The Japanese people don’t much like Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In fact, a majority of them want someone else as premier. Yet his coalition just retained its two-thirds majority in snap parliamentary elections. He should use his reinforced authority to end his nation’s defense dependence on America.
More than seventy years after World War II, that conflict still burdens Japan, limiting its role in the world. But an increasingly aggressive China and threatening North Korea caused Tokyo to adopt a more active foreign and defense policy. Nevertheless, the U.S.-imposed “peace constitution” still constrains Tokyo. Indeed, by its literal terms Article Nine forbids possession of a military.
However, the breakdown of the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union and creation of the People’s Republic of China caused Washington to flip-flop and favor a rearmed Japan. Japanese policymakers relied on creative constitutional interpretation to establish a “Self-Defense Force.” Still, Tokyo relied on its constitution as well as popular revulsion to war to both cap military outlays and restrict the SDF’s role—which, conveniently, helped ensure continued American protection.
Japan’s neighbors, many of which suffered under Tokyo’s brutal wartime occupation, were happy to have Washington forestall full Japanese rearmament. America served as the “cap in the bottle,” famously said Marine Corps Gen. Henry Stackpole. Japan was not without friends, such as Taiwan, but South Korea, Philippines, China and Australia were particularly antagonistic to an expanded security role for Japan. Moreover, in the last two decades Tokyo’s economic difficulties much increase in military—sorry, SDF—outlays.
Even so, Tokyo created competent armed forces. Outlays were close to $50 billion last year. While Japan’s army is small, its air force and navy are capable and modern. Still, potential threats outrange existing resources.
The PRC has sprinted past Japan and now spends upwards of four times as much on the military. Moreover, Beijing possesses a modest nuclear arsenal. Although in a war between the two Japan would be no pushover, its defense outlays have remained roughly constant in real terms, ensuring a growing bilateral gap. Warned Jeff Kingston of Temple University in Tokyo: “There is right now a one-sided arms race that China is winning.” (Without irony, China Daily USA editorialized against the “bellicose Abe” for increasing military outlays even though Japan “certainly doesn’t need such military equipment for national security.”)
North Korea adds another challenge. Although Pyongyang’s conventional forces have little reach beyond the Korean Peninsula, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea possesses a nascent nuclear capacity as well as chemical and likely biological weapons. Missiles make Japan a possible target as an ally of the United States or victim of extortion.
The worsening security environment creates increasing pressure on Tokyo to do more. Since becoming premier in late 2012, Abe has pushed his country into a more active role. He proposed increased military outlays, acquisition of new weapons and broader SDF responsibilities. The military is particularly interested in adding Aegis Ashore missile defense systems, Tomahawk cruise missiles and F-35 fighters.
In 2014 the Abe government changed its interpretation of Article Nine to allow a limited form of “collective security,” including assisting American personnel under attack. Tokyo followed with legislation and revised Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation the following year.
These changes, though controversial, were modest. Although collective self-defense finally is considered legitimate under the constitution, such action is authorized only under extremely narrow circumstances. Japan’s Professor Narushige Michishita observed that the new rules would not allow Japan to defend a U.S. ship if Japan’s security was not directly threatened. Moreover, the government failed to move forward with its plan to revise Article Nine. The failure to do so limits his military options. Argued Indiana University’s Adam P. Liff : “Without formal constitutional revision (at a minimum), however, more ambitious efforts to fundamentally transform Article 9’s interpretation or the scope of scenarios in which Japan can use force overseas are unlikely without major domestic political realignments.”
Abe pushed for such a change by running against North Korea, playing on voters’ fears. With his newly enhanced election mandate, he may move further and faster on security issues. Liff noted that “Strategic and domestic political vicissitudes have been the major drivers of changing interpretations of Article 9.” Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera indicated that the government is considering revising military guidelines to acquire and use weapons, such as cruise missiles, capable of hitting foreign bases. The government also is likely to revive proposals to amend the constitution. There even is some support among elites to consider the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
Still, opposition to such changes remains fierce. In fact, Abe’s coalition partner, the Komeito Party, has been reluctant to join his effort. The Finance Ministry pointed to the government’s massive debt in opposing accelerated military spending. The prime minister’s effort to change the constitution diminished his poll ratings, before Kim Jong-un’s misbehavior helped revive them. Popular sentiment has been shifting, but perhaps not enough. “The Japanese public is still not so sure about this,” observed Richard Samuels of MIT’s Center for International Studies.