An International Debate: Allowing Japan to Develop an Offensive Military

After their defeat in WWII, Japan consciously decided to shift from a militarized society towards a non-aggressive society. The government installed the Japanese Self-Defense Force, which continues to safeguard Japan today. December 7, 2016 marks the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As this date approaches, many question whether Japan should have its own military. Proponents say that time has healed the wounds of the past, and that Japan’s days of imperialism are long gone. Japan is now considered one of America’s strongest allies in the east. Opponents of the plan say that an increase in Japan’s militarization would provoke China and Korea. Read Jen and Aary’s arguments to #getinformed.

Melia Wong

Featured Image Source: “Eagle revolved rapidly on the right after the takeoff.” by ARTS_fox1fire — Own Work. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr Creative Commons —

Click here to reference our source catalog

After World War II, Japan was vanquished as one of the world domineering powers and forced to constitutionally transition its military capabilities toward self-defense. The United States — which had occupied Japan from 1945 to 1952 — wanted to completely banish the militarism that had led to the war. As a result of compromise, Japan was given a Self-Defense Force in 1954 under Article 9 and since then Japan has been placed in military probation without the power to declare war on any other country. For over seventy years, Japan has thus far remained peaceful and has not engaged in any wars; however, times are changing and the whole complexion of global power politics has brought new concerns.

Recently, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has worked to amend the structure of the Japanese military to accommodate for these new arising complexities by amending the legal and institutional framework of the Japanese military security. While pacifistic governance and long-term relations with the United States have prolonged discussion on the creation of a Japanese military, we should not consider Japan an anti-military nation.

On the surface, the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) appears like any other similarly-sized country’s military force. Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution states that Japan has no official offensive military with the compensation standing as the JSDF. Yet, many argue that the JSDF’s capabilities are genuinely masqueraded by constitutional jargon. In 2015, the United States sold five billion dollars worth of military technology to Japan to strengthen its military arsenal including missiles, jets and rifles — a figure worthy of debate whether it crosses the boundaries between self-defense and a full offensive force. On the contrary, the Constitution does not outline a “ground attack doctrine” which allows for the training and deliberated techniques for an offensive force. Many of their vessels seemingly carry capable aircrafts however, most of these vehicles that cannot land or takeoff directly.

Indeed, U.S. apprehension towards Japanese militarism was an immediate concern post-World War II –– needless to say, eventually over time, Germany was able to gain the rights to its own military and can be recognized as a belligerent state while Japan cannot.

Bringing it back to modern concerns, the status quo of China’s growing presence in East Asia has been changing the U.S.-Japan dynamic in ways unforeseen. The Senkaku Islands Dispute has exacerbated global relations. In 2012, Chinese nationalist sentiment grew to an extent where anti-Japanese demonstrations wrought economic havoc. Since these protests, there has been a growing number in Chinese vessels that have entered the boundaries and has been paralleled by an increasing number from 200 Japan Air Self-Defense Force in 2006 against foreign aircraft to nearly 1000 in 2015. Shinzo Abe stated in response, “The Senkaku Islands are inherently Japanese territory. I want to show my strong determination to prevent this from changing.” Clearly with such a large territorial and economic threat posed by China, Japan will need a supplementary alternative to the current defense arsenal in the plausible case that China may aggressively attack.

Furthermore, the geographic nearness to North Korea has even become of greater concern. A recent 2016 report notes that Pyongyang may have achieved an atomic weapons warheads capability and missiles with the range of 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles), a distance ten times that of the distance to Japan. "North Korea's military activity has increased tensions on the Korean peninsula, and become a grave and imminent threat not only to Japan but also to the security in the region and the international society."

With global power politics changing, even the United States has become a concern for Japan’s future due to weakening commitment by the U.S. to provide for Japan. “The political reality in the United States is that there is widespread public unease over the direction of American foreign policy caused by failed policies and unsuccessful wars in the Middle East,” says Gerald L. Curtis, a political science professor emeritus at Columbia University, “the popularity of the view that free trade agreements may be good for business but are bad for the American working man, and by an isolationist impulse, tapped by Donald Trump, that if we can’t control the world’s affairs we should demand more of others to help us do so or leave them to fend for themselves.”

