Foreign Policy Blogs

Rising Sun: The Case for Japan’s Military Normalization

A Japan Ground Self-Defense Force member guides a Cobra anti-tank helicopter onto a forward aircraft refueling point at Yakima Training Center, Wash., Sept. 4. The exercise was part of Operation Rising Thunder, a combined operation between the Army and Japan designed to increase interoperability between the two nations. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Cody Quinn, 28th Public Affairs Detachment)

A Japan Ground Self-Defense Force member guides a Cobra anti-tank helicopter onto a forward aircraft refueling point at Yakima Training Center, Wash., Sept. 4. The exercise was part of Operation Rising Thunder, a combined operation between the Army and Japan designed to increase interoperability between the two nations. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Cody Quinn, 28th Public Affairs Detachment)

On July 1, 2014, the Japanese government, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, outlined a reinterpretation of its pacifist constitution. Put in place in the aftermath of World War II, Article 9 of the Japanese constitution has been the centerpiece of its post-war pacifist identity since 1947, and details the unequivocal renunciation of war, except in the case of self-defense, as a means to settle disputes with other states. It reads:

“Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

“In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

The ghosts of World War II still linger ominously over Japanese society. The dangers of imperial ambition and aggressive military expansion have been ingrained within each new generation. However, as Japan pushes into the 21st century, younger generations have lost the emotional connection to the memories of the war and the political philosophy that developed in its wake. They have become increasingly nationalistic, embracing the proud traditions of Japanese history and culture and in a way aspiring to reach that pinnacle once more. Prime Minister Abe has successfully tapped into this new wave of enthusiasm cascading over Japanese society, and it has become the driving force behind Japan’s march toward rediscovering its power and influence.

In the decades since the end of World War II, the U.S., recognizing the shifting interests within the geopolitical landscape of South East Asia, encouraged Japan to increase its defense posture – working over time to slowly move them toward military normalization.

Historically, Japan has resisted contributing to regional defense initiatives, choosing instead to rely more on the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, between the U.S. and itself (an agreement that guaranteed the U.S. would protect Japan from military aggression); however, this position began to shift in the 1990s following the rise in Chinese military power, and in the recent decade has caused Japan to alter course from its pacifist doctrine. Japan is not only witnessing the emergence of a more assertive China, which is looking to exert its dominance over the region, but also a belligerent and unpredictable North Korea that is experimenting with new and more advanced weapons systems (i.e., nuclear weapons, medium and long range ballistic missile).

Even though Japan’s pacifist constitution restricts its ability to maintain a standing military, its constitution allows for the creation of a self-defense force. While the acquisition of military hardware and the build up of troops began as a humble undertaking, it has since blossomed into a highly advanced and formidable military force.

Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, arguably its most important “military” branch, consists of an amalgam of highly sophisticated naval weapon systems. The Soryu-class submarine is among the worlds most advanced non-nuclear attack submarines, it is able to displace 4,100 tons submerged, allowing it to achieve 20 knots under water and 13 knots on the surface. The Soryu-class is equipped with a full compliment of 20 type 89 high-speed homing torpedoes, as well as American-made anti-ship Harpoon missiles. The Soryu-class is also capable of utilizing advanced cruise missiles, which, should the need arise; will provide Japan a preemptive strike capability.

The Atago-class destroyer, as well as its predecessor the Kongo-class, offers the Japanese a versatile surface combat platform, capable of engaging multiple threat environments. The Atago-class destroyer is outfitted with the MK-45 lightweight artillery gun, two MK-141 missile launchers, that provide up to eight ship-to-ship missiles, and a MK-15 Phalanx Close-In-Weapon-System – capable of defending against anti-ship missiles, aircraft, and littoral warfare threats.

Japan’s naval capabilities have the potential to help stifle an increasingly aggressive Chinese military posture, as well as ensure the protection of its territorial sovereignty. The deployment of these naval weapon systems can profoundly complicate Chinese, or North Korean military calculations in the region, causing them to stop and consider the ramifications of pushing for the establishment of a hegemony in South East Asia, or even, in the case of North Korea, pursuing provocative military action against Japan.

