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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 (Photographer: TOMOHIRO OHSUMI/AFP)

Bombed-out and poverty-stricken after surrendering in 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’s ruling party into calling for a doubling of defense spending over five year. Increased tension with China over Taiwan has only added to the sense of urgency. 

1. Does Japan have a military?

Yes and no. The country spends more than 5 trillion yen ($36.2 billion) a year on what it refers to as the Self-Defense Forces. The SDF has about 231,000 personnel and impressive equipment including fighter jets and ballistic-missile defense systems. But there are strict rules about what it is allowed to do, and its right even to exist under the constitution drafted after World War II by the victorious US has been questioned by legal scholars. One of the founding principles of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party was to revise that document, which it still hasn’t done despite being in power almost continuously since 1955.

2. How does Japan defend itself?

Japan and the US became formal allies after the war, meaning Japan has been shielded by the US “nuclear umbrella” amid threats from neighboring China and North Korea. Tens of thousands of US troops remain based in Japan and are subsidized by the Japanese taxpayer. In 2022, relations with nearby Russia worsened after Japan joined the US and Europe in imposing sanctions over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Tokyo and Moscow have been at odds for decades over four small islands that lie between their countries. 

3. What does the SDF do? 

Its role 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 but no troops to the U.S.-led effort to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. It subsequently took part in UN peacekeeping operations in Cambodia and sent noncombat troops to Iraq in 2004 on a reconstruction mission. Each step toward normalcy has been met with unease at home and abroad because of Japan’s past aggression. In 2015, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe overcame a summer of protests that sank his popularity to push through legislation allowing Japan to send troops overseas to defend an ally under attack and to take a bigger role in international peacekeeping. But Russia’s actions seem to have changed domestic views. Kishida’s decision to send military equipment, albeit nonlethal, to Ukraine met little resistance. Since then he has repeatedly warned about the threat Taiwan faces from China, saying, “Ukraine today could be East Asia tomorrow.”

4. What is being proposed?

Japan traditionally spends about 1% of its gross domestic product on defense. Although the country isn’t a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the LDP has called for meeting the alliance’s target of 2% of GDP over five years. Doing so would probably move Japan’s military budget up six spots to third-largest in the world, after the US and China, given Japan’s $5 trillion economy. The Yomiuri newspaper reported that the defense ministry was looking at new hardware, including Tomahawk cruise missiles. (Japan’s wartime ally Germany, which also nurtured a pacifist streak afterward despite joining NATO, made a radical shift as well after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 by 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, given the ballooning cost of supporting its aging population. While public opinion is broadly behind some increase in outlay, polls show voters don’t necessarily want a large rise. According to the Kyodo News agency, Japan was considering selling bonds and raising taxes on corporations and tobacco to pay for it. Meanwhile, it’s 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.

6. What will the neighbors say?

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has accused Japan of advocating an arms race and has said the country should reflect on the “untold suffering” it inflicted. (China’s own defense budget has soared in recent years.) While Japan, which started World War II in Asia, has apologized for past misdeeds, some Japanese officials have triggered periodic diplomatic flare-ups by playing down or denying wartime abuses such as the 1937-38 Rape of Nanking or the imperial army’s conscription of Korean women to work in brothels. South Korea, which was colonized by Japan even before the war, is in a more complex position as a fellow US ally now. South Korea’s president, who took office in 2022, has sought reconciliation.

7. Will Japan change its constitution?

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 Hiroshima native who campaigns for the abolition of nuclear weapons, hasn’t treated constitutional change as a priority. A 2022 survey by public broadcaster NHK showed 35% of respondents were in favor of revision and 19% were against, with 42% undecided. 

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