It is important that we take into consideration the gravely and dramatically changing times which require a new set of accommodations to keep all nations safe from rising threats. Japan should maintain a stable alliance with the United States but with the ability to have autonomy from the bearings of Article 9. History from seventy years ago may still be imprinted in the hearts of many, but the reality is that Japan needs more military backing and must have its own military.

Jen Hanki

While Ms. Hanki makes a seemingly strong case for Japan having a military again, arguments for the remilitarization of Japan lack any semblance of reason and logic. Japan would be most secure if it maintains a sizeable JSDF and remains under the United States’s “Eastern Nuclear Umbrella” [1].

Following this policy would allow Japan to deter any aggressive action from both China and North Korea. Japan does not need to formally militarize itself to defend against Chinese aggression in the Senkaku Islands, as they are inherently Japanese territory and thus can be defended by the JSDF. Indeed, a formal militarization is more likely to cause tensions in the region to rise as Beijing would feel compelled to matched Tokyo in a game of brinkmanship, possibly leading to another mutually harmful mini-trade war like the one in 2012 [2].

Any rise in tensions between East Asian nations must also factor in for North Korea and the innate irrationality and paranoia of its leadership. Given Pyongyang’s history of perceiving any Japanese move as an existential threat, the idea of an offensive Japanese military may even push a frenzied Kim Jong Un to resort to using a nuclear device in a pre-emptive strike.

Furthermore, Ms. Hanki pointed out that Donald Trump demanded payments from Japan and other nations hosting U.S. bases for proving security. While this may be true, given Mr. Trump’s penchant for making policy decisions on the fly and his incessant obsession with countering China's regional dominance, it is a fair assumption that Mr Trump would find common ground with Shinzo Abe. Moreover, Hillary Clinton has vowed to maintain Japan’s special relationship with the U.S. and would support it militarily.

Therefore, though the arguments favoring Japanese militarization may seem watertight at first glance, they are universally based off flimsy evidence and inept analysis.

Aary Sheoran

Japan, the only major world power without an offensive army, took a unique stance in 1954: It formed its post-war armed forces as a “Japan Self-Defense Force” (JSDF). Over the last decade, Japan has often flirted with the idea of turning the JSDF into a more conventional force. However, the argument against turning the JSDF into a military that can take aggressive action rests in three grounds- international politics, local mood, and economics.Most importantly, the JSDF is a modern, large, and well-equipped armed force. Ranked by expenditure on its armed forces, Japan ranks eighth in the world [3]. The JSDF has a sizable navy, air force, and ground force, which function the same way any other armed forces do, save for their legal offensive ability. This means that the JSDF can protect Japanese and allied territory from any aggression; it cannot launch an offensive war.Japan’s defense, however, depends not on the JSDF, but on its of Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with the United States of 1960. This treaty obligates the United States to “maintain peace in East Asia and protect Japanese sovereignty” [4]. The American forces that remain in Japan and under the United States Pacific Command continue to be a strong deterrent aggression in the region. Fifty thousand American troops remain in Japanese territory, mainly on the outlying island of Okinawa. Any wanton rearmament of Japan would oust these troops as part of a nationalization of the armed forces, thereby creating a situation where the nation would be less secure from aggression.Moreover, Japan’s neighbors — China, South Korea, and North Korea — might see any increase in Japanese military might as a provocative move. These nations have tense relations with Japan, and a Japanese military would be seen as an existential threat by all three nations. South Korea, by virtue of being a close American ally may be a little less distrustful, but it is hard to see anything short of a panic in both Beijing and Pyongyang. China has been involved with serious territorial disputes with Japan over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands, which has on more than one occasion caused war threats [5]. In this tense situation, the formation of an offensive Japanese army can provoke massive retaliation by hawks in Beijing and be used as casus belli (an act justifying a declaration of war). North Korea, an even more unpredictable nation, may even react to such news with a nuclear response, given its state of perpetual hyper-paranoia. Moving away from specifically East Asia, the transformation of the JSDF may even aggravate Russia, which could see an offensively powerful Japan and Turkey at its borders reminiscent of the U.S.’s cold war policy of encirclement and containment. This in turn could potentially dampen Russia’s support for a permanent seat for Japan at the United Nations Security Council.

