A Chronology of Japan's Remilitarization

15 MINS READJul 15, 2015 | 21:42 GMT
A Japanese Warship
Ships sail in formation behind the flag of the Maritime Self-Defense Force during a 2006 naval fleet review attended by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Editor's Note:

Stratfor has long tracked the inevitable normalization of Japan's Self-Defense Forces as Tokyo gradually sheds the limitations imposed after World War II. In response to security legislation passing through Japan's House of Representatives, Stratfor is publishing this chronology detailing the country's gradual remilitarization. 

Tokyo moved one step closer to military normalization on July 16 when Japan’s ruling coalition pushed major security legislation through the House of Representatives, sending the bills to the upper house of the parliament. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which holds a majority in both chambers of the parliament, along with its coalition partner Komeito, saw the contentious amendments through a special committee on security legislation on July 15. The following day, it overcame protests from opposition lawmakers, who walked off the floor ahead of the full vote. If no vote is taken in the upper house after 60 days, the legislation will return to the lower house and likely be passed with the ruling coalition's two-thirds majority. 

If successful, the legislation would broaden the scope of overseas operations by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, marking a dramatic shift in Japanese security policy. While Japan is not lacking in military capability, the biggest internal checks to Tokyo becoming a military power in the region have been social and political. In the aftermath of World War II, Japan's armed forces were restructured on a purely defensive basis in order to neuter their ability to attack or conduct pre-emptive strikes in the region. One of the more controversial aspects of the proposed legislation is the so-called right to collective defense, which would enable Tokyo to conduct offensive operations in support of an ally, even if there is no direct threat to Japan. 

Many East Asian countries have expressed concern over the prospect of Japan becoming more militarily active in the region. Under Chapter II, Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, Tokyo is forbidden from maintaining land, sea or air forces, thereby preventing the use of force in settling international disputes. Although this framework has dominated Japanese military thinking since the constitution's inception, debate has increased in the Japanese parliament and the general populace over the past few years about whether the country's Self-Defense Forces should be allowed to take a more active role. Thus, despite Article 9, Japan has been undergoing a natural progression toward redefining its self-defense.

Recent political developments have given this process a boost. Japan's long-time ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party, resumed control of the government in December 2012 after three years of opposition control. The previous Liberal Democratic Party government was all but paralyzed politically, and a frustrated Japanese public voted the centrist Democratic Party of Japan into office in 2009. But it too struggled to revive the entrenched bureaucracy. Since the Liberal Democratic Party's return to office three years later, it has been able to mobilize Japanese government institutions and pursue several more aggressive military and defense initiatives.

A steady expansion of military capability has generally been sold to the Japanese public as a concession to the United States, a key ally in the Pacific. Yet Tokyo has begun to blur the distinction between maintaining a self-defense force and equipping and training itself to become a regional military power. The transformation began in 1997, when a defense white paper publicly outlined a regional strategy, as opposed to one focused solely on the areas nearest to Japan.

Thus, in the short term, Japan's legal changes will mostly consist of altering the terms of the domestic debate, but they will later open up new options for decision-makers to respond to a wider range of eventualities. In particular, Japan's Self-Defense Forces could gain more freedom to: 

  • Intercept missiles aimed or launched at allies
  • Search or apprehend vessels at sea that lend support to the enemies of allies
  • Help allies with military logistics such as refueling
  • Engage in self-defense operations while taking part in international peacekeeping missions
  • Rescue foreign nationals
  • Respond to actions by small unidentified groups or "infringements" that fall short of an attack

Because of Tokyo's inherent institutional and technological advantages, these changes will spur serious reassessments of Japan by its neighbors and allies. Beijing will view Japan's evolving posture as the newest and most consequential attempt at containment, made all the more threatening because Tokyo could become less susceptible to U.S. control. The Japanese government has not kept secret its belief that China's growing military capabilities and desire to change the regional status quo are providing the most compelling reasons for its military normalization.

