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How Putin’s Spooking Japan Further Away From Pacifism

A Japan Ground Self-Defense Force battle tank fires ammunition during a live fire exercise on May 28. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/AFP/Getty Images
A Japan Ground Self-Defense Force battle tank fires ammunition during a live fire exercise on May 28. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/AFP/Getty Images (Photographer: TOMOHIRO OHSUMI/AFP)

Bombed-out and poverty-stricken after World War II, Japan disbanded its military and renounced war, devoting its efforts instead to economic development under a pacifist constitution. More than seven decades later, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has spooked Prime Minister Fumio Kishida into pledging a substantial increase in defense spending, which has long been only about half the target set for its Western counterparts. 

1. Does Japan have a military?

Yes and no. While the country spends more than 5 trillion yen ($37.6 billion) a year on defense, the ninth-largest budget in the world in actual size, it refers to its 138,000-strong military as the Self-Defense Forces. Those forces, founded in the 1950s, boast impressive equipment including light aircraft carriers, fighter jets and ballistic-missile defense systems. But there are strict rules about what the SDF is allowed to do, and its right even to exist under the US-drafted pacifist constitution has been called into question by scholars. One of the founding principles of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party was to revise that document, which it still hasn’t done seven decades later. The party has laid out proposals to add a reference to the SDF.

2. How does Japan defend itself?

Japan and the US became formal allies after World War II, meaning Japan has been sheltered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella amid growing threats from neighboring China and North Korea, and now renewed tensions with Russia. Tens of thousands of US troops are also based in Japan and subsidized by the Japanese taxpayer. 

3. So what does the SDF do? 

The role of the SDF was initially limited to fending off any invasion. Japan began making changes after it was accused of “checkbook diplomacy” during the 1990-91 Gulf War for contributing $13 billion to the U.S.-led effort but no troops. It subsequently took part in UN peacekeeping operations as well as sending non-combat troops to the second war in Iraq on a reconstruction mission. The past few years have seen closer military cooperation with a range of partners, including Australia and the UK. Each step toward becoming a “normal country” has been met with unease, both in and outside Japan, as there have been waves of confession and denial in the country over its past aggression in Asia. But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions this year seem to have changed domestic views. Kishida’s decision to break with tradition by sending military equipment, albeit nonlethal, to Ukraine met little resistance. 

4. What’s the proposal?

Although Japan isn’t a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the ruling LDP has called for meeting the alliance’s target for defense spending, which is 2% of gross domestic product. That would mean doubling the military budget, which would probably make Japan the third-largest military spender in the world after the US and China. The cabinet has approved an economic plan to bolster defenses over a five-year period without specifying figures. (NATO member Germany, Japan’s World War II ally that nurtured a pacifist streak afterward, also made a radical policy shift after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, deciding to drastically raise its defense spending.)

5. Can Japan afford it?

As the world’s most heavily indebted nation, Japan may struggle to pull together the resources amid the ballooning cost of supporting its elderly population. While public opinion is broadly behind some increase in outlay, polls show voters don’t necessarily want a large rise. It’s also unclear how the money would be used. The LDP advocates obtaining long-range, counter-strike capability, but former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera has also called for an improvement in pay and conditions for SDF members, as the government struggles to find enough recruits. The debate comes as Japan revises the documents that define its security and defense strategy.

6. What will the neighbors say?

China, which has seen its own defense budget soar, would be critical of any plan to beef up Japan’s military. Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi’s hints last year that the existing 1% spending cap could be abandoned drew condemnation from Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, who said Japan should reflect on the fact that it had “inflicted untold sufferings on the people in Asia” and accused Tokyo of advocating an arms race. South Korea, which also frequently clashes with Japan over its history of colonialism, is in a more complex position as a fellow-ally of the US. South Korea’s new, conservative president has expressed hopes of reconciling with Japan. While Japan has apologized for past misdeeds, Japanese officials have triggered diplomatic flare-ups over the years by downplaying, defending or challenging the evidence of wartime abuses such as the 1937-1938 Rape of Nanking and visiting Yasukuni Shrine, which honors military leaders convicted as war criminals after WWII.

7. Will Japan ever change its constitution?

Kishida’s former boss Shinzo Abe reinterpreted the constitution to allow Japan to defend other countries and hoped to enshrine the legitimacy of the SDF in an amendment to the pacifist Article 9. The hurdles to that remain high, and Kishida, a dovish Hiroshima native who campaigns for the abolition of nuclear weapons, hasn’t treated constitutional change as a priority. A survey by public broadcaster NHK this year showed 35% were in favor of revision and 19% against, with 42% undecided. 

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