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Dmitry Streltsov

Doctor of History, Head of the Department of Oriental Studies of the MGIMO University, RIAC expert

On the eve of 2014 Japan’s government, for the first time in many years, adopted a package of policy documents on national security – marking a substantive shift in defense strategy, giving it a new conceptual basis in the wake of increased political tensions in East Asia. Does this mean that Japan is shedding its pacifist status?

On the eve of 2014 Japan’s government, for the first time in many years, adopted a package of policy documents on national security – marking a substantive shift in defense strategy, giving it a new conceptual basis in the wake of increased political tensions in East Asia. Does this mean that Japan is shedding its pacifist status?

After World War II Japanese elites came to regard its national security concerns through the prism of the Security Treaty with the United States. Major economic, international, military and technology shifts in the 2010s have pushed Tokyo to overhaul the basis of its security policy. Japan views these changes in the context of challenges and even threats to its national security, including North Korea’s provocative efforts to develop nuclear missile potential, China’s military rise and sovereignty claims to disputed islands known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China, as well as international terrorism and cybercrime in all their myriad manifestations.

Shinzo Abe’s Agenda: Reviewing the Outcomes of World War II

The revisionist course was first proclaimed back in the 1980s by Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, eager to rid the country of its loser nation status and free the country from all the limitations forced on Japan after the war as a country with a state policy predicated on pacifism. Since then Tokyo has gradually dismantled most of the restraints placed upon it by allowing its Self Defense Forces to participate in foreign missions and the development of space weapons, significantly easing bans on arms exports and imports, setting up a full-blown defense ministry, etc. But it was only after Mr. Abe’s cabinet came to power for the second time in December 2012 that Tokyo announced it was creating a defense force and finalized its strategy of building a powerful military state.

The official interpretation of Constitution does not give the Self Defense Forces any legal grounds for the use of weapons and participation in military operations in any circumstances other than a direct attack or an immediate threat.

Financial woes notwithstanding, during the past year Japan’s Self Defense Forces have become a priority recipient of budget funds. In the 2014 fiscal year Japan’s defense budget grew for the second successive year, this time by 2.2 percent – an 18-year record, and the Self Defense Forces headcount also expanded, although not by any significant amount. In June 2013, the National Security Council was set up to serve as a kind of command post for the development of diplomacy and national security policies. In December 2013, the government forced the antidemocratic State Secrets Protection Law through Parliament to ease prosecution for the disclosure of state secrets. The ruling party and the opposition remain locked in a fierce tussle over reviewing the scant legal, administrative, moral and other restraints that stand as an obstacle to Japan’s transformation into a full-fledged military power.

Currently, public attention seems to be riveted on anticipated government decisions in three key areas. First, the official recognition of the right to collective self defense under Article 9 of the Constitution. Since constitutional amendments in the near future seem unfeasible due to particular sensitivity of a large portion of the general public to this issue, Mr. Abe might attempt an expanded reading of the provisions.

Notably, the official interpretation of Constitution does not give the Self Defense Forces any legal grounds for the use of weapons and participation in military operations in any circumstances other than a direct attack or an immediate threat. Consequently, the Japanese cannot effectively assist their allies or interact in joint missions. For example, if a U.S. ship is attacked by an enemy and there are Japanese naval assets in the area, they have no right to open fire. This problem may be resolved by recognizing the right to collective self defense, while leaving the Basic Law intact.

According to the official view, recognizing this right should also legally enable the Self Defense Forces to increase their contribution to UN peacekeeping operations. The effective legislation (the Self Defense Forces Law of 1954, the Law on Cooperation for UN Peacekeeping Operations of 1992, the Law on Measures Against Piracy 2009, etc.), which augment the Constitution and form the legal basis for any such participation, effectively restricts any actions by Japanese peacekeepers to exclusively humanitarian activities and rules out their involvement in military operations. For example, the Law on Cooperation for UN Peacekeeping Operations establishes the “five principles,” which permit the Japanese military to operate only in areas covered by ceasefire agreements and to use weapons only “within minimal boundaries to protect the life of personnel” [1].

