To be sure, the article itself is solid and talks to all the right people, including Professor Richard Samuels and Associate Professor Michishita Narushige who are both outstanding scholars of Japan’s security strategy. Ultimately, despite appearances below, the article doesn’t bother me all that much.

But it provides a good opportunity to reflect on a few memes that pop up in wider media commentary on Japan’s security doctrine and military development. As with many media commentaries, the problem often resides in the framing rather than the information itself. Any reference to Japan “moving away from pacifism” will be an inherently loaded characterization, and while not all who do refer to it buy into the idea that this is necessarily a bad thing, it will unfortunately reaffirm the knee-jerk narratives around Japanese remilitarization which prey on pre-existing stereotypes regarding Japan.

First, the concept/frame of “moving away from pacifism” is kind of a meaningless distinction to make in the first place. Japan has never been formally “pacifist” and has never been as purely idealistic (or naive, if you take your cue from DC) as many believed. In this sense, the “moving away from pacifism” is a double fiction. Defensive-orientated defense (senshu bouei 専守防衛) and certain antimilitarist norms, established in the public imagination and institutionalized politically much later than 1947, are a better starting point for understanding Japan’s initial “non-offensive” security doctrine. I wonder if it would be so hard for commentators to use language such as “Japan’s security doctrine continues to incrementally evolve in line with regional developments and Japan’s changing international identity after periods of societal debate.” Of course, that would be boring. But appropriate.

Second, the specific claims about Japan’s security evolution, while not incorrect per se, are probably not quite as meaningful as they might seem at first glance, at least as conceptualized within the frame of “weakening pacifism.”

Let’s take them in turn:

1) SDF, legitimacy and public opinion

The article seems to frame the increased legitimacy and warmth felt by Japanese public for the SDF in terms of it being a reasonably recent phenomenon, likely in reaction to Chinese naval expansionism. Certainly the support for the SDF is at a record high, especially in the aftermath of the 2011 triple disaster.

However this is the peak of a long-term trend dating back to the end of the Vietnam War. The legitimacy of the SDF was essentially settled in the mid-1970s when during normalization talks, the PRC, at a time when relations with Japan were going well, accepted the SDF as long as it remained committed to “defensive-orientated defense.” Essentially getting the tacit thumbs up from China alleviated further concerns about the “partial peace” that Japan had signed on to in the Cold War that worried a number of liberals and conservatives alike (as represented by the “coerced” inclusion in the US alliance system and “unequal” security treaty, and exacerbated by Japanese connections to the Vietnam War). With this tacit acceptance of the SDF by the Chinese, even the Japanese Socialist Party in 1975 had to change its stance on the SDF from it being undeniably unconstitutional to it being (vaguely) acceptable until it can be otherwise eliminated after peace was achieved in the Far East. When the USSR started to go somewhat feral in the late 1970s and the early 1980s the Japanese public decided that a “comprehensive peace” with the USSR as it was constituted in the pre-Gorbachev era was not really worth having, and the SDF came to be increasingly seen as an actual defense force and not simply a token supplement to US Far East strategy. There is some evidence that top Chinese officials even encouraged Japan to strengthen elements of its SDF in the early 1980s as a balance against the USSR. In any respect, while the PRC may now worry, arguably somewhat opportunistically, about Japanese “militarism,”1 the cat of SDF legitimacy has been out of the bag for a while. It was further strengthened in the 1990s by Japan’s humanitarian and UNPKO commitments, improved relations with Russia, and its internal (and increasingly external) role in responding to natural disasters. A desire for maritime balancing against China is only the latest factor to strengthen the SDF’s legitimacy. Support for SDF in public life is however not simply a function of support for an increased military footprint broadly, and certainly not just anti-Chinese sentiment.

2) BMD and Collective Self-Defense, namely:

In recent years, the two countries have jointly developed a ship-borne missile system capable of shooting down ballistic missiles. Mr. Abe is calling for a broader interpretation of the postwar constitution, which restricts Japan to acting only in “self-defense,” to include acting in defense of allies. Mr. Abe says this would allow Japanese forces to shoot down a North Korean missile heading toward the United States, something they cannot now legally do.

If Abe and others engineered a constitutional change which allowed for the full embrace of collective self-defense then I would concede the point. If there was a reinterpretation that essentially allowed the Japanese to go and fight with US ships outside of the East Asia region under the pretense of “protection,” I may also concede the point depending on the details. However, it is hard to see anything in the above paragraph that suggests a contradiction with Japanese “pacifism,” at least in terms of how it has been practiced since the mid-1970s in terms of defensive-orientated defense. BMD-circumscribed collective self-defense specifically would be a significant change for Japan’s military doctrine, but mainly in the sense of it being a logical evolution. As a sign of Japan moving away from “pacifism,” then on its own it is unconvincing.

