For several decades after World War II, Japan was a mostly demilitarized nation restricted by a pacifist constitution whose armed forces, the Self-Defense Forces, were only authorized to defend the homeland without projecting power abroad. However, with the announcement in December of 2018 that Japan would upgrade its largest warship into the first Japanese aircraft carrier, the island nation has shown that it has become more willing to project power abroad. In recent years, Japan has embarked on a steady course towards remilitarization by taking steps to increase defense spending and build up its armed capabilities. Secondly, there has been a changing domestic political environment that has become more supportive of Japan playing an increasingly assertive military role in the Asia-Pacific region.
One of the most important factors that showcases Japan’s increasing interest in developing more muscular military forces is the steady increase in military spending over the years. This year, Japanese budget proposals have called for the defense funding to increase by 1 percent, which may seem like a small increase on its own, but it is, however, part of a larger trend in which the defense budget has increased annually for the past 8 years, with a 10 percent increase in overall military expenditures over recent years. These annual budget increases are intended to pay for increased operational range for Japanese forces, ballistic missile defenses, and fighter jets as well as to strengthen the forces that protect Japanese territorial interests in the subject of dispute with China in the East China Sea. While these planned uses of funds will require several years to go from simply goals to the actual deployment of Japanese military capabilities, the trend of increasing military expenditures indicates a near-term future wherein Japan establishes its own military presence abroad and inhibits its role as both a diplomatic and political actor in the region.
Furthermore, the past several years have seen a major expansion of Japanese military capabilities, as well as increased technical sophistication of the Japanese Self Defense Forces. Japan’s new aircraft carrier, the J.S. Izumo, will soon be the base for fighter jets procured from the United States, which enhances the Japanese capacity to project power in the region and extend the operational range for Japanese military assets towards the Korean Peninsula and towards China. Furthermore, Japan is in the process of replacing and upgrading its current air force through the purchase of 147 F-35 fighter jets, which will enhance the technical capabilities of the Japanese Air Self Defense Force, as well as allow Japan to field stealth capabilities in aerial operations combined with improving defense and security cooperation with allies including U.S. military forces. Japan, as part of its military modernization and expansion, has formed the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, a force that consists of 2,100 to 3,000 Japanese troops trained to engage in amphibious military operations, for a possible scenario in which Japan might have to seize the Senkaku Islands, several land bodies in the East China Sea that are territorially disputed between Japan and China, in a future conflict.
In addition to the increases in defense expenditures and expansion of military capabilities, changes in Japan’s domestic politics have also been part of the remilitarization process. An important trend in Japanese politics has been the changing of public opinion with regards to the Self Defense Forces, which historically have seen lackluster approval ratings from the Japanese public. Due to recent changes in the regional strategic environment as well as the important role that the Self Defense Forces played in 2011 when it was deployed to provide disaster relief following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, as well as the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the Japanese have developed a much more positive opinion of the Japanese military. This is reflected in a poll taken in 2018 that gave the Self Defense Forces a 90 percent approval rating among the Japanese public, which makes them the most trusted of all Japanese government personnel in terms of public polling.
Furthermore, there has been a growing recognition among Japanese policymakers that China is becoming an increasingly threatening security threat to Japan and Japanese interests, on top of the looming threat of nuclear North Korea. The growing nature of these two regional threats is what is incentivizing Japanese policymakers to pursue a more assertive military role in the region. The need to secure Japan’s security against regional threats is what led to Japan to pass legislation to broaden the authorization to use force to carry out “collective self-defense,” meaning that Japanese Self Defense forces could now participate in military operations alongside its international allies. There is also a consistent lobbying effort by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to revise Section IX of the Japanese constitution that deals with restricting Japan’s ability to participate in war or maintain a military body that could indicate “war potential.”
Japan, in recent years, has steadily engaged in a process of remilitarization due to changing perceptions of regional threats and the role it should play in the Asia-Pacific region. This process of remilitarization features a trend of steady annual increases in military expenditures, an expansion in Japanese military capabilities, an increase in the technical sophistication of forces Japan can deploy, and the increasingly active role Japanese domestic politics believe the Self Defense Forces should take in ensuring the island nation’s security. These trends will likely lead to Japan playing a critical role in the future Asia-Pacific strategic environment.
Nawal Ali is a second-year International Relations major in the School of International Studies. He is the Deputy Editor for Foreign Affairs at the Agora.
Photo courtesy U.S. Navy, Creative Commons