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Kazushige Kobayashi

Postdoctoral Researcher, Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding of the Geneva Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, RIAC Visiting Research Fellow

Today, the Asia-Pacific region once again faces the Japanese question: is Japan a peace-broker or peace-breaker? What is the future for Japanese military power? So far, there are two main views on its military reforms. On the one hand, Abe’s aspiration is seen as a manifestation of a resurgent Japanese nationalism that used to drive the imperial project. On the other hand, these reforms are presented as a necessary consequence of the changing regional balance of power – crucially, the rise of China. However, both assume that Japanese military power is an independent force controlled by a single commander.

The Future of Japanese Military Power

Today, the Asia-Pacific region once again faces the Japanese question: is Japan a peace-broker or peace-breaker? What is the future for Japanese military power? So far, there are two main views on its military reforms. On the one hand, Abe’s aspiration is seen as a manifestation of a resurgent Japanese nationalism that used to drive the imperial project. On the other hand, these reforms are presented as a necessary consequence of the changing regional balance of power – crucially, the rise of China. However, both assume that Japanese military power is an independent force controlled by a single commander.

On January 14, 2015, the Japanese government approved its largest-ever defense budget of 4.98 trillion JPY (approximately $41.97 billion) [1]. Since his return to power in December 2012, Prime Minister Abe has forcefully accelerated his efforts to reform Japan’s defense doctrine and the military organization of the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF). So far, the major reform initiatives include: (1) the revision of the National Security Strategy in December 2013 (for the first time since 1957); the creation of the National Security Council (NSC) and the NSC Secretariat in 2013; (3) the revision of the National Referendum Act (aiming to amend the Constitution) in 2014; (4) the revision of the Three Principles on Arms Exports to the Three Principles on Defense Equipment Transfer in 2014; (5) the adoption of the Cabinet Decision on the right of collective defense in 2014, and (6) the creation of a new Defense Procurement Agency planned for October 2015, among others [2].

However, as Abe’s military reform progresses, Asian-Pacific neighbors are increasingly on the alert. UK newspaper The Telegraph reports that Prime Minister Abe “has been accused of being dangerously nationalistic and historically revisionist, seeking to return Japan into a belligerent and aggressive regional power once again by shrugging off the shackles of pacifism.” [3] The suspicion is also present on the other side of the Pacific. In 2014, the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations launched a new research project entitled “Northeast Asian Nationalisms and Alliance Management” [4] to closely monitor Abe’s unfolding nationalism. On January 17, 2015, the U.S. Congressional Research Service also noted that Prime Minister Abe is widely known to be a “nationalist” whose ambition may compromise U.S. interests in the region [5].

External Control: The American Alliance

Dmitry Streltsov:
Japan: A New National Security Policy

Half a century ago, there was an Asian nation with a rapidly rising, historically unprecedented level of anti-Americanism. The nation was distinguished by a large American military presence, facilitated by a new bilateral security treaty signed with Washington. During 1959-1960, popular resistance to this grew. On June 18, 1960, a formidable number of demonstrators stormed the country’s Congress. The organizer – a union movement of workers, civil activists, and student movements – said 330,000 people participated (a comparable size to Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolutionary riots) [6]. The demonstrators forcefully demanded the security treaty with America be abandoned, but the government, with strong backing from Washington, dispersed the protesters, labelling them “street communists.” While this might seem like something that happened in Vietnam or the Philippines, it is, in fact, the story of Japan. And this is where the history of post-war Japanese-American alliance begins.

The prime purpose of the Japanese-American security treaty, signed in 1951, was neither to protect Japan from the communist threat nor to facilitate military cooperation between the two nations. As with post-war Germany, the alliance was put in place primarily to prevent the re-emergence of Japanese military power, aiming to stabilize an Asia-Pacific region that had been devastated by Japan’s imperialism. The alliance was intended to inhibit Japan’s aspirations for an independent military force and to keep Japan strictly within the American sphere of influence by maximizing Japanese dependence on American military infrastructure. This is why successive American administrations have consistently insisted on limiting the JSDF’s capacity for the last seven decades.

In the history of post-war Japanese military reform, the first obstacle to any change of policy has come from American policymakers. In this regard, a profound transformation has taken place since Abe’s 2012 return. As President Obama announced the downsizing of the U.S. military, Abe strategically marketed his military reform as a pro-American effort to increase burden-sharing by the Japanese side. The alliance was once a device that tied a weaker Japan to a stronger America. Since 2012, Abe has brought to it a true political innovation which has reversed this logic: a stronger Japan helping a stronger America. In his effort to upgrade the JSDF to a full-fledged military, Abe has repeatedly emphasized that a more powerful JSDF would be in the interests of American military strategy in the region and beyond.

Abe’s nationalism is also unique and innovative in the sense that it has a pro-American twist. Since the end of the World War II, Japanese nationalists have generally portrayed America as an evil empire which dethroned Japanese emperor by force and committed acts of atomic genocides in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most nationalism movements involve an ideology of rejecting foreign ideas. Likewise, a typical Japanese nationalist discourse reads as “Japan is great and America is evil.” By contrast, Abe’s message has been “Japan is great, so is America.” This is the uniqueness of Abe’s approach, since he knows that any attempt at anti-American reform would be vetoed by Washington, which keeps a strong grip on Japanese security policy.

