Will Japan build an army?

A build-up of operations by the Japanese self-defence force is raising worries that peaceful Japan may scale up its forces following increasing tensions in the region. 

by Zofia Reych

During the last days of August, the annual live-fire drills of Japan Ground Self-Defence Force (SDF) took place in Shizuoka Prefecture in a military exercise area overlooked by Mount Fuji.

The East Fuji training grounds have hosted the annual drills since 1966 and since 2012 the exercise scenario has been designed to resemble the defence of a remote island. This year’s drill involved 2,400 servicemen, as well as 80 vehicles and 20 aircraft.

The SDF event came only a few days after 230 Chinese vessels, some reportedly armed, sailed close to the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands. These uninhabited islands have been subject to territorial disputes between Japan and China since the late sixties when offshore gas and oil reserves were identified in the region.

With Prime Minister Shinzo Abe preparing for his meeting with Vladimir Putin, two other long disputed islands – Kunashiri and Etorofu – have also focused media attention in the last couple of days. Russia and Japan have quarrelled over the Kuril Archipelago since World War II but the two countries are now hoping to smooth their relationship despite still not having formally signed a peace treaty.

In the face growing Chinese influence in East and South-East Asia, Japan has recently announced the creation of a special ministry to promote cooperation with Russia.

As the political atmosphere in the region becomes more tense, Japan, a country described in its post-war constitution as “a peaceful nation” without an army, may be also forced to upgrade its military spending.

A “toothless tiger”?

Following its World War II defeat, Japan was to be rebuilt under US control as a state without a military force. However, Cold War tensions, as well as the outbreak of the Vietnam conflict, pushed Tokyo towards the creation of its Ground and Maritime Self-Defence Forces.

Since then, the SDF have established themselves as a disaster relief unit, as seen in the wake of the earthquake which triggered the Fukushima disaster, and as support to the UN peacekeeping operations in Iraq, or Chad. However, in the words of  Senior Fellow at the EastWest Institute, Franz-Stefan Gady, the Japan Self-Defence Forces are “a military that to this day has not fired a single shot in anger”.

Japanese society highly values the pacifist nature of the SDF. In the first postwar decade, the remilitarisation had an emphasis on strict distancing from the pre-war, imperialist agenda. The new, peaceful image of the Japanese military came through the eradication of all army-related terminology. For example, the Self-Defence forces know no “officers”; instead, they are called shikan, which translates as “military official”, or even kanbu, meaning just “staff member”.  

Japanese identity has a deeply ingrained pacifism and, rooted in the horrors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings; it has been the backbone of the country’s international politics for years. Now, although the public opinion seems concerned about the ongoing militarisation of China and North Korea, any increased governmental focus on military still sparks nationwide protests.

To public discontent, in September last year – after a strong push from PM Abe – parliament passed a bill reinterpreting Article 9. This article famously guarantees Japan’s pacifist orientation stating that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained”. Although the new bill introduces only a slight amendment that allows for Japan’s limited participation in its allies defensive operations, it represents a massive shift in international policy.

In the current political climate, there seems to be only one factor that could change the public’s outlook on the increased military focus: mounting fears of terrorist attack. In fact, in November last year, the Prime Minister’s ratings went up shortly after the government announced the creation of the International Counter-Terrorism Intelligence Collection Unit.

The arms race  

Not taking into account the threat from ISIS expanding east, the international situation in the region is becoming increasingly tense. Early last month, two North Korean missiles landed worryingly close to Japanese waters, triggering a state of heightened alert for the SDF who have since been ordered to shoot down any further incoming projectiles.  

North Korea reportedly spends over a quarter of its GDP on the military.

Meanwhile, China’s military budget continues to grow, although in 2016 at a slightly slower pace, in spite of the ongoing South China Sea tensions. This year’s spending hit $146,67 billion, but pundits suggest that is just a fraction of the real figure.

Prime Minister Abe believes that the country must be ready to defend itself in the case of an armed conflict and, as the threats develop, so must the SDF. Under the new interpretation of Article 9, Japanese forces are now able to participate in overseas combat operations, and if the new $50,2 billion budget is approved, Japan’s military expenditure will have increased five years in a row.

The arms race is likely to continue, and PM Abe Shinzo is equally likely to push for increased power of the Japanese military. However, under the constitution, the SDF must remain a purely defensive unit, even if scaled up.

UPDATE: Three ballistic missiles were fired by North Korea towards the Sea of Japan on Monday morning, 05.09.