3) JCG and MSDF strengthening:

While the military spending increase passed by Mr. Abe and his governing party is small (0.8 percent compared with China’s double-digit gains in recent years), it is intended to bolster the defense of Japan’s southwestern islands, including the disputed ones, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

We have 11 years of consecutive decreases in the actual real value of the  JSDF budget, and then in a year of the highest tensions since the 1970s between Japan and China, we have an increase. This 0.8 percent increase was only a third of the initially proposed increase of 2.3 percent. Most of this increase has indeed been committed to the MSDF (along with more money for the JCG outside of the budget). But the MSDF has a relatively limited, defensive mandate, mainly committed to managing Japan’s extraordinarily complex maritime security environment. Even here many experts would argue that it is under-resourced to accomplish even its core defensive mandate, let alone broader regional and global roles.

To be sure, for a period of time (but a period of time much shorter than most imagine) the MSDF was restricted to “home islands” focused maritime missions. However the focus on “extra-territorial” missions (ie well beyond Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu) was officially embraced strategically in the early 1980s and tactically from well before that.

Again, the official strategic reconfiguration of the Japanese maritime doctrine and actual resourcing of it, as symbolized by the DPJ’s “dynamic deterrence” concept – important? Yes.

A sign of “moving away from pacifism”? Less convincing.

4) The purchase of the F-35

The new military budget also adds weapons that just a decade or two ago would have seemed overly offensive for Japan’s defensive forces

There has been considerable argument about whether the F-35 was a good purchase by the Japanese government. There has been some angst about whether Japanese contributions to the F-35 manufacturing consortia will lead to undermining of the “spirit” of the arms export restrictions, particularly if the US exports to Israel. These are both reasonable discussions.

However, the F-35 in of itself is not particularly problematic in the context of Japan’s past practices. Japan has after all fielded jet fighters since it regained its independence. So what could be the issue?

One issue could be the “innate” capacity of the F-35 to be refuelled mid-air, which of course means that it could in theory make it to the DPRK and back and carry out an “offensive strike.” However while the F-4EJs were initially delivered by the US to Japan without the in-air refuelling “probe” between 1972 and 1981 when the final F-4 was built by Mitsubishi, they were all retroactively fitted with this capability from that point onwards. F-15Js and the Mitsubishi F-2 were both subsequently delivered with in-air refuelling capability built-in. So we are at 3 decades here at the very least since this change.

Another much feared possibility could be the ability of the F-35B variant to be launched from Japan’s helicopter “carriers” to accomplish supposedly similar objectives.  This may happen in the future if Japan purchases the F-35B which is the STOVL variant, and if it fits its DDHs with the necessary fixtures such as a ski-jump needed to efficiently launch F-35Bs from these so-called carriers. This hasn’t happened yet, and it would be pretty obvious if it did.*

Strike capability? The F-35 has been described by its backers as a “flying weapons system” and not just a simple fighter. “Low observability“, its advanced weaponry and targeting equipment, and its advanced C4ISR capabilities certainly without doubt make it a potential offensive instrument. I would concede that the Japanese are hedging their bets with the F-35 purchase, especially in terms of how access to stealth-technology may assist in the ATD-X indigenous fighter program, as will the Japanese involvement in avionics and engine manufacture. In the past Japan did go out of its way to order F-4EJs without the AN/AJB-7 computer for precision bombing. But again this practice ended some 30 years ago, and Japan has over the last decade been equipping its fighters with JDAMs. The F-35 may be a more complete, advanced and integrated weapons system, but it is hardly novel in terms of giving Japan completely new attack capabilities.

With the exception of stealth of course. But even here, along with precision strike capabilities, stealth is useful in many situations other than circumventing and suppressing enemy air defenses and destroying the infrastructure of other countries. The F-35 is big news for other reasons however, such as its use in reconnaissance roles. This again fits within the context of Japan’s maritime and defensive-defense doctrine, which is a story for another day.

5) “Attack Submarines”

The larger budget will also add another attack submarine to strengthen the Japanese Navy’s ability to hunt the new Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning

This one I am not quite so sure about. Japan has fielded conventionally-powered, non-nuclear missile equipped “attack submarines” for the longest time. This was made official in the 1976 NDPO when 16 was decided to be the magic number. This was adjusted up to 22 submarines after the 2010 NDPG/Mid-Term Defense Plan. Essentially, Japan will have in operation more Soryu or other advanced submarines than they would have under the old build-up plan over a period of time, as the lifespan of existing boats will be extended. These boats are certainly advanced in a whole range of ways, and give Japan’s subsurface fleet greater range.

Could they hunt down the Liaoning? Why, that would be a rather excellent use if the Liaoning and future Chinese “strike carriers” were operating close to Japanese territory. Still, this is not the major focus of Japan’s submarine fleet – other nations’ submarines operating around Japan’s strategic choke points/SLOCs are, on the other hand. Offensive instruments, they are not.2

6) Japanese training with US forces in and outside Japan.

The article does a pretty good job of covering these developments. The SDF operating overseas with the US Marines and other branches of the US military is a genuine and novel change in Japan’s security doctrine and worthy of greater attention, as I have given it on a few occasions at the Shingetsu News Agency.