Takashi Osato for TIME

Yet Abe’s commitment to increased burden sharing and pro-American nationalism is increasingly at odds with his domestic audience. The NHK conducted a comprehensive survey on the alliance relations in 2011 [7], revealing that around 45% of the surveyed population preferred to maintain the current size of the U.S. military contingent in Japan, while 39% believed that it should be reduced further [8]. Indeed, since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Japanese population is increasingly worried that Japan would be dragged into American wars across the globe. True, an American presence in Japan might deter Chinese military emergence in the region; however, people in Japan (especially the elderly generations who lived through the Cold War) know that the Japanese-American security alliance is of no use when it comes to China. This became evident in 1972, when President Richard Nixon made a surprise appearance in China to make a sudden appeasement without consulting Japanese policymakers at the time.

In 2014, local anti-Americanism has also revealed a dramatic surge in Okinawa, the largest U.S. military host site in Japan. Even though Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a general victory in the last election in December 2014, it lost all seats in Okinawa and anti-American, pacifist candidates came to the fore. Even the Communist Party of Japan gained a seat for the first time since 1996, taking advantage of growing anti-Americanism in the region. Likewise, the pro-American Okinawa governor was ousted in the regional election last year, resulting in the rise of new governor Takeshi Onaga, who has forcefully called for the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to be relocated out of the region or even abroad. In the meantime, mass-uprisings around U.S. military bases in the region have intensified, with the American response to protesters becoming increasingly reactionary. On February 24, 2014, the U.S. military arrested the Chairman of the Okinawa Peace Movement Center on charges of protesting in front of the Camp Schwab U.S. military base [9]. On February 16, 2015, Robert Eldridge, deputy assistant chief of staff of government and external affairs for the U.S. Marine Corps, argued in a TV show that those who protest against the American presence in the region are guilty of “hate speech.” [10] In Okinawans’ eyes, America’s promotion of democracy across the world is the most cynical political campaign, since they daily witness that democracy and the voice of the people are of secondary value when American military interests are at stake. Hence, Abe’s plan for enhanced military burden-sharing faces the most dynamic local resistance since the 1960s, introducing a great deal of uncertainty into the reform equation.

Internal Control: Pacifist Article 9

REUTERS / Toru Hana / Pixstream
Konstantin Sarkisov:
Japan-US-China Triangle and Security in East
Asia: a Triangle or an Axis?

As the Japanese-American alliance is losing its original purpose of restraining Japan’s military ambition, Article 9 [11] in the Japanese Constitution is considered to be the last and ultimate restraint on the re-emergence of Japanese military power. The article is firmly protected against arbitrary change. In order to revise it, an amendment draft submitted by the government needs to gain majority support (more than 50% of all valid votes) in a national referendum, after being approved by the Upper and Lower Houses. As a result, the article is often cited as a fool-proof mechanism for restraining Japanese military ambitions.

In my view, the article no longer retains the power to hinder the re-emergence of Japanese military power. Prime Minister Abe has already found multiple ways to circumvent the constitutional restraint. Written under the American occupation after the World War II, the article’s legitimacy has been long disputed by policymakers and scholars alike. In a nutshell, Article 9 is most commonly understood to impose three constitutional constraints on Japanese military power: (1) the denial of the right to engage in a war; (2) the denial of the right to maintain national military force; (3) the denial of the right to engage in an act of collective defense. Altogether, the article prohibits Japanese national leaders to use force under any circumstances. This was the initial interpretation when it first came into effect on May 3, 1947, in what was considered an integral part of America’s master plan to demilitarize Japan forever. Yet “forever” only lasted for three years: when the Korean War broke out, the American occupation force “ordered” [12] the Japanese government to create a self-defense force to complement the American military strategy in the region. As early as the 1950s, therefore, the first and second elements of the Article 9 (no war, no military force) lost their original meanings. As such, the article’s interpretation has changed dramatically over time for the sake of political convenience.

When Prime Minister Abe returned to power, he swiftly managed to get rid of the last element of the article by a controversial cabinet decision permitting the right to collective defense. Here, his argument was that the democratic mandate given to his administration (by recent elections) is far more important than the anachronistic article written under American occupation. Indeed, Abe has learned that there are multiple ways of boosting Japanese military power without amending the Constitution or restructuring the JSDF. For instance, his newest initiative was revealed on February 23, 2015 that the Defense Ministry Act Article 12, which defines the superiority of civilian officials over military commanders, will be revised [13]. The structure of strong civilian control has been in place since the end of World War II, as it was in part caused by Japanese imperial forces’ extensive influence. However, the revised Defense Ministry Act will declare the equality of civilian officials and military commanders. This is a legally minor yet political profound transformation. Since the end of the war, the political influence of military officials in Japan has remained minimal; even in defense planning and the security debate, Japanese military commanders have primarily been viewed as advisors needed for information and strategic input. Now, Prime Minister Abe intends to involve these commanders in the discussion on military reform in order to fuel its momentum. What is most alarming in this recent transformation is the ignorance pervasive among the domestic electorate. At the moment, the Japanese general public is more interested in the economic recovery than safeguarding the future of its military power. As long as Prime Minister Abe forcefully advances his Abenomics revitalization plan (which has so far demonstrated a positive effect), the direction of these dramatic military reforms will remain a secondary concern for most of his citizens.