Meanwhile, the United States will welcome Japan's willingness to carry a greater international security burden, but Washington also recognizes the risk that Japan's increasing influence over regional security decisions could pose to U.S. interests. As Japan takes on more responsibility in maintaining regional security, it will extend its own chains of security relationships, which could antagonize China and raise the risk of entangling the United States in conflicts that Washington would rather avoid.

Prelude to a Japanese Revival

April 28, 2015: Stratfor has long argued that the post-Cold War status quo of relative introversion and economic stagnation in Japan was unsustainable. We believed that internal and external pressures ultimately would compel Japan to play a far more proactive role in regional and global affairs. And we said this process would likely entail a fundamental break with the social, political, economic and foreign policy order that has defined Japan since World War II.

Japan Reinvents the Role of Its Military

May 16, 2014: Japan has claimed that it is preparing for war to preserve peace. After receiving the findings of a constitutional advisory panel on May 15, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a televised address to the nation outlining his vision for expanding the Japan Self-Defense Forces' global reach. To do so, Abe's government will seek to reinterpret the constitution — particularly Article Nine, which forbids Japan from maintaining armed forces or engaging in war — to allow for "collective self-defense," or the use of force in defense of other nations.

Neither the panel's report nor Abe's speech are unexpected. They are simply another step in the careful political and legislative path that Abe is following to take advantage of a rare moment of parliamentary strength to make changes that he and other advocates of military normalization have long desired. Because of Japan's militaristic past, Abe's mission is highly controversial, both at home and abroad. Abe's Cabinet will have to decide how to proceed, and relevant legislation will have to be debated and approved by the Japanese Diet. While the entire process may not wrap up by the end of the year, it looks increasingly likely that Japan will move to allow collective self-defense to some degree in the near future.

The Significance of Japan's Inclusion in Dawn Blitz 2013

June 14, 2013: Japan is participating in Dawn Blitz 2013, a military exercise hosted by the United States, and in doing so it is showing its suspicions of China, which Tokyo fears could secure territory with a surprise military presence. Dawn Blitz commenced its live phase June 11, and it will conclude June 28. The focus of the exercise is to practice an amphibious landing and simulate a retaking of San Clemente Island off the Californian coast. This exercise will involve more than 5,000 personnel from the United States, Canada, New Zealand and most notably, Japan. The move corresponds with Japan's ongoing remilitarization and provides the Japan Self-Defense Force the opportunity to learn the skills needed to deter aggressive action within the context of their ongoing island disputes.

The Driving Forces Behind Japan's Remilitarization

Dec. 17, 2012: As the world watched North Korea launch a rocket Dec. 12, Japan had already responded to rumors of the launch by deploying its $12 billion missile defense system, including land-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptors and SM-3 equipped-Aegis destroyers, to mainland Japan, Okinawa and locations in the East China Sea and Japan Sea. This deployment was a chance for Japan to showcase its world-class military. Over the years, post-war Japan has acquired formidable conventional capabilities despite Article 9 of the country's U.S.-drafted constitution, which prohibits belligerency and armed forces.

While remaining content with its limited military role for more than six decades, Japan's current regional security and political concerns are accelerating the impetus for normalization — the political process of eliminating restrictions on the military. This is largely due to regional security threats, particularly China's growing threat to Japan's sea-lanes, which it depends on for survival because it lacks sufficient natural resources. Moreover, Japan's evolving relationship with the United States facilitates its progress toward a full-fledged military. The process has also been encouraged by Japanese public sentiment, which is increasingly in favor of remilitarization, contributing to the victory of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party in the Dec. 16 elections. Although the move may risk alienating some of its neighbors, such as South Korea, Japan's normalization will likely continue undeterred.

Japan's Maritime Strategy

July 26, 2012: As an island nation, Japan is by necessity a maritime power. For the last half-century, its maritime strategy has been primarily mercantile in nature. But as both China and the United States expand their naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan will increasingly seek to reinforce its commercial, territorial and energy interests through a more proactive, open maritime military strategy.

