For Japan, the Sword Is the Shield

Is Tokyo’s remilitarization nearing an inflection point?

By Phillip Orchard

World War II determined that the United States, not Japan, would be the dominant military force in the Western Pacific. After all, you can’t be a dominant military force without a military – and the U.S. saw to it that Japan wouldn’t when it made Tokyo constitutionally renounce all martial enterprises.

But things changed, as they so often do. Washington quickly concluded that the demands of the Cold War were such that it couldn’t afford to give Japan a free ride on U.S. defense guarantees. So the United States – the same United States that drove Tokyo to embrace pacifism in the first place – pushed Japan to rebuild a robust but solely defensive-oriented force.

Their alliance became known as “the spear and the shield.” Japan was the shield, invaluable as it was in containing Soviet naval adventures in Northeast Asia, and the U.S. was the spear, projecting power for offensive purposes whenever the situation demanded.

More recently, slowly but surely, Tokyo has built up new military capabilities and has begun removing the political and legal obstacles that prevent it from using them. Now the U.S. wants Japan to do even more – and fast. On Sunday, an unnamed senior Pentagon official in Tokyo issued a rare call for Japan to kick its remilitarization efforts into overdrive, saying Japan’s aversion to offensive weaponry was “no longer acceptable,” and that other restrictions are “affecting the ability of both U.S. forces and Japan’s own Self-Defense Forces to prepare for contingencies.”

This came two days after Tokyo confirmed that it was planning to deploy warships to the Middle East to protect vital shipments of oil and natural gas. Such plans have been in the works since a Japanese-operated oil tanker was attacked in June in the Gulf of Oman, an incident that was followed by a suggestion from U.S. President Donald Trump that the U.S. military was losing interest in protecting other countries’ commercial traffic.

Notably, though, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga made it clear that Japan would not formally join the U.S.-led maritime coalition to protect commercial vessels around the Arabian Peninsula – and that Japanese warships would not patrol the contentious Strait of Hormuz, the critical chokepoint where an outbreak of conflict with Iran would be most likely.

The question these two developments pose is: Is Japanese remilitarization nearing an inflection point?


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Washington’s concern over a fully remilitarized Japan made enough sense in the past. Historically, in fact, a primary U.S. goal in forming alliances has been to contain the power of its partners, rather than to benefit from their assistance. And since the end of the Cold War, preventing the rise of regional hegemons has been a core tenet of U.S. strategy across the globe. A resurgent Japan capable of militarily acting independently of the U.S. would risk upsetting stability in the Western Pacific by accelerating the arms race among the region’s myriad rival powers, while undermining the U.S. unquestioned dominance of the seas and its cherished alliance structure. (See: the Japan-South Korea feud that just won’t die.)

Over the past decade, though, it’s become clear that the biggest threat to the regional balance of power is not Japanese remilitarization but Chinese militarization – to say nothing of China’s “salami slicing” tactics along critical sea lanes in the East and South China seas – as well as North Korea’s plunge into nuclear statehood and the fact that the U.S. is simply too overstretched to continue to be the world’s policeman. In this environment, the U.S. needs Japan to do more to keep the region in balance – even if its remilitarization will inevitably unnerve other U.S. allies like South Korea, while making it easier for historical adversaries like North Korea, China and Russia to justify their own assertiveness.

Tokyo is keen to step up. Given its overwhelming dependence on resource imports and manufacturing exports, it has little choice but to build the capabilities to protect sea lanes farther afield, including those in the Middle East. Japan has therefore been trying to persuade Washington for nearly a decade that U.S. interests would be well served by a more assertive Japanese military posture – and that major changes in both the international system and Japanese society guarantee that its remilitarization won’t lead to some sort of a revival of Japanese imperialism. The U.S. has been tacitly supportive of this shift; you don’t sell a country a bunch of F-35Bs (the variant of the warplane capable of taking off from flat-decked warships like Japan’s new Izumo-class destroyers, which will soon be converted into small aircraft carriers) if you don’t want it to project power beyond its territorial waters. The latest, more explicit call from the Pentagon for Tokyo to embrace offensive warfare merely suggests that the two sides are now working together to make it happen.



With the U.S. increasingly on board, the remaining constraints on Japanese remilitarization are internal political, legal and budgetary factors. This is illustrated by the Abe government’s quixotic quest to amend or reinterpret the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. It’s also illustrated by Japan’s cautious approach to keeping vital sea lanes open in the Middle East.

Article 9 hasn’t kept Tokyo from building out its military capabilities or from blurring the legal lines on their use. Japanese anti-mining capabilities are considered elite, for example, making it an ideal partner in the effort to keep maritime traffic flowing around the Arabian Peninsula. In 2014, moreover, the government approved a reinterpretation of Article 9 to permit the military to exercise the right of collective self-defense – essentially allowing Japanese forces to come to the aid of allies under attack during operations deemed necessary for Japanese security. Two security laws implemented in 2016 formalized the reinterpretation and expanded the scope of the type of operations that the Japanese military can support. Since then, Abe’s government has been gradually lifting informal caps on military spending, activating the first Japanese marine unit since World War II, while pursuing weapons systems – such as the aforementioned carriers and long-range cruise missiles capable of striking ballistic missile launch sites in North Korea – that underscore the idea that the best defense is a good offense.

Still, the legal and political constraints embodied by Article 9 have certainly limited the military’s ability to contribute to maritime stability beyond Japanese waters or prepare for a future crisis on its doorstep. In a real crisis, the Japanese public would probably support whatever measures Tokyo deemed necessary to secure the country. But Japan can’t wait until a crisis erupts to shift course. Its ability to respond will depend on peacetime decisions made years in advance over issues such as spending, training and doctrine. And preventing a crisis from erupting in the first place means taking part in multinational stabilization coalitions like the one developing in the Middle East. Japan is willing to join, but the unsettled legal and political constraints on the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force have left it with tightly restrictive terms of engagement, forcing it to steer well clear of the areas where risks of conflict are highest (and where its contributions would be most valuable).

No country likes to be told what to do, and Abe’s government can ill-afford to be seen as flouting or changing Japanese law at the bidding of an outside power. But fact of the matter is that there remains strong opposition to remilitarization. Tokyo’s timeline for revising Article 9 keeps getting pushed back, despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s holding a supermajority in both branches of the Japanese legislature. Abe may therefore welcome the public push from the Pentagon to gun up, just as he likely welcomed Trump’s call this summer for Japan to take responsibility for securing oil shipments through the Persian Gulf. The more the Japanese public grows concerned about threats from China and North Korea, and the more it feels uncertain about U.S. willingness to protect it from those threats, the more likely it will be to back Abe’s revision push.

Whether or not Abe succeeds in revising the charter this year, Japan’s long-term trajectory is clear. The country has little choice but to take greater responsibility for its far-flung interests. And Japan has the technological and industrial base and national cohesion to pivot more quickly than most countries if and when the public consents to it. But given how long it will take, and how expensive it will be, for Japan to fulfill its inevitable geopolitical role, and given the scale and speed with which threats to Japanese interests are mounting, politically-driven decisions can have a disproportionately large impact. Hence the sense of urgency in Tokyo and Washington to press forward.

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