Coming back to mainland Japan, most of the local population is against the idea of Japan having a traditional military, with some polls suggesting that more than two-thirds of Japanese citizens were against military rearmament [6]. A protest against military legislation in July 2015 attracted over a hundred thousand people to the Japanese diet [7]. Many think the idea of a Japanese military is unconstitutional under Article 9, and any change to the constitution would require a national referendum, which is likely to fail in the short term. This creates doubt over the legality of a Japanese military, aside from its imprudence.

Adding to the public mood against the seemingly bellicose government is poor economic performance. The Japanese economy, despite the best efforts of President Shinzo Abe, is hardly better than it was two decades ago. Japan is facing deflation yet again [8], and the central bank’s desperation to avoid economic disaster by re-inflating the economy has forced it to reduce its interest rates below zero [9]. Negative interest rates are a dangerous policy, and this is at most a short term stopgap, indicating a failure of monetary policy as a whole. This failure of monetary policy has left one alternative: fiscal policy. Keynesian economics says that the Japanese government must undertake a large scale fiscal stimulus project in order to reflate the economy and add to the Gross National Product. In most scenarios, spending heavily on the military would be the perfect solution. However, transforming the JSDF into an offensive army would require it to import equipment made outside of the nation simply because no domestic supplier has had any research on offensive weapons since 1945. Importing military equipment would cause a massive drain on GDP, and would thereby exacerbate the poor economic performance. Japan has far better ways to inject a fiscal stimulus in the economy, with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics being the prime example of a better investment.

This well founded domestic opposition to Abe’s remilitarization of Japan could potentially also hurt the popularity of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in power for all but four of its sixty year-long existence [10]. The LDP has effectively transformed Japan into all but a one party state, and therefore forced all political opposition to the extreme right and left wings [11: Metraux 386] [12] [13]. Consequently, any unpopular measure that could allow the seemingly extremist opposition parties to gain a larger proportion of the vote, or a majority, should be considered with great caution.

Therefore, the transformation of the JSDF into a potentially offensive military force would not only hurt Japan’s international standing, worsen tense relations in East Asia, and potentially reduce Japanese security, but also hurt the national economy. This surely means that any remilitarization of Japan should be discouraged strongly, if not completely buried in the field of speculative history.

Aary Sheoran

In 2013, a Senate Armed Services Committee report states that the U.S. military presence abroad is at more than $10 billion a year and that nearly 70 percent is spent on the militaries of Germany, Republic of Korea, and Japan. Mr. Sheoran states that, “Japan’s defense, however, depends not on the JSDF, but on its of Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with the United States of 1960. This treaty obligates the United States to ‘maintain peace in East Asia and protect Japanese sovereignty.’” As President Obama once stated that “[t]he U.S.-Japan alliance is, and will continue to be, a cornerstone of our engagement in the Asia Pacific region.”

While the U.S.-Japan alliance should continue to be the “cornerstone” of engagement, the unfortunate reality is that the relationship between the United States and Japan will only wean off as time progresses. The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan was established in 1952 and was made official during the era of the Cold War. At the time, the U.S. used the Cold War as an opportunity to gain Japan as an ally for mutual economic, technological, and military benefits. However, geopolitics has changed incredibly since then and it is time to rethink the security agreement from over sixty years ago.

President-elect Donald Trump had even noted in the past that if he were to be elected as president, he will deeply consider withdrawing troops from Japan or pose the option of drastically increasing financial contributions to maintain the U.S.-Japan security agreement. On the other hand, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had noted that she will continue to maintain the stable relationship with Japan; however, Japanese analysts note that Clinton’s spending from the projected 2017 plan could be exploited by China to support military action in the South China Sea, which could also ultimately lead to the critical loss of Japanese shipping rights. It is clear that while Obama’s original intentions are appealing, the drastic political change within the next few months could inevitably lead to an militarily independent Japan.

Jen Hanki


[7] Ibid.
[11] Metraux, Daniel A. (1996), "The Soka Gakkai: Buddhism and the Creation of a Harmonious and Peaceful Society", Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia, State University of New York Press, p. 386

Send a Comment

Your email address will not be published.