Japan, U.S.: A New Government and the Defense Relationship

Oct. 21, 2009: U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Japan on Oct. 20 as part of a trip that will include a visit to South Korea. While Gates discussed the issue of North Korea, he also evaluated the state of the U.S.-Japanese defense relationship — something that has concerned Washington ever since the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won power in Aug. 30 elections brushing aside the LDP party that had ruled Japan for the vast majority of the past 60 years. 

There has been some concern in Washington since the DPJ took power that significant changes could be in the works in defense ties. In particular, the DPJ has pledged to end Japanese refueling operations in the Indian Ocean in support of U.S. and allied operations in Afghanistan, and has called for a review of base relocation plans for U.S. forces in Okinawa. There have also been some calls from within the DPJ for a complete review and revision of the Status of Forces agreement that governs U.S. basing and forces in Japan. 

Japan: Refueling the Defense Debate

Jan. 11, 2008: Japan’s House of Representatives, the lower house of the country's bicameral parliament, passed a controversial bill Jan. 11 allowing the resumption of Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force refueling operations for U.S. and coalition ships in the Indian Ocean involved in anti-terrorism operations in Afghanistan. The lower house originally passed the bill in November 2007, but earlier Jan. 11 the House of Councilors, Japan's upper house, rejected the bill. For the first time since 1951, the lower house voted to override the upper house, and with more than two-thirds support, passed the bill.

While not a vital piece of legislation for Japan (or for operations in Afghanistan for that matter — the mission serves more of a symbolic than critical military role), the refueling law has served as both a lightning rod for, and a barometer of, Japanese political power for nearly a year. Controversial inside Japan because it bumps up against the question of Japanese constitutional restrictions on the use of the country's defense forces, the refueling issue was one of several the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) exploited in July 2007, bringing the DPJ to power in the upper house. Since that time, DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa has taken a strong stand against the refueling bill, which was designed to continue an authorization that expired in November 2007.

Japan: Adjusting with the U.S. to the New World Order

Oct. 31, 2007: U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is headed to Japan, one week after Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force stopped refueling warships for the Afghanistan mission in the Indian Ocean. Internal debates over whether Japan's troops should continue expanding their activities dominate domestic headlines, but the country's move away from its pacifist constitution is a done deal. The refueling debate is more of a domestic political dispute, reflecting deeper strategic differences over how closely to Washington Tokyo should walk as Japan adjusts to the new world order.

Japan's Constitution and Evolution

Oct. 28. 2005: The ruling Japanese Liberal Democratic Party approved a draft revision of the Japanese Constitution that includes changes to the war-renouncing Article 9, among other things. The government also welcomed a move by Washington to station a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in Japan, something Tokyo has long opposed. These steps mark Japan's continued evolution as it seeks a more pro-active global role.

Japan: Switching from Defense to Offense?

Dec. 6, 2004: Japan's revision of its defense policy for 2005 to 2009 — announced by Japanese Defense Minister Yoshinori Ono — includes research on a ballistic missile intended to counter an invasion of its remote islands. Such a missile also would have the capability to hit targets on the Asian mainland, such as North Korea, Shanghai and Beijing, and would dramatically escalate the missile race in East Asia. The move toward a pre-emptive or offensive capability has been considered in earnest since the August 1998 launch of North Korea's Taepodong missiles, which flew over Japanese territory.

The significance of Japan's policy change is the pace with which new technologies and capabilities geared toward an offensive capability are being considered in defense planning. The Japanese Constitution prohibits Japan from using its armed forces for anything other than defense. Japanese intentions to develop ballistic missiles, along with other provisions in the National Defense Program Outline that would enable Japan to project power regionally, signal Japan's turning away from its defensive policy while holding on to the "Peace Constitution" as a cover. 