Who Controls the Future?

In conclusion, Prime Minister Abe has already has found multiple ways to escape from the structural restraints posed on Japanese military power. This has several important implications. First, once the Japanese military becomes fully independent, there will be no guarantee that Japan will remain loyal to American interests. Facing a series of structural economic issues and endless wars in Middle East, American policymakers welcome Abe’s efforts to accelerate further burden-sharing. But Washington is not fully cognizant of the fact that Abe will not remain in power forever; and as a result of his reforms, there is no longer any assurance that his successors will adhere to the pacifism that has defined post-war Japanese foreign security policy to date. In 2008, the openly anti-American Democratic Party of Japan (ousted after blasting Fukushima) took power, announcing the relocation of a number of U.S. military bases away from Okinawa. Imagine in 2025, when Abe has gone, the alliance restraint is weakened, Article 9 is dead, and Japanese forces are increasingly powerful, who will control the future of Japanese military power?

As a pacific nation, Russia will not remain unaffected by the transformation of Japanese military power. It is commonly believed that American influence on Japan is a critical impediment to closer Russian-Japanese relations. For instance, at the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis Prime Minister Abe showed slight signs of independent foreign policy, but he quickly reverted to the normal pro-American course afterwards [14]. Although the Japanese-American security alliance deprives Japan of having an independent foreign policy, a truly independent Japan without the alliance would not be entirely in Russia’s interests either. The unrestrained re-emergence of Japanese military power, whatever future it envisions, will certainly destabilize regional politics in the Asia-Pacific. I would like to stress that there are multiple ways of dramatically strengthening Japanese military forces’ power without invoking any major perestroika. The future of Japanese military power, therefore, rests on the effectiveness of its restraints rather than the strength of its forces.

1. BBC. (2015). Japan approves record 4.98 trillion yen defence budget. 14 January 2015.

2. For a more detailed analysis of Abe’s recent military reform, see also Streltsov, Dmitry. (2014). Japan: New National Security Policy. RIAC Analysis. February 5, 2014.

3. The Telegraph. (2015). Japan approves largest-ever defence budget as Hiroshima mayor calls for peace. 14 January 2015.

4. CFR. (2015). Northeast Asian Nationalisms and Alliance Management: CFR Project Page.

5. Asahi Shinbun. (2015). 安倍首相は「歴史修正主義的」 米議会が報告書で懸念 (The U.S. Congress concerns that Prime Minister Abe is historical revisionist). 17 January 2015.

6. JP Press. (2010). 日本で燎原の火のように広がった反政府、反米運動 (The anti-government, anti-American movement flared in Japan). 14 June 2010. See also Mainichi Shimbun. (2010). 新装版 60年安保闘争の時代 (The Era of the Security Treaty Struggle. Tokyo: Mainichi Shimbun.; Japan Business Press. (2010). 安保闘争から50年、あの時若者は燃えていた (50 years since the Security Treaty Struggle, the moment of enthusiasm for the youth at the time). 14 June 2010.

7. NHK. (2011). 日米安保のいま(The Current State of the Alliance). March 2011. Accessible at While approximately 70% of the sampled population answered that the alliance has contributed to Japanese security, more than 70% of the same population simultaneously reported that (i) the U.S. posed a large financial burden on Japan, (ii) Japan has been used as a part of America’s international strategy, and (iii) the alliance prevented Japan from making an independent diplomacy.

8. Ibid.

9. Ryukyushinpo. (2015). 平和センター議長ら逮捕 (The Chairman of the Okinawa Peace Movement Center arrested). February 23, 2015.

10. Japan Times. (2015). In appearance on far-right TV, U.S. official calls Okinawa base protests ‘hate speech.’ February 16, 2015.

11. The article reads: “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.” The Office of the Prime Minister of Japan. (2015). The Constitution of Japan. Official English Translation. Accessible at

12. By the agreement of the peace treaty, the GHQ in Japan at the time was endowed a right to (literally) command the legislation and execution of its order.

13. Jiji Tsushin. (2015). 背広組優位の規定廃止=防衛省設置法改正へ (The superiority of civilian officials abandoned). February 23, 2015.

14. Kobayashi, Kazushige. (2014). “The Weakest Link in the Western Sanction Chain. Russian-Japanese Solidarity during the Ukrainian Crisis.” RIAC Analysis, August 6, 2014, Russian International Affairs Council: Moscow, Russia. See also a response article by the former Russian Ambassador to Japan Dr. Alexander Panov: Panov, Alexander. (2014). “Japan Fosters Solidarity with the United States and Europe against Russia.” RIAC Analysis, September 8, 2014, Russian International Affairs Council: Moscow, Russia.

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