The Driving Forces Behind Japan's Remilitarization

7 MINS READDec 17, 2012 | 11:27 GMT
hips from the USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Republic of Korea navy are underway during a trilateral exercise, East China Sea, 2012.
hips from the USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Republic of Korea navy are underway during a trilateral exercise, East China Sea, 2012.
(Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

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.

As a maritime nation, Japan must secure its sea-lanes for communication and to acquire overseas assets, due to the country's almost complete lack of natural resources. Japan depends on imports for 82 percent of its energy supply, even with support from its domestic nuclear energy industry. Japan depends on the Middle East and Southeast Asia for more than 90 percent of its oil and natural gas imports, leaving it vulnerable to both regions' political instability. Japan's dependency on imports also extends to raw materials, such as copper and zinc.

With the United States guaranteeing the security of Japan's sea-lanes after World War II as part of the U.S.-Japanese alliance, Japan was able to focus on economic objectives during the Cold War. But Japan gradually was able to rebuild its armed forces for self-defense. Japan's security alignment with the United States allowed it to justify its first steps toward normalization by capitalizing on common adversaries, such as the Soviet Union, North Korea and to a lesser extent China. By the end of the Cold War, Japan Self-Defense Forces had transformed from an internal police force to a military with the third-largest defense budget in the world and sophisticated weaponry, such as the Aegis Combat System.

Also with the end of the Cold War, North Korea supplanted the Soviet Union as Japan's proclaimed chief adversary, although North Korea's actual threat to Japan remains dubious. North Korea's persistent missile tests allowed Japan to justify launching a spy satellite and initiating its ballistic missile defense program. Japan has sixteen Patriot firing units and is the only country in the world besides the United States to have SM-3 intermediate-range missile interceptors, which are on its four Kongo class destroyers. Japan also is planning to upgrade its Atago class destroyers to fire SM-3 Block IIA missiles. These technological advancements have closely linked Japan into the U.S. air defense network, leading to the country's integration into a collective security framework. North Korea's nuclear proliferation program helped Japan decide to adopt a more proactive defense posture in 2004. Such a reorientation in strategy as well as the promotion of the defense agency to the ministerial level in 2007 essentially led to the demise of postwar Japan's pacifism. 

China's Rise Fuels Normalization

The key driver behind Japan's military normalization is the rise of China. China's maritime ambitions and its immense naval buildup are considered a serious challenge to Japan's ability to control its surrounding islands and seas and have led to maritime scuffles, such as the dispute over the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands that began in 2010 or the discord with South Korea over the Takeshima/Dokdo Islands. These territorial disputes have had considerable economic repercussions, such as China's embargo on rare earth exports to Japan and violent demonstrations targeting Japanese businesses in China. Such ramifications forced Japan to diversify its economic strategy, which is increasingly refocusing on Southeast Asian markets.

East China Sea contested islands

Japan's continued reliance on Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian energy sources has also forced the country to reaffirm the importance of the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. Moreover, the United States has been refraining from intervening in regional affairs, including the Sino-Japanese island disputes by passing greater security responsibility to local players. This change shows that the United States is not willing to get involved in more local affairs, though it has made clear that it would intervene on Japan's behalf in the event of actual combat. Nevertheless, the United States' intentional distance from the issue has caused a slight schism in the U.S.-Japanese alliance and has made Japan aware that it needs to take on more responsibility for guarding its vital sea-lanes to the Middle East through the South China Sea.

In late 2010, Japan responded to its tension with China by introducing a new military doctrine known as "dynamic defense," which aims for flexible, sustainable deterrence that exploits the full spectrum of Japan's well developed and technologically advanced military. This doctrine can also be used to defend the Ryukyu Islands, which could have significant regional implications. For example, Japan has been increasing its regional presence through activities such as participating in joint naval exercises in the South China Sea and developing its amphibious landing capabilities with the U.S. Marine Corps. These maritime activities are directed at protecting the contested islands and vital sea-lanes around them, meaning Japan has essentially accepted a responsibility that was previously fulfilled by the U.S. Navy.

These geopolitical challenges engendered a genuine sense of insecurity among many Japanese, who have recently been channeling their social malaise into a nationalistic movement. The emergence of popular nationalism has considerably changed Japan's political discourse and given rise to several parties that want to transform the Japan Self-Defense Force into a full-fledged military — something Japan's next prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has pledged to do. Public support for Japan's military continued to grow after 2010, culminating in over 90 percent of the population holding the military in positive light after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disasters. This wider public acceptance coincided with the growing willingness among Japanese youth to serve in the military. For example, the Japanese coast guard received the record-high number of applications this year — a 50 percent increase from the previous year.

The emergence of popular nationalism has considerably changed Japan's political discourse and given rise to several parties that want to transform the Japan Self-Defense Force into a full-fledged military.

Despite its increasing militarization in recent years, Japan has yet to possess power projection capabilities such as aircraft carriers or nuclear submarines. The United States has been encouraging Japan to share greater responsibility using nascent power projection weapons, such as KC-767 aerial refueling tankers. Japan also does not want immediate power projection capabilities. Instead, it wants to gradually develop such capabilities within the existing alliance framework as it expands its military involvement into regional issues, such as maritime disputes.

The Future of the Japanese Military

Japan's normalization would be formalized by the revision of the Article 9, a major shift in the geopolitical balance in East Asia that could have significant political repercussions for Japan, which had previously prevented Japan from taking explicit measures to normalize its military. Japan's past military aggression continues to shape public opinion in many of its neighboring countries. South Korea, in particular, will be alarmed by Japan's official normalization and already has been quietly building up its navy and can deploy such weapons as Hyunmoo 3C cruise missiles, the range of which encompasses almost all of Japan.

This fear of a normalized Japan is tempered by more moderate views, such as that of the Philippines, which recently pledged its support for Japan's full rearmament and abolishment of its pacifist constitution as a way to counter China's looming influence. As China's bold moves in the surrounding seas continue to upset not only Japan, but other countries in the region, it is likely that Japan's normalized armed forces will be seen by some Asian countries as a welcome hedge against China's own increasing military heft. This will help Japan expand its military influence abroad and increasingly drive its march toward full normalization.

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