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Reassessing Isolationism: Clarifying Japanese Security Policy

Reassessing Isolationism: Clarifying Japanese Security Policy

Japan is now a global military power and principle actor in an increasingly contentious East Asia. As a perennial top-ten military spender—ninth in the world during 2019—Japan is a far cry from the nominal “Self-Defense Force” granted to them under the 1954 Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement. An ever-expanding array of new military capabilities has prompted the Japanese state and public as well as the international community to reassess the nation’s identity and role in the international community. During this moment of introspection, domestic and foreign confusion accompanies Japan as it attempts to negotiate its shifting role in a militarily competitive world.

The Wilson Center’s Asia Program hosted Professor Narushige Michishita of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo for a discussion aimed at clarifying the implications and uncertainties regarding the recent uptick in Japan’s military activity. Michishita acknowledged existing misconceptions, “Overall, Japan’s security policy is quite reasonable, I think. But it is true that there is a gap between its rhetoric and the reality, and that gap makes it difficult for people to understand Japan’s security policy accurately.”

 Michishita dispelled the notion of a weak Japanese military, “The Japan Self-Defense Force is a full-fledged military force—one of the most capable in the world.” Japan’s recent propagation of state-of-the-art military equipment such as F-35 jet fighters, SM3 ballistic missile defense systems, and air-independent propulsion submarines underscored his assertion.

Simultaneously, the aforementioned upgrades provoked debates about the true extent of the island nation’s force. Categorization matters too. While Japanese law maintains that their armed services are a self-defense force, international law interprets them as military. The confusion is only worsened by idiosyncratic unit naming; even Japanese citizens are often unaware of the extent of their nation’s buildup, “In order to maintain effective civilian control, Japanese people must know what kind of military capabilities their country has and does not have.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has proposed revising Article 9 of their constitution, which outlaws war as a means of settling international disputes involving the state—by extension, maintaining armed forces with ‘war potential’ is prohibited. The myriad questions surrounding Japan also extend to their overarching intentions, to which Michishita replied, “Myth: Japan is moving away pacifism toward militarism… Reality: Japan is moving away from isolationism toward internationalism.” While Japan has been opposed to using its own forces in settling disputes, it has supported involvement of other countries’ forces; they contributed 13 billion dollars to U.S. efforts in the 1991 Gulf War. The isolationism vs. internationalism debate remains hotly contested in Japanese discourse, though Narushige argued that Japan is moving in favor of the latter.

"The Japanese people don’t like nuclear weapons, and the Japanese government strives for nuclear disarmament."

Michishita also addressed Japanese attitudes towards the growing specter of nuclear weapons, “The Japanese people don’t like nuclear weapons, and the Japanese government strives for nuclear disarmament. However, Japan is realistic and accepts U.S. extended nuclear deterrence as an important element of its security policy.” As a nation with a unique and sorrowful history in relation to nuclear weapons, the Japanese possess a deep and thoughtful understanding of their consequences. Nevertheless, Japan’s belief in the spirit of non-proliferation does not extend to policy—nuclear arms are, perhaps, an unfortunate necessity for maintaining international order.

The assumption that the U.S.-Japan alliance exists to protect Japan is false, Michishita stated, “[The] U.S.-Japan alliance is there to not only to defend Japan but also South Korea and maintain peace and stability in other places in the globe.” In addition to massive military and monetary investment, Japan provides operating bases which operate in various capacities to aid in the defense of U.S. bases and South Korea—not only itself. The 1997 U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines outlined the roles, missions, and policies that governed the manner in which the two forces would cooperate, including contingency plans. Under Japanese legislation, their assistance was limited to non-combat support pertaining to situations in the area surrounding Japan (SIASJ). In 2015, however, when the Japanese Diet (congress) passed legislation in favor of rights to collective self-defense, Japan gained the ability to militarily support U.S. efforts in SIASJ.

He also expressed concern about North Korea’s nuclear capability; defense of South Korea grows more dangerous as assistance could mean nuclear retaliation, “They’re not doing so for the sake of Japan or the United States, but for the sake of dividing or decoupling South Korea on the one hand and the United States and Japan on the other.” South Korea, equipped with the potential to absorb their northern neighbors, pose an existential threat in the minds of North Korean leadership.

According to Michishita, Japan’s defensive capabilities far outweigh its offensive capabilities, “Japan has almost no meaningful strike capabilities today, but it has started to acquire some limited strike capability to maintain the military balance in the region.” Due to U.S. being the primary offensive actors, Japan’s remains focused on defensive operations. Japan’s being an island nation also places a premium on being defensively focused. South Korea, conversely, remains offensively oriented as their positioning forces them to remain primed for a possible confrontation with North Korea. This strategy, articulated in Plan 5015, aims to negate the geographical vulnerability of Seoul—close to the Demilitarized Zone—through use of overwhelming force in cooperation with the U.S. and Japan.

"Isolationist sentiment remains strong in Japan."

The final myth contends that Japan changing its constitution will significantly increase its role in international security. Narushige felt this was an overstatement, “If the constitution is revised, Japan will probably start playing a slightly more important role in international security ... Isolationist sentiment remains strong in Japan.”

In the face of new and constantly evolving threats, Japan is forced to reexamine its place in the international security community.” Let me assure you today that I will make every effort to make—as a security specialist—to make Japanese security policy more transparent and accountable to not only the Japanese citizens, but also the people of the international community,” Michishita said.

Find more from the event including a selected quotes and a photo gallery on our webpage.

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The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2019, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Benjamin Pereboom

Intern, External Relations

Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more