Photo: Atsushi Mutaguchi
Grumman E-2C Hawkeye

This provision effectively bars Japanese contingents from being sent to hot spots. On the rare instances when this happened (in Iraq and Afghanistan), they were in fact protected by peacekeepers from other countries. As a result, Tokyo has been criticized for hiding behind others and has also faced additional difficulties within UN diplomacy, hampering any further promotion of the country’s image as a responsible global power. Hence, activating the right for collective self defense in reality involves rejecting the exclusively defensive character of Japan’s military doctrine.

Second comes the statutory recognition of the government’s right to launch preventive attacks against an enemy, something that has been publicly discussed for a long time reflecting concerns about the in-built unpredictability surrounding the North Korean nuclear missile program. Acquiring this first-strike right would be unprecedented, because Japan’s defense doctrine has, in the post-war age, hitherto been purely defensive. The National Defense Program Guidelines say that Japan will consider its responses and the measures to be taken [2]. However, a decision on this may come this year, although it would be unlikely for Tokyo to take such a step unilaterally without consulting Washington.

Third comes a further lifting of bans on arms exports. As prescribed by the “Three Principles” banning arms exports set out in the 1967 Parliament Resolution, Japan rules out any such deals with communist bloc countries, countries subject to arms exports embargoes under United Nations Security Council resolutions, and countries involved in (or likely to be involved in) international conflicts. However, Tokyo has been involved in international weapons projects, including those involving offensive systems, since the mid-1980s when Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative emerged. Most recent examples include the Theater Missile Defense system and the F-35 multipurpose fighter jet [3], which widely employ Japanese technologies under joint programs with the United States and West European countries, Japan’s strategic partners.

Fully revoking the weapons export ban is a government priority, and seems just a matter of time.

At the same time, the resultant systems may well be used in conflict zones, for example if Israel purchases the F-35 and employs it in battle, thus violating Japan’s export bans. Hence, revoking the export ban would save the government from having to answer difficult questions in Parliament, where its representatives would have to employ some linguistically flexible rhetoric to emerge unscathed.

Besides, both international weapons markets and state budgets are tightening, driving Japanese weapons corporations to seek greater economic efficiency. These projects may become commercially viable through lower production costs, including by developing serial production facilities. Thus, it is not security concerns but rather economic factors that impact on Japan's approach to arms exports, which are in need of more liberal regulations.

Revoking the arms export ban is also a necessary step if Japan is to expand its participation in UN peacekeeping efforts. Yoshihiko Noda’s cabinet allowed arms deals only under bilateral agreements with certain partner states. But Japan is still barred from supplying weapons to international organizations, including for disarmament and arms control purposes, for example to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

There have been numerous attempts to bypass the ban. In December 2011, Mr. Noda's cabinet formulated new principles for Japan’s arms export policy, which loosened the restraints on weapons used for contributions to peace and international cooperation, as well as those on joint weapons development and manufacturing projects, providing they are not used without the makers’ consent and not extended to third parties without Tokyo’s prior agreement [4]. In late 2013 the Japanese government violated these principles, providing the South Korean contingent in South Sudan free of charge with 10,000 rounds via the United Nations. According to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the decision was grounded in humanitarian considerations [5].

Fully revoking the weapons export ban is a government priority, and seems just a matter of time, the key problem with this lies not in the law, but in moral and psychological issues, since the arms trade does not exactly fit the image of a country insisting on its devotion to the cause of peace.

New State Priorities in Government Policy Documents

Photo: AP Photo/Yomiuri Shimbun, Masataka M
A.Gubin, A.Lukin:
Warring in North East Asia: Possible Scenarios

Until recently, Japan's security policy had practically no consistent conceptual basis, the only document being The Fundamental Concepts of National Defense adopted by the cabinet back in 1957 and now irreversibly obsolete as a practical guide (the paper contained largely abstract statements like "supporting UN activities", "developing international cooperation", "defending the country on the basis of Japanese-U.S. security cooperation", etc.).