However, even here it is hard to say that a “movement away from pacifism” is a useful frame of reference. Japan has many islands, is involved in a dispute over islands at the edges of its maritime defensive perimeter, and the DPJ’s 2010 NDPG expressly pointed to “offshore island defense” as an extension of its maritime doctrine. Is it so unnatural for Japan to want to develop this capability?

Of course it would be reasonable to point out the potential slippage between Japan acquiring the ability to conduct amphibious operations for “offshore island defense,” and acquiring it as a means of projecting power into other nations’ territory. However, in terms of the potential for a Japanese “Marine Corps” being set up to engage in combat and project “offensive” amphibious power around the world, we would certainly be getting ahead of ourselves.

While Japan’s 3 Oosumi-class transports could be useful in this regard, they lack the ability to beach on unimproved shores. They have however instead performed very useful roles on multiple occasions in Japan’s UNPKO and disaster relief operations. The US Marines apparently operate ships very similar in many ways to Japan’s Hyuga-class destroyers (technically 護衛艦 or “escorts” in JMSDF speak) which serve useful expeditionary functions in terms of moving hardware and troops around the world for amphibious missions. What is notable however is that Japan declined to equip its helicopter-carrying destroyers with the well deck that the US Marine equivalents have (although two of the newer ships do not have well decks, relying on Ospreys to do the shore transportation work if required – another capability Japan would have to acquire – although the previous Defense Minister Morimoto Satoshi did suggest that Japan acquire the Osprey, although not, ostensibly at least, for this purpose).

While assuming a hedging of bets, or  ”strategic flexibility,”3 is operating in this case (and others), it could well be that Japan’s “carriers” are, after all, actually intended primarily to be Anti-Submarine Warfare platforms with useful humanitarian (and other) functions, and not a surreptitious, devious way of acquiring a “strike carrier” capability or to gain the capability to transport combat troops and expeditionary units around the world.

Japan’s military doctrine is certainly evolving. And Japan’s military hardware has given it significant capabilities it didn’t have at least up until the 1980s. But there is perhaps something in the old saying that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” One could argue that, rather than leading Japan away from a fictional pacifism, the last few years have seen a consolidation of Japanese security policy and doctrine around an expanded maritime-focused defense after a period of political opportunism and misguided strategic experimentation during the Koizumi administration. Perhaps the PRC can be thanked for facilitating this well-needed focus.

The story for me over the next few years if Abe stays in power is whether Abe will overreach to please domestic and international interest groups, or will remain disciplined and focused on Japan’s immediate security needs.

Update: H/T to Asia Policy Point we have a discussion on this very issue. APP’s Mindy Kotler, the Wilson Center’s Shihoko Goto, Stimson’s Yuki Tatsumi, and Professor Thomas Berger were part of the conversation. FWIW I don’t think the issue was really addressed all that well – the framing at the start was unhelpful, and frankly, with four smart and perceptive contributors trying to get a word in the conversation didn’t exactly flow. Having a discussion with each of them individually would, on the other hand, have been quite interesting.

* In a discussion on the NBR Forum mentioning this post there were doubts raised about even whether the Hyuga and Ise themselves could really be configured in a useful way to launch the (still under development) F-35B. Dr Alessio Patalano was good enough to write in and suggested that the currently-in-service Hyuga and Ise would struggle with the F-35B. Rather he suggests the  two new 22DDH being built are more likely to support such an arrangement if desired. It should be noted that development/construction of the new DDHs is not dependent on the success of the F-35B project (which is not guaranteed), thus suggesting that being able to place STOVL craft on the vessels is not the primary focus for the MSDF in wishing to acquire the even bigger counterparts to the Hyuga and Ise.

1 Although arguably part of the deal was that China would also remain a “defensive”-orientated actor, which it essentially reneged upon with its new 1985 naval doctrine and post-Cold War military modernization subsequent to 1992 and the Law Concerning the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone.

2  You’ll need an institutional subscription, but Dr Alessio Patalano provides the definitive word on this insight. It is worthwhile noting that neither Japan’s submarines nor its destroyers are equipped with Tomahawk Cruise Missiles like the US’ Ohio-conventional/Virginia-class attack submarines or the US model for the  Kongo/Atago destroyers (Arleigh Burke Flight II) are.

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Corey Wallace joined Japan Security Watch in 2011. He writes on Japan security-related topics, focusing on issues and stories that may not find their way into the English language media. He also hosts the blog Sigma1 where he writes on Japanese domestic politics and broader issues in international relations. Prior to taking up a PhD Corey was a participant on the JET program (2004-2007) and on returning to New Zealand he worked at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology from 2007-2010 as a policy adviser. Corey lectures two courses at the University of Auckland. One is on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific, which contains a significant focus on East Asia security issues. The other is a course on China's international relations. His primary academic interests before his current Japan focus were science and technology politics/policy, issues of ethnic identity, and Chinese modern history and politics. He carries over his interest in issues of identity and history into his PhD where he is looking at generationally situated concepts of national identity and their impact on foreign policy ideas in Japan.
Corey Wallace has 51 post(s) on Japan Security Watch