Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gets called a “fascist” almost as often as does Donald Trump. Abe’s critics appear worried that, following his overwhelming election victory, and after downing a few well-deserved shots of schadenfreude, Mr. Abe’s next step is to militarize Japan.
This ignores the fact that Japan re-armed over 40 years ago. And there’s another problem facing Mr. Abe if he should wish to further militarize Japan: the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) has some nice hardware but it has limited combat capability.
Indeed, the JSDF is better suited for assaulting Yokohama than anywhere outside Japan.
Japan’s military does have some useful niche capabilities: destroyers, submarines, anti-submarine aircraft, missile defense systems. But these are most effective when augmenting United States forces defending Japan and Japanese interests.
By itself the JSDF will have a hard time throwing its weight around in East Asia—at least as Abe’s critics envision.
Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) destroyers are first-rate but numbers are limited. Meanwhile, Chinese Navy (PLAN) ships are improving quality-wise, and the PLAN is building ships at a much faster rate than the JSDF.
Send the Japanese fleet to sea and it won’t have proper air support. Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) prefers flying around at 30,000 feet dogfighting enemy fighters to cooperating with the MSDF.
Japan’s submarines are an ace in the hole, but are not the basis of an offensive capability. And MSDF only has 18 submarines—hardly enough to lock down Asian seas. Meanwhile, China’s PLA Navy subs are catching up, getting better and quieter. The PLAN is also improving anti-submarine warfare skills, closing the gap with the MSDF.
Never known for its mobility, the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) is finally creating an Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade. However, when the ARDB is fully ready for action in a few years, it will only be able to put about 700 troops ashore with weapons and equipment. They will lack air support besides a few attack helicopters, and resupply is a huge challenge.
Putting 700 GSDF troops in perspective—that’s about the number of people on a Tokyo subway train during rush hour. Land all of them anywhere in Asia and nobody will notice.
And JSDF’s woeful lack of joint capability—in other words, Navy, Air Force, and Army ability to operate together—makes the idea of Abe militarizing Japan seem even more fanciful.
Beyond hardware shortfalls, the JSDF lacks personnel. For Japan to even think about causing trouble beyond its shores, it needs a JSDF twice as large. Yet, Japan can’t even find enough young people to staff the nation’s convenience stores—much less fill the ranks of an expanded JSDF.
Recent talk of Japan obtaining a “strike capability” reflects the Japanese belief in hardware as a panacea. Buy some cruise missiles, punch in the coordinates, hit launch, and problem solved. If only it were that easy.
One can in fact gauge Abe’s intentions by looking at what he’s done to date.
He has gradually increased public appreciation of the JSDF and the need for an improved national defense—even if many Diet members are slower to catch on to what the public easily grasps. Abe also forced through the commonsensical—and politically necessary—change of policy that allows JSDF to support US forces defending Japan and Japanese interests.
But he hasn’t been able to pry more money loose from Ministry of Finance beyond illusory increases, following on a decade of annual defense budget cuts. And there’s reason to believe he doesn’t want to do so.
Ultimately, Abe is doing only what’s necessary to keep the Americans on the hook to defend Japan. Indeed, PM Abe and Defense Minister Onodera’s recent stern talk about North Korea and staying in “lock step” with the United States and “all options being on the table” sound a bit like a youngster barking at the neighborhood bully from behind his big brother’s shoulder.
Abe is indeed obsessed with revising the “American imposed” Constitution. However, revising the Constitution to formally recognize the JSDF simply ends the charade of Japan having a military but calling it something else.
Change the Constitution and after a month or two nobody will even notice. Critics predicted Japan going on a rampage after Abe engineered a re-revision of the right of “collective self defense” in 2015. Yet nothing happened.
Much of the criticism of Mr. Abe and his supposed militaristic intentions—especially from the PRC and even some of the Western commentariat—appears based on a caricature of the Japanese taken from World War II propaganda posters. This is ironic given the JSDF’s obvious shortcomings, even in a purely defensive role, and the nation’s 70 years of exemplary behavior since the war ended.
Worrying about Abe-led Japan is worrying about the wrong country. Next door there’s China: a powerful, resentful dictatorship that is building a formidable military despite facing no external threats. And it reckons it’s entitled to take whatever it wants, having, for starters, established de facto control of the South China Sea in recent years.
One would be hard-pressed to find more a few dozen Japanese who think a return to 1930’s militarism is a good thing. And unlike pre-war Asia, most regional nations are well able to bite back.
All Abe is doing is bringing Japan’s defense “back to the center”—and closer to the Americans.
Japan and Abe are a threat to nobody.
Grant Newsham is a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and a retired United States Marine Officer.