On December 17, 2013, Japan’s government adopted a package of policy documents defining state strategy in national security for the future, including the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Program Guidelines, and the Medium-Term Defense Program. An analysis of these documents points to an emerging qualitative shift in Japan's security policy that seems to impact the entire system of international relations in East Asia.

As the most important paper, the National Security Strategy offers a conceptual vision of national security problems and approaches to their solution for the coming decade. The authors proceed from the point that defense alone cannot guarantee security, which must be based on the combined might of the state – including diplomacy and economic and technological policies.

The Strategy's key lies in the notion of proactive pacifism, which means that Japan intends to step up its contribution to peace and wellbeing across the world. Proactive pacifism implies the proactive implementation of various steps to obtain peace, enabling Japan to develop new international allies and effectively influence countries that violate the world order. Adopting proactive pacifism would require considerable amendments to Japan’s key legal, institutional and staffing policies in diplomacy and national security.

In reality, proactive pacifism, in Tokyo's interpretation, suggests both intensified peacekeeping efforts under UN auspices, as can be seen in its etymology, and the legalization of Japan's right for collective self defense. In a public lecture, Mr. Abe directly linked proactive pacifism with the right for collective self defense within Japan's obligations under the Security Treaty with the United States, Asahi Shimbun 09/28/2013).

The adoption of these conceptual documents seems to signify a U-turn in Japan’s national security policy conceived by Mr. Abe’s cabinet in December 2012 that aims to build a modern military potential for combat operations both in national territory and far beyond its limits.

The National Defense Program Guidelines provide for a comprehensive buildup of national potential for dynamic defense, the key notion underlying the effective National Defense Plan adopted in 2010, which outlines a construction model for the military assets to be used with great flexibility and efficiency. Priority is given to the mobility of combat formations and their ability to promptly respond and relocate in response to a changing situation through a dynamic defense potential that has been qualitatively and quantitatively upgraded. While previous versions of the Guidelines stressed the need for restraint in developing this defense potential, the latest paper contains no mention of restraint. This has been replaced by "efficiently building up effective and integrated defense capabilities." [6] "The phrase doesn't mean that defense buildup will lose self-restraint. It more specifically describes efforts toward defense buildup" Japan’s Defense Ministry explained [7].

As far as the Medium-Term Defense Program is concerned, the focus rests on specific steps to build up the Navy’s and Army;s mobile assets in order to protect and, if necessary, fight for the distant islands in the southwest. The five-year program envisages the creation of a "unified defense potential for flexible response" to ensure efficient coordination between the country’s Army, Navy and Air Force. The program is based on a scenario in which China attempts to seize the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, which suggests the focus on higher combat readiness of units engaged in the reconnaissance, monitoring and patrol of the marine and air space around the disputed territories.

To this end, Air Force base at Naha (Okinawa) will deploy a squadron of early-warning E-2C reconnaissance aircraft to boost surveillance and control efficiency, mainly against Chinese combat aircraft in remote areas uncovered by conventional land-based radars. The same mission is to be assigned to the additionally-purchased UAVs that will operate at altitudes of 18,000 meters above sea level to identify objects above Japan’s territorial waters and deep in continental China. Naha is also set to receive an additional F-15 squadron (20 jets) to increase its capacity for prompt response to incursions into Japan’s national airspace. To counter what Japan sees as the Chinese Navy’s repeated intrusions into Japanese waters around the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, Tokyo plans to increase the number of its destroyers to 54.

Under a scenario in which China seizes the islands, Japan intends to create a special contingent of tracked amphibious vehicles to ensure they are returned to Japanese control.

All in all, the five-year program specifies the acquisition of new weapons for all combat forces, including 99 mobile armored vehicles, 55 amphibious vehicles, two Aegis destroyers, five submarines, 17 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, 28 F-35 fighters, and three Global Hawk drones. The fleet of fighter planes is set to expand from 260 to 280 [8].

Japanese sailors

To meet these goals, Tokyo will allocate 24.67 trillion yen (about USD 240 billion) over five years from 2014, i.e. 1.18 trillion yen more than in the previous five-year period [9].

Proactive Pacifism: a Path to a Normal State?

