Japan’s Military Future: A Realist Perspective

 /  Feb. 24, 2015, 3:27 p.m.


In an urgent speech delivered earlier this month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appealed to his country to revise its pacifist constitution, especially the famous Article 9, which prohibits Japan from maintaining offensive military capabilities and renounces war. The constitution was written during the American occupation of Japan after World War II, as a countermeasure against the defeated empire’s militarism. Following the recent killing of two Japanese citizens by ISIS, Mr. Abe has reasserted his desire for Japan to let go of its isolationist pacifism. He has been taking limited, but bold, steps over the past few years to unshackle Japan’s armed forces from its restrictive constitution. These changes have aimed at dealing with a larger problem for the country—not Middle Eastern terrorism, but China. Although there is significant domestic resistance in Japan to changing its policies, China’s ascent as a major power is likely to make the Japanese feel more insecure, especially considering the ongoing territorial dispute between them. To protect its territorial interests in the future, Japan may need to take stronger steps, like bolstering its military and forming a defensive coalition.

Many politicians in Japan view Article 9 as outdated and potentially dangerous. Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party—the party of Mr. Abe—has consistently fought to amend the article, claiming that it is a product of the American military occupation. However, public opinion has mostly been against any official revision of Article 9, and without popular support, amending the Japanese constitution is nearly impossible. Indeed, the constitution has not been amended a single time; doing so requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Japanese National Diet, as well as a simple majority in a referendum.

By employing a loose definition of self-defense, the Japanese government has still been able to build up a modern and sophisticated military. Mr. Abe reversed a decade-long decrease in military spending after coming into office, and this year Japan approved its highest defense budget ever. In April 2014, Mr. Abe announced the removal of a ban on exporting weapons and military hardware in order to allow Japan’s defense corporations to become more active. Soon afterwards, his government formulated a reinterpretation of Article 9 that allows for military intervention on foreign territory to defend allies. This move was criticized by many Japanese on the grounds of its potential unconstitutionality. While China, South Korea, and North Korea have viewed all of these changes with great suspicion, the United States has welcomed them.

When the current constitution of Japan was written, the United States’ goal was to turn Japan into a quiet country focused on primarily on business and trade that would not challenge American interests in the region. However, the international landscape has changed dramatically in the seventy or so years since the constitution was written, and America now supports a stronger, more militant Japan.

“This is really all about the Chinese threat,” argues John Mearsheimer, a preeminent theorist of international relations and professor at the University of Chicago.“The United States now realizes it will need Japan to deal with China in ways that it didn’t need Japan to deal with the Soviet Union during the Cold War,” he adds. The restrictions on Japan’s military helped turn the nation into an economic powerhouse by allowing the country to buck-pass its military and security concerns to the United States. With the rise of China as an economic and military power, America is less willing to have Japan act as a buck-passer towards it. Instead, the United States would like Japan to be a more active partner when it comes to preventing China from becoming a regional hegemon in Asia.

The Japanese, from a different perspective, also have strong incentives to be less dependent on the United States. As the country becomes more concerned about China’s increasing strength, it feels less confident that America will always be there to take care of its security problems. Maintaining a stronger military with offensive capabilities could make the Japanese feel more secure in front of their larger and militarily more powerful neighbor. This does not necessarily mean that Japan will return to its pre-World War II quest for expansionist imperialism. “Japan wants to become a normal country,” Professor Mearsheimer remarks. “They are not anxious to go out and start wars, but they want a more flexible, powerful army for self-defense.”

Immediately after the ISIS hostage crisis, Mr. Abe raised the issue of amending Article 9 and specified that his party will propose an amendment in the Diet in 2016. That catastrophe is likely to affect Japanese public consciousness for some time, but it is unclear whether or not this will translate into political action. Even in the face of this tragedy, Professor Mearsheimer notes that because “there is significant public resistance, it would be very difficult, though not impossible, to modify the constitution.” While the gruesome confrontation with ISIS might not have been significant enough to create that change, “a major crisis between China and Japan could melt away that resistance.”

The dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands could be the source for such a crisis between the two Asian giants. These small islands, though uninhabited, are of tremendous nationalistic value to both the Chinese and Japanese peoples. After China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, Japan annexed the islands. It has maintained control of them ever since, except for when the US administered them briefly after the Second World War. In recent years, the Chinese have sent strong signals indicating their determination to take control of the islands. A spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry declared the islands to be part of China’s “core interest” in 2013, and among other developments, China is currently constructing a sizable military base in their vicinity. Japan has been taking countermeasures; earlier this year, the country purchased advanced military hardware to increase the islands’ defense. However, if China’s military power comes to resemble that of the United States, it could become difficult for Japan to hold onto the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, making a stronger military all the more important for Japanese leaders.

In the near future, Professor Mearsheimer predicts that a balancing coalition will form to challenge China’s potential regional hegemony, led by the US and including countries like Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, and India. For the Japanese, such a coalition, coupled with offensive military capabilities, might be the key to maintaining its current ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. On the other hand, the Chinese are set on taking back what they believe is rightfully theirs, and given their huge population and trajectory towards awesome military might, might actually do so. Because of their territorial dispute and regional competition, we should expect to see an increase in militarism in Japan if China continues to rise economically and militarily.

Special thanks to Professor John Mearsheimer for giving his time and insight to The Gate for this article.


Hamza Shad


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