Japan's Rearmament Fits Broader Strategic Picture

April 22, 2003: Japanese Air Self Defense Force F-15s began their first-ever midair refueling exercises with U.S. KC-135 tankers over western Kyushu and Shikoku on April 21. As Tokyo debates the limits of its pacifist constitution, the United States is encouraging Japan's evolution away from its constitutional restrictions on military activities. Despite the potential political impact, Japan's official rearmament fits into a broader strategic plan for East Asia.

Japan: Defense Forces Evolving Faster Than Political Debate

Nov. 18, 2002: Japanese Ground Self Defense Force (GSDF) units and Hokkaido police held their first joint exercises Nov. 18, training to defend against an armed infiltration. The exercise is part of the gradual shift in the role and mission of Japan's defense forces — a shift brought about by the end of the Cold War and accelerated by recent changes in the security situation. But as the defense forces adjust their tactics and structure, the political will for such changes still lags behind.

The drill marks another step in the evolution of the GSDF and in Japan's defense forces as a whole. Since the end of the Cold War, Japan's military has struggled to redefine its role, which formerly was to guard Japan against a Soviet attack. Several events over the past decade have influenced the domestic debate over the SDF's role and have contributed to changes in the SDF mission and organization. But as Japan's defense force takes concrete steps toward preparing for new contingencies, it is outpacing the political consensus.

Japan: Nuclear Comments Clear Way For Defense Debate

Oct. 22, 1999: Japanese Vice Defense Minister Shingo Nishimura resigned Oct. 20 following an interview in which he said parliament should consider whether Japan "might be better off if it armed itself with nuclear weapons." Nishimura's comment was greeted with shock and astonishment. The suggestion that Japan should become a nuclear power counters the principal of non-belligerency in Japan's constitution. At the same time, it contextualizes other discussions over the definition and interpretation of Japan's self-defense guidelines.

While Nishimura's comment represents an extreme view. It comes in the midst of calls for Japan's Self Defense Force (SDF) to participate in the international force in East Timor and an ongoing debate over the role of the SDF spurred by the revised Japanese-U.S. defense cooperation agreement. In this context, public presentation of the furthest extreme of the self-defense debate is less likely to cause a reconsideration of Japan's nuclear weapons policy than to open up the middle ground to debate.

China's Strategic Concerns with Japan Coming to Forefront

Nov. 6, 1998: Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao has laid out the agendas for President Jiang Zemin's upcoming summits in Moscow and Tokyo. While the China-Russia meeting will focus on friendship and strategic cooperation, the meeting in Japan will center around two areas of contention: Japan's relations with Taiwan and a Japanese apology for World War Two. In short, while the bulk of global debate over Asia is consumed with economic concerns, China is already looking ahead to an emerging strategic problem. China is deeply concerned that Japan's current aggressive leadership in financial and diplomatic initiatives may lead to Japanese military expansionism. Jiang's visits to Russia and Japan aim to warn Japan that it should advance its agenda in Asia with caution and contrition.

Japan Considers Revising Constitutional Constraints on Military

April 28, 1998: According to a report in Japan's Kyodo News Service, at a joint meeting on April 22, the Foreign Affairs and Defense committees of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party approved a draft revision to the country's Self-Defense Forces Law which would allow greater latitude in the use of force by Japan's armed forces. A previous draft of the bill would have allowed Japanese forces to use only minimal force if their lives were endangered while performing search and rescue or maritime inspection duties.
The new draft of the bill states that Japanese forces may use weapons "to the extent judged reasonably necessary." Furthermore, Kyodo News Service reports that the draft bill allows Japanese forces to use weapons "when they evacuate overseas Japanese nationals, at places where planes and ships are located, and along the routes they take to escort Japanese to planes or ships." Prime Minister Hashimoto's cabinet is expected to approve the draft bill on April 28, and then pass it on to the Japanese Diet for final approval.

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