Japan Reassessing Its Military Policy

In response to North Korean saber rattling and the rise of China, Japan is reassessing it's military posture

Japan navy

With the ruling party’s political power now firmly established after victory in the election for the upper house of Parliament, the Japanese Defense Minister is openly talking about expanding the role of the Japanese military:

TOKYO — Japan is considering acquiring offensive weapons and drones and will assume a more active role in regional security, the country’s defense minister said Friday, giving an early glimpse of how the new conservative government could lead the nation further than ever from its postwar pacifism.

The minister, Itsunori Onodera, said Japan should consider such steps as acquiring weapons to strike bases in hostile countries and aerial drones to monitor Japan’s vast territorial waters in response to the growing capabilities of North Korea and China. He spoke after his ministry released an interim report on an overhaul of Japanese defense strategy under way by the administration of hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose Liberal Democratic Party won a decisive election victory on Sunday. The interim report is meant to start debate on the issue before deciding on final changes in the defense policy expected to be announced by the end of the year.

Mr. Abe has vowed to reverse the long decline of his nation, which was Asia’s dominant local power during much of the last century, but recently has seemed to be eclipsed by China. In addition to his economic revitalization strategy known as Abenomics, the prime minister has said he wants to change Japan’s antiwar Constitution, written by American occupiers after World War II, to allow its defense forces to become a full-fledged military. Analysts said acquiring an offensive weapon would be an important symbolic step away from the limitations placed on Japan’s armed forces by the current Constitution.

“It would be a big deal, a fundamental change in our defense philosophy,” said Narushige Michishita, director of security studies at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. “For Abe, this would be an important step toward normalizing Japan and its military.”

The changes continue a broader shift in defense strategy begun under an opposition government three years ago that ended Japan’s cold-war-era focus on fending off a Russian invasion from the north in favor of developing a more dynamic air-sea capability to defend its far-flung islands to the south. Even before Mr. Abe took office, Japan had been slowly strengthening its ability to respond to North Korean missile and nuclear tests and also China’s growing assertiveness in a territorial fight over islands in the East China Sea.

Since taking office in December, Mr. Abe has nudged Japan even further toward a more robust military. Earlier this year, his government passed the first increase in Japan’s defense budget in a decade, though the size of the gain was tiny compared with China’s double-digit growth in military spending. He has also called for strengthening Japan’s ability to respond to the continuing dispute with China over uninhabited islands, in which Chinese ships make almost daily incursions into waters claimed by Japan.

Friday’s report also contained repeated calls for finding ways to deepen cooperation with the United States, which has 50,000 soldiers and sailors in Japan. Mr. Abe has made close ties with Washington a centerpiece of his defense strategy, saying Japan must increase its military capabilities to share more of the security burden that the United States now bears in the region.

Some in Mr. Abe’s party have already been calling for strengthening Japan’s own military capabilities by developing or buying from the United States an offensive weapon like a cruise missile that could even be used to launch a pre-emptive strike on a North Korean missile before it is launched. However, on Friday, Mr. Onodera stressed that any such weapons, if actually acquired, would be used only if Japan is attacked first, and thus not represent a shift from the purely defensive nature of the Japanese military, called the Self-Defense Forces.

The caution reflects the challenge that Mr. Abe faces as he seeks to raise Japan’s military profile in a region where memories of Japan’s wartime aggression remain raw. During visits to Southeast Asian nations, Mr. Abe has tried to cast Japan as a reliable partner that can help offset the growing influence of China, which has been embroiled in heated territorial disputes with many nations in the region. On Friday in Singapore, Mr. Abe invited China’s leader, Xi Jinping, to an immediate summit meeting aimed at lowering tensions.

Still, analysts and politicians say Mr. Abe’s message of a more robust military has struck a chord among a Japanese public that feels increasingly anxious as China has appeared to challenge the long-held military dominance of the United States. This has fed growing calls for Japan to build up its own ability to defend itself, while also trying to keep the United States engaged in the region at a time when the Pentagon faces deep budget cuts.

“Over the last few years, the Japanese people’s feelings about the national security environment, and also about the Ministry of Defense and the Self-Defense Forces, have changed,” Mr. Onodera told reporters. “This has led to the current revision” that the Liberal Democrats have under way.

