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[Speaking Out] Why is Being a Military Power so Bad?

There is nothing wrong with Japan becoming a military power if by that term we mean a "true defensive power that won't tolerate aggression by other nations."



7th Escort Division of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force at the Ominato Naval Base in 2021. (© Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force)

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida appeared on the cover of the May 22-29 issue of Time magazine's Asia edition. The original headline of the online version of the interview article read: "Prime Minister Fumio Kishida Wants to Abandon Decades of Pacifism and Make His Country a True Military Power." 

Kishida in a later interview with The Chugoku Shimbun newspaper complained that the headline deviated far from the content of the article. This led the Japanese foreign ministry to convey the complaint to the magazine. In response, Time replaced the online headline with "Prime Minister Fumio Kishida Is Giving a Once Pacifist Japan a More Assertive Role on the Global Stage."

Kishida himself may not have used the term "military power" in his interview with Time. But there is no rule that a headline must use the same wording as the article. Rather, shouldn’t Kishida say that Japan aims, as a direction, to become a military power while not posing a threat to other countries?

Time magazine's electronic edition used a photo of Prime Minister Kishida on the morning of May 10. (© Time magazine/Kyodo)

The 'Time' Article Implies No Criticism of Japan

When reading Time's article, one finds that it does not oppose Japan turning into a military power. Citing a northern territory dispute with Russia, North Korea's repeated firing of ballistic missiles, and China's growing pressure on Taiwan, the article shows understanding toward the prime minister's efforts to "set about turning the world's No 3 economy back into a global power with a military presence to match."

Regarding Kishida's ideal of nuclear disarmament, the article says his determination to achieve "a world without nuclear weapons" comes from his childhood experience.

The word "military power" does not contain any nuance that criticizes militarization. Nevertheless, Kishida may have felt the need to remain consistent with his repeated pledge that he would not make Japan a military power under its "exclusively defensive" posture.

While being surrounded by Russia, North Korea, and China which are all armed with nuclear weapons, Japan cannot become a true military power while sticking to the Three Non-Nuclear Principles of not possessing, not producing, and not permitting the introduction of nuclear weapons.

Furthermore, Article 9 Paragraph 2 of the Constitution, which calls for not maintaining "war potential" has not been revised. Therefore, although the Self-Defense Forces is an armed organization in charge of national defense, they are not like military forces in other countries. Rather, they are an administrative agency whose missions and authority remain severely restricted.

tactical nuclear weapons
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in this undated photo released on November 19, 2022, by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency. (© KCNA via Reuters)

Hasn't Japan Overcome Military Aversion? 

Even so, the Kishida government revised its three key security documents including the National Security Strategy in December 2022. It set goals of achieving "a new balance in international relations, especially in the Indo-Pacific region" and preventing "the emergence of situations in which any one state can unilaterally change the status quo easily." To achieve these goals, the government decided to increase defense spending to 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) by fiscal year 2027.

It is not incorrect to use the word "military power" to describe Japan's goal, since the government set out the direction of becoming a nation that gives importance to the military field. If Kishida is told that "military power" in this context means a "true defensive power that will not tolerate aggression by other nations," perhaps he will be satisfied.


(A version of this article was first published by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals. Find it in Speaking Out #1038 in Japanese on May 15 and in English on May 16, 2023.)

Author: Takashi Arimoto

Takashi Arimoto is a Planning Committee member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and publisher of Monthly Magazine SEIRON at the Sankei Shimbun newspaper.