Not to be out done, Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force is at the cutting edge of aviation technology. The “tip of the spear” in Japan’s air combat arsenal is the Mitsubishi F-15J – a homemade redesigned version of the American F-15 Eagle, this veteran fighter jet comes equipped with numerous air-to-air missiles, and has been in a perpetual state of evolution during its 30+ years of deployment – enjoying numerous retrofits and upgrades to its radar and electronic guidance systems.

While the F-15J is an excellent fighter aircraft, combat aviation technology has advanced beyond F-15Js current capabilities – Japan is already beginning to plan for its replacement. The Japanese, at one point, expressed interest in purchasing the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, however, the U.S., for a variety of reasons, were not keen on selling it.

Japan is set to join the American Autonomic Logistics Global Sustainment Program (ALGS), which is an eight nation logistical partnership created to sustain the manufacturing and operation of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, commonly referred to as the Joint Strike Fighter. In joining the ALGS, Japan has said that it is interested in manufacturing components for the F-35, which would mean relaxing its long established ban on the export of military hardware.

The potential inclusion of Japan in the ALGS is a major shift in Japan’s military posture, and represents a watershed moment in the transfer of military technology from the U.S. to Japan. If this agreement goes through, any doubts about the direction of Japan’s military normalization will be laid to rest. Japan possesses the third largest economy in the world, coupled with advanced manufacturing capabilities, and a massive population – Japan has the potential to reemerge as a major player on the global stage. Japanese recognize the threat environment in which it exists, and as Prime Minister Abe moves Japan toward military normalization, he has sent a clear signal to Japan’s neighbors that it will not acquiesce to a Chinese predetermined status quo and it will not tolerate military posturing from North Korea.

Over the years, China has been working toward developing the military capability that would allow it to establish an anti-access/area denial (A2-AD) zone in the western pacific (A2-AD is a strategy that focuses on preventing an enemy from conducting military operations in, near, or within a specific region). In the event that a military confrontation was to occur, the Chinese, utilizing A2-AD stratagem, want to neutralize U.S. power projection in the western pacific. This would limit the ability for the U.S. to respond to, for example, a military annexation of Taiwan, or one of the many territorial disputes currently playing out in the South China Sea. From a U.S. perspective, the emergence of a robust and formidable Japanese military will be indispensible in acting as a countermeasure to the Chinese implementing an effective A2-AD strategy.

There are many factors to consider when discussing Japan’s military normalization, however, none are more important than ensuring Sino-Japanese relations remain on an even keel. Sino-Japanese relations have a long and checkered past, mostly due to the fact that China, as well as the Korean Peninsula suffered tremendous hardship and cruelty under the yoke of Japanese imperialism. Japan’s push toward military normalization has the potential to awaken the deep seeded mistrust that has always plagued Sino-Japanese relations.

Prime Minister Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party are firmly in control of Japanese Parliament, and are unlikely to face any meaningful political challenge for several years. Recognizing this opportunity, Prime Minister Abe has taken the necessary steps to fundamentally alter the geopolitical outlook of Japan – the U.S. will play a critical role in ensuring that this shift in Japan’s military posture does not occur at a pace that would unwittingly escalate Sino-Japanese tensions. There is a delicate balancing act playing out, on the one hand the U.S. wants to bolster Japanese military capabilities, in the hopes of deterring Chinese military ambitions, but at the same time, the U.S. must maintain positive relations with Beijing – needless to say, the coming decades will require some deft diplomatic maneuvering to maintain regional stability.

If the U.S. is able to keep Japan on its course toward military normalization, without exacerbating tensions with Beijing, then the U.S., in Japan, will discover a robust and formidable partnership that can help maintain U.S. influence in the Western Pacific and South East Asia for the foreseeable future.



Joseph Karam

Joseph Karam is a foreign policy and national security observer with a focus on the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Joseph graduated from Lycoming College with a Bachelor's degree in Psychology and Norwich University with a Master's Degree in Diplomacy Studies concentrating on International Terrorism. You can find Joseph on Twitter @Joseph_Karam