In addition to Onodera’s comments, a defense policy review paper had some specific recommendations:

Japan should bolster its marine force and introduce surveillance drones, a defence review paper says, highlighting concerns over China and North Korea.

The paper also called for better defences against missile attacks and the potential to attack enemy bases.

Japan’s military is constitutionally limited to a self-defence role.

But PM Shinzo Abe is looking to expand the scope of its activities – potentially a highly controversial move that would anger its neighbours.

Japan is embroiled in a bitter row over islands with China and is deeply concerned by North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

The interim report is part of a defence review ordered by Mr Abe, with final proposals due by December.


Amphibious units that could be dispatched quickly to remote islands were needed, the report said, and surveillance equipment to detect “at an early stage signs of changes in the security situation”.

The report also called for a strengthened ability to “to deter and respond to ballistic missiles”.

“Japan needs to enhance its ability to respond to ballistic missile attacks in a comprehensive manner,” Kyodo news agency quoted the report as saying.

But officials have been keen to emphasise that this does not mean Japan is eyeing pre-emptive strikes on enemy targets.

“It is necessary to consider whether we should have the option to strike an enemy’s missile launch facilities,” an unidentified defence ministry official told Reuters news agency.

“But we are not at all thinking about initiating attacks on enemy bases when we are not under attack.”

With the rise of China and the continued threat from North Korea, it seems only natural that Japanese military policy would begin to change. Indeed, it’s a change that many in the U.S. and other parts of the West have been encouraging for years now, not the least because Japan could potentially become an excellent customer for American defense contractors.

At the same time, there’s a delicate balance at play here. It’s been almost 70 years now since the end of the Second World War, but the memories across Asia of the old Japan are still quite raw for many in South (and North) Korea, China, and elsewhere in Asia. For their own part, the Japanese haven’t helped the situation by still not completely living up to what they did in many parts of Asia during the war itself, which as far as Asia is concerned started in 1931 when the Japanese invaded Manchuria. Perhaps attitudes in Asia will change as China starts to assert its influence, especially if a more militarily assertive Japan is seen as acting more as a partner of the United States and other regional powers such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia. If the smaller Asian nations start to see the Chinese as the bullies, then the idea of a more militarily active Japan may not seem like such a bad thing after all.

In either case, it seems clear that we’re headed for some interesting, potentially game-changing, times in Asia.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Dave D says:

    This act is likely a good move on the part of the Japanese but also for the US. We cannot continue to be the policemen of the world. At the same time the rising influence of China is a growing threat to the region. Especially with the Jueche ideal that both Japan and South Korea are “Imperialistic puppets” of the West coming out of the DPRK. Yes the Japanese did horrible things to the region starting over a century ago (1931 is only the start of the Chinese conflict with Japan they began invasions of Korea in 1873 and took control by 1905 finalized in 1910.) However, how ling will the sins of the father be imposed upon a losing power? The Germans did not get punished as hard postwar as the Japanese and did things on par with them during the war. At what point does Us foreign policy lose the idea of moral superiority over the less white races, continue the abandonment of the Marshall Plan policies and give people a right to their own defense and self determination?

  2. michael reynolds says:

    @Dave D:

    I hardly see Japan as any sort of victim, here. We carried the costs of their defense while establishing a peace that allowed Japan to become one of the wealthiest countries on earth. If anyone’s been punished here it’s the American taxpayer.

    Had we not established the occupation, had we not disarmed Japan, we would not now have the relative prosperity we see in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and now mainland China. So, job well done for the US and now, yes, it’s time for Japan to step up.

  3. timr says:

    But you never mentioned the problems that Japan is having with South Korea over at least one of those islands. South Korea stationed troops on that island to force Japan to back off. They have stepped up Navy patrols and are forcing Japanese fishermen(who have a very bad rep in S Korea, China, and even Russia for ignoring national waters) to leave the area.
    Japan did a very stupid thing when they claimed that island was private Japanese property. Japan has tried very hard to ignore the fact that for Korea war with Japan started in 1905 when Japan invaded Korea.
    I watch Korean TV news to discover what is really happening in DC and the rest of the world as US networks don’t bother with any real news any more

  4. DC Loser says:

    The South Koreans would be just as nervous with a remilitarized Japan as China. They have more in common with their brothers to the north than with Japan. This may in fact backfire and bring the Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos and Vietnamese together.