Japan: defense or self-defense?

The defeat of Japanese militarism in World War Two (WWII) combined with the experience of suffering the world’s one and only atomic bomb attacks left Japan with a strong vein of pacifism. In fact, the Constitution in its article 9 prescribes the renunciation of war, the prohibition of war potential and the denial of the right of belligerency of the State. Nevertheless, Japan is an independent State, thus article 9 does not inherent the right of self-defense. In that sense, the government has understood article 9 as a mean to maintain armed forces to the minimum. Despite article’s 9 and its restrictions, Japan is the fourth more powerful army in the world with 247 173 active frontline personnel, 678 tanks, 1 613 aircraft and 16 submarines. Therefore, the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), is being equipped and trained for operations of self-defense only, until today. 

A recent legal reinterpretations of the article 9 of the Constitution and new security laws allow the SDF to be more active. Indeed, since, July 2013 elections, Japan reoriented its self-defense policy as new threats arise in the Asia-Pacific area. This major change meant that Tokyo was finally abandoning its postwar pacifism for a more active international participation. Indeed, Abe’s government has worked for a radical change, so Japan’s military would be able to mobilize abroad when the following conditions are met:

  • If Japan is attacked, or if a close ally, such as the USA is under attack, and it represents a threat to Japan’s survival,
  • If there is no other appropriate means available to repel an attack and ensure Japan’s survival and protect its people,
  • The use of force must be restricted to the necessary minimum. 

Those conditions resemble the jus ad bellum depicted in article 2.4 of the United Nations Charter.  Thus, it is possible to question the importance of those conditions for Japan pacifism.

Under Prime Minister Abe the game rules have changed, Japan is willing to focus on maintaining its sovereignty, its independence and peace. Thus, the State will reinforce its own efforts towards those new goals, then strengthen its alliance with the United States of America (USA) and finally, Japan will concentrate on an active promotion of security cooperation.

Soldiers of Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, Japan's first marine unit since World War II [Issei Kato/Reuters]
Soldiers of Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, Japan’s first marine unit since World War II [Issei Kato/Reuters]

This new military orientation was driven by the North Korean development of nuclear weapons and missiles and repeated launched of missiles. The North Korea threat rose when Kim Jong Un willfully conducted two nuclear tests over the region. In fact, those tests were the turning point for Japanese military policies as it raised concerned about the impact on the security environment not only in Japan, but also for the rest of the region.

Thus, the Ministry of Defense reinforces the defense posture in the South western Region as well as ballistic missile defense capability and advanced initiatives in new fields such as space and cyberspace. Overall, the eastern State military capabilities rose in both quality and quantity.

Furthermore, Japan defense orientation could be understood under three visions, the remilitarized Japan, the autonomous Japan and finally the active ally Japan. Let us start with the remilitarized view. This vision of Japan’s strategy is seen by Japanese progressives and critics in nearby countries as a return to an aggressive defense approach that blackens the values instituted after WWII. Then, the autonomous Japan, whishes the State to reinforce its military capacities whilst getting away from the US influence. Finally, the active ally, is the opposite of the previous view. In fact, this view praises a more assertive Japan that takes on greater responsibility in international relationship with the USA.

A Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) Type 74 battle tank fires ammunition during a live-fire exercise on August 24, 2017 [Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images via Reuters]
A Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) Type 74 battle tank fires ammunition during a live-fire exercise on August 24, 2017 [Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images via Reuters]

Overall, according to the new National Defense Program, it seems that Japan is adopting a strategy right in between those views. In fact, it is looking to achieve a balance between pacifism and military means.

In other words, Japan must deal with China’s rising power and influence and ensure its role in the region. North Korea may not be an issue anymore since the recent peace talks in the Korean Peninsula. Nevertheless, the State ambitions are clear, and it is definitely moving away from its postwar strategy. Japan commits to multilateralism in becoming a more involved maritime efforts, in participating to UN peace keeping missions (South Soudan). The country also commits to greater relationships with Washington with the ongoing USA- Japan Defense Guidelines which aims a strong bilateral security and defense cooperation including seamless, flexible, robust and effective bilateral responses, synergy across the two States’ national security policies, and a higher cooperation with regional and other partners.

Thus, with Trump’s last move on North Korea leading to peace talks, it seems that Japan’s bilateral strategy insures it a strong leading role in the Asia-Pacific region meaning a surest order in the area. Whether Japan’s interpretation of article 9 has changed, it will not forget the past, nor will it profoundly alter its view on military action.

About Océane Touillon 1 Article
Océane Touillon is a Russia analyst. Current student at the Hautes études internationales at Laval University, international humanitarian law and international security are two passions of mine discovered whilst doing my masters degree in Canada. Thus, my interests orbit around the respect of the law of war and the conduct of hostilities. It will be a pleasure to share my knowledge on those subjects and many more.