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Politics & Security

New Report Helps Answer Key Questions About the Defense of Japan

The 2022 Defense of Japan white paper shows Tokyo would deplore an invasion of Taiwan by China which would stir up a devastating conflict in the region.

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Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi holding the 2022 Defense of Japan white paper at a press conference on July 22, at the Ministry of Defense in Ichigaya, Tokyo (photo by Toyohiro Ichioka.)

Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi has warned of escalating security threats stemming from China’s military buildup and Russia’s war on Ukraine.

The annual defense white paper, approved by the Cabinet on July 22, says Japan must respond with a stronger military and an increased defense budget.

Politicians want the public to discuss the recommendations. Here are some of the questions frequently asked by our readers. 

Why is Japan increasing the amount of money it spends on defense?

The Japanese government has a duty to protect citizens against an increasingly aggressive China and an unpredictable North Korea. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has vowed to substantially strengthen Japan’s defense capacity “within five years.” But he recently said “there are no numerical targets” for this process. 

Discussion focuses on the percentage of GDP which should be spent on defense. Traditionally, this was limited to one percent but it rose slightly above that level this year, in line with a record defense budget. 

The ruling LDP’s policy platform for the 2021 Lower House election set a goal to increase defense spending to 2% of GDP, the equivalent of around $100 billion USD per year. 

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Opposition parties have expressed misgivings and the leader of Komeito – the LDP’s long-time coalition partner – has said that the one percent limit should be “cherished.”

Covers of the 2021 and 2022 Defense of Japan (provided by the Ministry of Defense)

How does the cost of Japan’s defense compare to other countries in East Asia? 

China spends roughly four times more on defense than both Japan and South Korea. Much of the money has gone towards the expansion of the Chinese navy, which is set to become the largest in the world in terms of the number of ships. 

Last month, China launched Fujian, its third aircraft carrier. China is also beefing up its Coast Guard and maritime militia, which it uses to swarm around the Senkaku Islands, chasing Japanese fishermen out of their own waters. In 2018, the Chinese Coast Guard was incorporated into the People’s Liberation Army. 

Earlier in July 2022, North Korea said it intends to reinforce its military capability, despite economic hardship caused by COVID-19.

Is the US military presence in Japan significant?

Under a bilateral security pact which has changed little since the end of the Occupation period at the end of World War Two, there are around 50,000 to 55,000 United States troops based in Japan. About 70% of US military facilities are in Okinawa, where their presence sometimes causes tension with local people. 

Prime Minister Kishida has said he wishes to spread the responsibility for hosting the American bases across more of the country. 

Will the Japanese government invite the US military to bring nuclear weapons to Japan?

It has no intention to do so. In February this year, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said it is "only natural" for the country to discuss the possibility of nuclear sharing with the United States. 

However, Prime Minister Kishida responded in parliament by saying that a nuclear-sharing deal would be “unacceptable given our country’s stance of maintaining the three nonnuclear principles.” He was referring to Japan’s 1967 commitment not to possess, produce or allow nuclear weapons on its territory.

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A Russian Navy frigate that sailed in the contiguous waters of Okinawa Prefecture and the Senkaku Islands in June (provided by the office of the Joint Staff of the Ministry of Defense.)

Does Russia pose a military threat to Japan?

Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi says the Indo-Pacific region is at the center of international strategic competition. 

There has been a sharp rise in the number of Chinese and Russian military vessels and aircraft approaching Japan following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The principal concern is that the “no limits” relationship between Russia and China could embolden the two countries to operate together in an aggressive manner.  

In June, four Russian military planes flew towards Hokkaido but switched direction after Japanese jets were scrambled in response. In July, Chinese and Russian vessels jointly entered Japan's contiguous zone near the Senkaku islands. 

General Koji Yamazaki, chief of Japan’s SDF, has highlighted the dangers posed by China’s navy using an aircraft carrier near Okinawa to operate fighter jets.

If China invades Taiwan, will Japanese soldiers go to the island’s defense?

Japan would deplore an invasion of Taiwan by China which would stir up a devastating conflict in the region. 

The annual Defense of Japan white paper for 2022 noted growing tension between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan. The United States continues to send warships through the Taiwan Strait and sell arms to Taipei, while Chinese warplanes have increasingly entered Taiwanese airspace. 

However, under the terms of Japan’s current constitution, the Self Defense Force cannot take part in battles unless the islands of Japan are attacked or placed under threat. 

The position of the United States is more nuanced, as it aims to present a line of “strategic ambiguity” over the defense of Taiwan. 

A key question to consider is whether in the event of a conflict with China, the US would use Japan as the center of operations. 

Prime Minister Kishida attending the NATO summit (center) on June 29, 2022, Madrid, Spain (Pool photo via Kyodo)

Is Japan set to join a military alliance such as NATO?

When the chair of NATO’s Military Committee, Admiral Rob Bauer visited Japan in June, he said: “Japan is NATO’s longest-standing partner from outside the Euro-Atlantic area. We share the same values and challenges, which makes us natural partners.” 

Prime Minister Kishida attended the NATO summit in Madrid in July this year, as an observer. Yet it is widely held that under the terms of the current constitution, Japan has no mandate to apply for NATO membership. 

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Japan is a member of an informal security pact known as the Quad, alongside the United States,  to uphold the concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific.India and Australia. The four countries hold joint naval exercises

Is the Japanese economy strong enough to allow for an increased defense budget?

If Japan’s economy falters and GDP shrinks, the capacity to invest more in defense diminishes. If the weakness of the Japanese yen continues, this will also make it more expensive to buy equipment from abroad. 

However, Japanese defense equipment manufacturers are forging ties with Asian nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, which should enable the companies to recoup some of their production costs.

Will Prime Minister Kishida change the constitution?

A Japanese prime minister has no power to change the constitution. The document can only be modified following agreement by a two thirds majority in both the upper and lower houses of the Japanese parliament, with the change then endorsed by voters through a referendum. 

Many members of the LDP advocate constitutional reform. Opinion polls suggest the public is split on the issue. Since coming to office in 2021, Prime Minister Kishida has been cautious about campaigning for reform, although political observers note that the recent strong showing by the LDP in the Upper House elections allows him more room for maneuver.

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Author: Duncan Bartlett

Duncan Bartlett is a regular contributor to JAPAN Forward. You can read his other articles and essays here

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