The adoption of these conceptual documents seems to signify a U-turn in Japan’s national security policy conceived by Mr. Abe’s cabinet in December 2012 that aims to build a modern military potential for combat operations both in national territory and far beyond its limits. Given current economic and technological achievements, this policy is intended to draw a line under World War II and transform Japan into a normal state. The notion of normal Japan was pioneered by well-known Japanese politician Ichiro Ozawa and conjures up the image of a state possessing full-fledged armed forces that can be used for any foreign policy purposes. The term has become central to the debate on national security currently raging within Japan.

An analysis of this strategy shows that, despite its pacifist rhetoric, Tokyo is clearly dropping the traditional interpretation of pacifism as rejection of the state’s right to wage war. As Asahi Shimbun reported: “Even though the administration is calling for "pacifism," this is only for show. The reality is that this national security strategy spells a major turning point in Japan's national security policy” [10].

The underlying paradox seems to be rooted in the fact that proactive pacifism will inevitably lead Japan to shed the antiwar Article 9 of its Constitution and see the creation of a normal state that relies on the military component for national security purposes. According to Japanese journalist Soichiro Tahara, the government is in fact reviving the principle of fukoku kyōhei – the slogan of the Meiji Revolution – which means prosperous country, strong army, with the stress notably on its second part [11].

Tokyo’s reliance on predominantly military means in the national security area as set out in this new strategy will inevitably raise concerns in neighboring states and beyond, not merely in countries that remember Japan’s militarist past. China and even South Korea are likely to perceive this new policy as a sign of revanchist ambitions, which is certainly fraught with the risk of a further escalation of the ongoing arms race in the region, deteriorating relations between the countries, and a destabilized international environment.

The United States will have a key role to play in limiting Japan’s movement in this direction: to date, the U.S. has supported Japan’s efforts to institutionalize and conceptualize its national security policy. In early October 2013, the U.S. used the platform of the Japan-U.S. Security Consultative Committee to endorse Tokyo’s decision to set up the National Security Council, the new strategy providing for Japan’s more pro-active contribution to regional and global security, a larger defense budget, revision of military production plans, and intentions to legitimize the right to collective self defense .

The Joint Statement of the Security Consultative Committee stipulates amending the Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation before the end of 2014. Adopted in 1997, the Guidelines’ current version outlines Japan’s special role in logistics support for U.S. troops and other forms of interaction in the “regions surrounding Japan.” According to the statement, the update should specify “seamless bilateral cooperation in all situations”, i.e. beyond areas surrounding Japan, and “appropriate role-sharing of bilateral defense cooperation based on the enhancement of mutual capabilities.”

1. Tochibayashi Norimasa. Japan's Contributions to International Peace: @PKO Now! //

2. Abe’s National Security Strategy Undermines Japan’s Postwar Pacifism (editorial). Asahi Shimbun.12/18/2013.

3. Streltsov D.V. New Trends in Japanese-U.S. Military and Political Relations // MGIMO-University Bulletin. 2012. №6. – Pp. 54-60.

4. Editorial: Criteria needed as Japan ready to lift ban on weapons' exports. Mainichi Shimbun. 12/16/2013 (

5. Editorial: Questions remain about decision to supply ammunition to S. Korean forces. Mainichi Shimbun. 12/25/2013. (

6. Editorial: New defense policy highlights need for Japan to beef up diplomatic power. Mainichi Shimbun. 12/18/13.

7. Ibid.

8. Asahi Shimbun. 12/18/2013.

9. Mainichi Shimbun. 12/18.2013.

10. EDITORIAL: Abe's national security strategy undermines Japan's postwar pacifism. Asahi Shimbun. 12/18/2013.

10. Tahara Soichiro. The 2014 Focus on U.S. Military bases on Okinawa and the Right for Collective Self-Defense // Nikkei BP net. 26.12.2013.

11. Sahashi Ryo. Japan-US Security Consultative Committee at Tokyo. From 'Quiet Transformation' to 'Noteworthy Institutionalization' of the Alliance. AJISS Commentary. No.189. 21.11.2013 Date of access: 8.01.2014.

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