with a fleet of approximately 154 ships and slightly less than 800 aircraft, while its ground-based contingent deploys cohorts of modern armoured tanks and other fighting vehicles. In recent times, however, the use of these capabilities has been restricted to the Home Islands: Japan is constitutionally prevented from using force, or even the threat of force, in the international environment.
Understanding why this is the case requires a brief history lesson. Following the return of the Meiji Emperor to real power in the 1870s, Japan’s relations with the world were characterised by a program of militarisation and aggressive imperial expansion. Hideous violence accompanied this expansion effort: millions died or were displaced due to Tokyo’s ambition. Imperial hubris culminated in the 1930s and 1940s with Tokyo’s seizure of large parts of China and Southeast Asia. At that point, things started to go against the Japanese: overstretched and fighting against a multinational Alliance, the Japanese military was beaten in a vicious, drawn-out campaign stretching from south-western China right through to the Pacific. It took a string of battlefield defeats, the razing of multiple Japanese cities, and, finally, the use of nuclear weapons to force Tokyo’s capitulation. Post-war, Tokyo was neutered, bound to the US with an alliance, and its need for military reduced through iron-clad American security guarantees.
This history of perpetration and receipt of extreme violence directly informs Japan’s complicated relationship with its military today. Though we should steer clear of hokey assumptions about Japanese national character, Japan is a country that simultaneously manages to abhor the brutality of warfare, while simultaneously worshipping the selfsame perpetrators of some of the most extreme war crimes in history. The Yasukuni War Shrine remains a popular site of religious veneration for Japan’s war dead. Still inscribed on its walls are the names of at least 1,068 war criminals, 14 of these Class-A, the most severe classification. Complicated, indeed.
There is every sign that this relationship is about to become even more complex. Politically and legislatively, Japan appears to be changing its strategic posture.
In 2015, a Shinzo Abe-led Japanese Parliament, the Diet, pushed through the ‘Peace and Security Legislation’, a legislative package designed to loosen the strategic restrictions placed on the JSDF. Cleverly-worded, this legislation reinterprets the concept of ‘self-defense’ as it is traditionally understood in Japan. Now, it allows the Japanese government to go to war to defend the ‘collective security’ of its allies in instances where the security of those allies would impact the security of Japan. The key aspect of these changes lies in the fact the Japanese government now has leeway to determine the exact parameters of what constitutes a threat to Japan’s national security, and can act accordingly.
In order to sell these strategic-postural changes, the JSDF has embarked on a uniquely Japanese public relations campaign. Japanese children can learn the role and capabilities of their military via an animated talking bird, Bo-Emon, who emphasises the important duty the JSDF plays in defending the country. Indeed, in an attempt to appeal to Japanese youth in the 21st century, the JSDF has gone so far as to daub its attack helicopters with kawaii, or cute, manga characters.
Despite these efforts, these strategic and legislative changes have proven hugely controversial in Japan and beyond. Provoking theatrical debates in the Diet, it drew criticism from senior Japanese legal scholars and wider society. China has vocally and repeatedly stated its desire for Japan to ‘speak and act cautiously in security and military matters’.
Indeed, Chinese concern may be justified. Shinzo Abe, a staunch nationalist, has made no secret of his disdain for Japan’s present, US-imposed constitution, and has signalled a desire to return Japan to its pre-war status as a powerful, independent strategic actor. This would complicate the strategic balance in the region, and would no doubt force Beijing to respond in some fashion. The ability to unilaterally project force would deepen the potential for crisis in the East China Sea, particularly around the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The prospect of a newly-assertive Japan clashing head-on with China is not enticing, and—given that Japan is allied to Washington—has the potential to boil over into a free-for-all with China and the US squaring off in the middle.
Of course, we must be careful not to take our conclusions too far. The world has moved on from the age of empire, and the international system is unlikely to tolerate a second Imperial Japan. The facts suggest that Japan is simply expanding its legislative and bureaucratic basis for the deployment of force. This is a natural response to the increasing uncertainty caused by the relative decline in US power, and the concomitant decline in its ability to police the international system. Former US allies everywhere have an incentive to broaden their security options, as indeed they appear to be doing. What’s different here, however, is the historical and geopolitical milieu in which Japan acts. If Tokyo intends to rearm and re-enter the strategic environment, it had better do so carefully.
Rob Cullum is the East Asia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.