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Japan’s Double-Edged Defense Reforms

By Craig Scanlan

January 13, 2016

In April 2015, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe spoke to a joint session of the U.S. Congress to reaffirm the U.S.-Japan alliance and outline his vision for relations between the two countries. Abe’s statements articulated a need for Japan to expand military capabilities to guard the nation against heightened regional threats and expressed a vision of increased Japanese power that would reinforce both states’ long-standing cooperation and the United States’ rebalance toward Asia. The prime minister assured Congress that Japan would make the defense reforms necessary to become a more proactive partner of the United States, enabling Japan to exercise collective self-defense against mutual threats, creating flexibility for Japan to better employ its defense forces outside its immediate region, and increasing synergy and cooperation between U.S. and Japanese forces.

The U.S. and Japanese Responses to Abe’s Defense Reforms

For policymakers in Washington, Abe’s speech alleviated fears that the rebalance would lack strong partners. The United States still wishes to play a pivotal role in the Asia-Pacific, but fifteen years of war in the Middle East, as well as sweeping defense budget cuts, have inclined Washington to ask its allies to assume larger roles in preserving regional peace and prosperity. Abe’s remarks addressed Washington’s new demands and signaled that Tokyo was ready to join the United States in more actively maintaining regional stability.

However, Abe’s pledge to create a more responsive military force came before his government had passed necessary implementing reforms in the Japanese legislature. Within a culture that favors consensus-based decision-making, the speech revived the old criticism, resonant with many in the Japanese public, that Abe is intent on pursuing an individualistic, personal agenda to remilitarize Japan without properly engaging the people and government.

Abe has since succeeded in pushing military reforms through the National Diet, but his tactics have enraged the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), precipitated physical confrontations on the Diet floor, and sunk public approval to levels not seen since Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone attempted to increase military spending above 1% of GDP in the 1980s—an unofficial public red line for militarization fears that even Abe is unlikely to cross. In addition, Abe’s actions have drawn sharp criticism from Soka Gakkai, the religious group that is represented in the legislature by the Komeito party, and may threaten the long-standing coalition between the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Komeito party that has been crucial to the LDP’s electoral dominance.

Abe’s methods may significantly curtail the government’s ability to live up to the prime minister’s aspirations. While he may have felt that tensions between Japan and its neighbors—specifically China, North Korea, and Russia—had finally moved the Japanese public to accept the possibility of a more proactive military force, the recent public uproar demonstrates that this is not the case. The Japanese people still perceive their nation as a fundamentally peaceful one, and this perception will continue to hamper attempts by the government to allow the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to operate as a regular military. U.S. interests and LDP aspirations will not easily shift public opinion in this regard.

Although broad strokes by Abe to redefine the Japanese constitution have been met with open hostility by the public, less direct moves to enhance Japan’s defensive posture are paying potentially larger dividends and have been met with far less public outcry. The April 2014 loosening of laws regarding the transfer of defense technology between Japan and other states has freed Japan to collaborate directly with—and learn from—international partners. In November 2015, the Ministry of Defense capitalized on these relaxed laws by creating a new agency for procuring defense equipment. Proponents of this new agency hope now-unfettered defense technology collaboration and research can increase Japan’s technical military advantage over neighboring countries that pose a threat to regional stability.

Tokyo appears to also see its new defense export capabilities as a diplomatic tool for strengthening regional security partnerships. Japan has contributed over $1.66 billion to support Vietnam’s budding maritime enforcement capabilities and this past June agreed to start talks with the Philippines on transferring Japanese military hardware and technology. Japan is also pursuing defense cooperation agreements with Indonesia and Malaysia and has reached beyond the immediate region to work closely with Australia in hopes of winning a contract to build Soryu-class submarines for the Australian Navy.

Abe’s reform efforts and the resulting backlash have had a mixed effect on the U.S.-Japan alliance. At the start of 2015, it appeared that the United States could count on Japan as a steadfast ally that shared its vision for the Asia-Pacific, but Abe’s actions have exposed the limits to the Japanese public’s support for that vision. Abe retained enough support within his party to be re-elected as prime minister, but his October cabinet reshuffle signaled an inward turn toward domestic economic concerns and away from defense reforms.

The Outlook for the Next Year

In 2016, despite all of Abe’s attempts to unshackle Japan from its pacifistic constitution, the extent of Japanese military commitments will likely settle back into a familiar equilibrium. The Abe government may continue to vocalize “bigger picture” aspirations, threatening to intercept and shoot down North Korean missiles or join the United States on patrols in the South China Sea, but odds are that—much like in the past—Tokyo will not actually take those gambles. The Japanese public is increasingly wary of actions that prioritize U.S.-Japanese relations over domestic needs, and the opposition DPJ will be quick to exploit any opportunities that weaken the LDP.

As Abe’s larger defense reforms take the backseat, his less publicized defense and security achievements will continue to move forward via the Ministry of Defense and the private sector. Major indicators of Japan’s defense evolution in 2016 will be to what extent the country can move beyond junior partner status in arms relationships with the United States and the United Kingdom to play a more direct collaborative role and whether it can successfully broker new cooperative deals with other potential partners. Another major gauge of success over the coming year will be whether Japan can lock down a submarine deal with Australia and cultivate new partnerships through defense exports to South China Sea states.

These trends would align with the short-term U.S. goal of having a more proactive partner in the region. Yet this budding practice by the Japanese defense industry of learning through collaboration, favoring and expanding the domestic arms industry, and aiming to surpass allies’ defense technologies could also have the effect of creating tension with allies, partners, and rivals in 2016 and beyond. In the medium term, Japan may emerge as a savvy arms industry competitor that not only directly competes with the United States, Europe, and South Korea but will seek to win partners by arming South China Sea states, potentially raising hostilities with China.


Strategic Asia 2015-16: Foundations of National Power in the Asia-Pacific examines how the region's major powers are building their national power as geopolitical competition intensifies. In each chapter, a leading expert analyzes a country’s economic, technological, human, and natural resources and assesses how well its political system translates those capabilities into military and diplomatic power. Learn more.

Craig Scanlan is a Project Manager at the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR). The views expressed are those of the author.