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The Japan Self-Defense Force Goes To Australia: That's Good, and That's Bad

It's great to see the Self-Defense Force joining a major multilateral exercise but this training is needed where the trouble is coming, in and around Japan.



Japan participates in Talisman Sabre 2023 exercises at the Sholawater Bay training ground in Australia. It is practicing alongside Australia, the US, South Korea, and Germany. (Via Talisman Sabre 2023 Twitter)

The Talisman Sabre 2023 exercise has finished in Australia. The exercise included 13 countries and was an impressive and complex mix of amphibious, maritime, ground, air, and combined arms training. And all geared toward war-fighting. Even Japan's Self-Defense Force (JSDF) sent a contingent.

Japan's contingent included the Japanese Navy, along with amphibious ships, JS Izumo and JS Shimokita. It also sent the Ground Self-Defense Force's (GSDF) "Marines" – the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB), and the Japanese Army's 1st Helicopter Brigade.

The Japanese even took advantage of Australia's wide open training ranges to launch Type 12 surface-to-ship (anti-ship) missiles as well as Type 03 surface-to-air (anti-aircraft) missiles. They seldom do this sort of training in Japan. 

And the GSDF brought other units from the Western Army, Eastern Army, and Northern Army. They even included the artillery training detachment from GSDF's Fuji Schools. This gave them practice and also exposure to operations with foreign militaries and in a "foreign" environment.

This is all-important if a military is to improve.

Indeed, the JSDF was a full participant with the Americans, the Australians, a platoon of German naval infantry, and others. That was a far cry from some years back when the Japanese might have tried to carve out a non-combatant façade and avoid dealing with other militaries. That was to keep from running afoul of prohibitions on "collective self-defense."

Japan's Ground Self-Defense Froce participated in the Talisman Sabre joint beach landing exercises in Australia. (via Talisman Sabre 2023 Twitter)

It's Come a Long Way

By any measure, the JSDF has come a long way in recent years. A little over a decade ago, Japan was afraid to even deploy forces to its own southern islands. The idea of sending the JSDF thousands of miles from Japan to conduct combat training, and with a collection of foreign militaries, would have given many Japanese politicians and the Asahi Shimbun editorial board the vapors. 

On the United States side, State Department Japan Hands ー and more than a few people at USINDOPACOM ー could have told you it was all impossible and would never happen. And beyond that, the Chinese wouldn't like it. So don't let it.

So it's great the Japanese military went to Australia. 

But it's bad the Japanese military went to Australia.



Here's the problem. 

Governor Denny Tamaki inspects the construction site in Henoko, Nago City, Okinawa Prefecture, where the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma will be relocated. Photo of May 19 (©Kyodo)

Overcoming 'NIMBY'

It is impressive, indeed. One almost rejoices to see what the once insular JSDF is doing, and the scale of it all in a major multilateral exercise. 

But they need to do this sort of training up closer to home – in and around Japan.

That's where the trouble is coming and the fight will happen. 

The problem isn't the JSDF. Rather, one fairly notes that Japanese officialdom – including some defense bureaucrats – are too timid, as is their wont. They don't have a sense of urgency about what's coming their way.  

Yes, they understand China (and Russia and North Korea) are a threat, and a scary one at that. But doing something about it? That's a different story.

This writer will be more impressed when Japanese officialdom and society allow their own JSDF (particularly the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade) to train in their own maritime terrain. "Key maritime terrain" is what it's called in military lingo. And that means training with the Americans and the Australian Defense Force together. 

There's been some useful but relatively limited training between the US Marines and GSDF. But it's not what it should be.

"NIMBY" (not in my backyard) is still strong. 

Catching Up to the Shifting Public Mood

This writer thinks Tokyo is misreading the shifting mood and views of the Japanese public in general. And people in Okinawa Prefecture, including the Sakishima Shoto, in particular. 


Too many pundits and bureaucrats are clinging to old worn-out positions vis-a-vis the JSDF, the US-Japan alliance, and deterrence. Those old positions are losing support, especially among working-age people. 

One supposes Japanese policymakers feel comfortable in being slow to adjust since they have an insurance policy with the Americans in Japan and nearby. That buys them time to make decisions, they think. 

Anyone involved in Japan-US military and defense matters over the years would recognize the following statement: "They just seek our assurances that we have their back from time to time and then do just enough to keep us engaged."

If the Americans push too hard for real and useful training with the Japanese ー much less a combined Japan-US operational headquarters ー Tokyo will say they are saber rattling and being provocative. 

Of course, plenty of people will also claim it's all just "too sensitive" politically for Japan ー and they're doing their best.  So don't complain.

However, expecting the Americans to die on Japan's behalf while Japan hasn't done enough for itself (and for its partners) is also just "too sensitive" politically. But for the Americans.

Ground Self-Defense Force camp is under construction in Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture. Ishigaki is in the Sakishima Shoto part of Okinawa Prefecture. (August 2022, (©Kyodo)

Defense Documents are Just the First Step

Sometimes one hears that since Japan's three foundational defense documents were rewritten in December 2022, "counterstrike capability" (long-range missiles) are on order. Along with it, one hears defense spending is set to double over five years – it's "mission accomplished."

Not quite. Now you need a military that can fight and an industry that can produce what's needed. Along with it, how about a society that knows it's got a direct stake in the matter and acts like it?

That requires a sense of urgency – that a government must have and create in society writ large.

Some people have that sense of urgency. Some don't. 

Nobukatsu Kanehara, a former national security official and adviser to former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal recently on whether Japan would help the United States defend Taiwan:


"We are building up our army, navy and air force, as well as space and cyber capabilities. Maybe in five years when our new shape is clearer, we will have to talk about new roles and missions in the region."

Let's get this straight. Mr Kanehara is talking about waiting five years before deciding what Japan might or might not do. In the meantime, Japan expects the Americans to take care of things and die on Japan's behalf.  

That's not exactly a vote getter in Washington.  Some Japanese are embarrassed by this notion. But Kanehara reflects a strain of thought in much of Japan's older "elite" foreign policy class. And many on the US side take him as gospel, rather than saying to the Japanese...."Wait a minute....we need you to do this, this, and that…"

A Sense of Urgency

There is no time to waste.

Sadly, as is the case with many examples in post-Cold War Japan, something traumatic or semi-traumatic has to happen to bring about change, even if that means taking the first punch.

And that assumes you can get up off the mat, and aren't down for good.

So JSDF ought to do what it did in Australia, but up in Japan. Things are that urgent.

Xi Jinping Senkaku defense panel defense boost Japan China maritime. predictions Quad Senkaku Islands
The largest China Coast Guard vessel yet, equipped with a 76mm gun, was caught navigating the contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands, Ishgaki City, Sakishima Shoto, in Okinawa Prefecture in November 2022. (Provided by the 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters)


Author: Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book When China Attacks: A Warning To America. See his recent comments on FOX News and find his articles on JAPAN Forward.


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