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Politics & Security

Japan’s Security Policy is for Preserving Democracy, Not Militarization



James E. Auer (Emeritus Professor of Vanderbilt University)


(Part 7 of 7)

I started this series as an attempt to debunk seven myths about Japan’s national security policy. Living in a democracy, and in peace time, a number of Japanese people have understandably not given much thought to national security issues, especially the possibility and dangers of war. The consequence, however, is citizens sometimes being persuaded by false arguments from the liberal media or from domestic or foreign critics.


Read the other parts of the series here:

Myth 1: Myth 1: Japan has no national security policy, and Tokyo only blindly follows the United States.  



Myth 2: Japan’s alliance with the US is dangerous—Japan might become “entrapped” in America’s “global strategy.”  


Myth 3: Constitution allows Japan to build military forces – just ask MacArthur


Myth 4: The Constitution of Japan allows only “the minimum level of self-defense capability.”


Myth 5: Collective Self-defense is a Political Exercise, Independent of the Constitution



Myth 6: Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are extremely limited in capability.



Myth 7: The United States wants Japan to become an offensive military power.


Opposition members in the Diet and some in the mass media have long accused the United States of trying, especially during the Cold War, to shift the burden of deterring the Soviet Union to Japan.



It was true that the enormity of the nuclear and conventional military power of the United Soviet Socialist Republic was so great that the US encouraged (critics always said “pressured”) Japan and other friendly countries or allies to do more. This encouragement, however, was not motivated by America’s desire to do less. The reason was that even US military resources had some limits, and there was a need for an increased deterrent effort beyond what the United States alone could do.


Particularly, the US did not encourage Japan to become a nuclear armed nation. It is widely recognized that Japanese technological expertise is such that Japan, if it desired, could manufacture one or more nuclear weapons. And I happen to believe that, given its own tragic experience as the only nation to ever experience an attack with atomic weapons, Japan would be a quite responsible nuclear-armed power.  


But the United States worries that the proliferation of nuclear weapons, even among its friends, can be destabilizing regionally and globally. The US, Japan, and South Korea all say that they want North Korea to forswear nuclear armament, but Japan’s nuclear capability might increase resolve in both North and South Korea to become nuclear-armed.


As far as conventional weapons are concerned, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are primarily designed for the anti-territorial, anti-submarine, and air defense missions. When US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger met Japanese Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ito at the Pentagon in 1981, he pledged that the US would provide offensive striking power on Japan’s behalf if necessary.  



A few months later, when visiting President Ronald Reagan in Washington, DC, Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki stated that Japan’s national policy was to defend its territory, seas, and air, and defend its sea lanes to a distance of 1000 miles.  


When Yasuhiro Nakasone came to power near the end of 1981, he pledged that he would carry out the defense goals laid out by Suzuki. When Reagan and Nakasone proceeded to fund the 1981 division of roles and missions, the Soviet leadership took strong notice. The Japanese-American combined strategy turned out to be a great victory of deterrence, ending the Cold War in the Pacific.   


It is increasingly clear that the 21st century is seeing the rise of China as a major military power, whose ambitions are at least non-transparent, if not definitely bent on becoming the Asian hegemon.  The immediate threat to Japan from Beijing is in the Senkaku Islands, if not the entire Okinawa Island chain.  


China's second aircraft carrier, first domestically built aircraft carrier, is seen during its launching ceremony in Dalian, Liaoning province, China, April 26, 2017.


In contrast to what the American reaction would have been to a Soviet invasion of Hokkaido during the Cold War, for example, most Americans have little or no knowledge of what the Senkaku Islands are or where they are located.  The Abe Administration clearly understands that the US is unlikely to commit forces to defend the Senkaku Islands if that defensive effort is not led by Japan.  



This change in the strategic environment has led to Prime Minister Abe’s 2014 decision to play a more realistic role in its own defense by clarifying Japan’s right to exercise collective self-defense in situations directly affecting Japanese security. It was a decision praised by the US and many other nations, which are worried about China’s aggressive behavior. The US, Australia, and Japan’s many friends in south East Asia do not want Japan to become an offensive military power and Prime Minister Abe has no desire to do so.


It is true, as alleged by some critics, that the Abe administration has moved to the right, but this move is a moderate one, away from naïve pacifism and is clearly more realistic. It is not threatening to other nations. Prime Minister Abe is sometimes called a nationalist. His love of and respect for Japan is the normal reaction of any patriotic national leader for which he need not apologize.


The patriotism of Shinzo Abe is most observable in the writing of the Sankei Shimbun, often criticized as an “extreme, right wing” newspaper. It is more sensational to criticize than to support, but in my opinion Sankei’s steadfast support for the Japan-US alliance and its willingness to write consistently in favor of a realistic Japanese national security policy is not a slippery slope to a dangerous, militaristic future. It is, instead, designed to achieve deterrence and preservation of Japan’s democracy.




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