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Shinzo Abe’s Security Policy: A Departure from Defensive Posture?


(ISSN: 2289-800X); JANUARY, 2017; Volume 3, Number 1

Shinzo Abe’s Security Policy: A Departure from Defensive Posture?

Balazs Szanto

Dept. of International & Strategic Studies,
University of Malaya, Malaysia


The paper seeks to provide a critical examination of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new defence policy direction. PM Abe’s security policy has been criticised as the return of Japanese militarism, both at home and by neighbouring states, especially the People’s Republic of China. The paper takes a comprehensive look at both the legal changes pursued by the Abe administration (such as Japan’s shift on collective self-defence) and the continued increase of Japan’s defence budget. The review of these steps presented in this paper highlight that these new policy directions fall significantly short of a potential Japanese remilitarisation. This research rather argues that the changes are reactionary to Japan’s changing security environment, and seek to improve Japan’s ability to defend itself by adjusting outdated elements of Japan’s defence posture. On their own they do not constitute a significant threat to other regional powers.

Japan, defence policy, Shinzo Abe, security reform


Shinzo Abe’s (second) stewardship of the position of the Prime Minister (PM) of Japan is a controversial period of Japanese politics, especially when it comes to the Abe administration’s security policies. The Japanese Government faces strong criticism from its neighbours, who express anxiety over the new directions as past victims of Japanese imperialism. PM Abe also faces strong dissent at home in the form of public protests, which are generally alien to the Japanese political environment. Are the security policies of PM Abe deviating from Japan’s traditional defensive posture, pushing the pacifist nation towards war? Or is the criticism of these policies overblown, with some of the critics having ulterior motives?

To answer these questions this article follows the following framework: First, the article reviews the current discourse on PM Abe’s proposed changes to Japan’s security policy, focusing on the domestic and international criticism of it. Secondly, the article reviews the content of the legislative changes proposed by PM Abe as well as Japan’s contemporary defence expenditure. And thirdly, based on the points above, the article examines whether the criticisms of PM Abe’s security policy are well founded, i.e. whether the legislation reveals revisionist intentions, or whether the criticism is misplaced and over-exaggerated.

The Concern over the Resurgence of Japanese Militarism

Since its election in 2012, the Shinzo Abe administration in Tokyo has consistently pursued changes to Japan’s defence posture. However, this has earned the Japanese Government severe criticism both at home and abroad: The Abe administration is accused of pursuing the remilitarization of Japan or that its proposed changes push a pacifist Japan on the warpath.

Domestically, since the announcement of Abe’s new security legislation, Japan has witnessed strong political protests. The crucial issue for domestic protesters has been the potential re-interpretation of the post-war Japanese constitution, especially Article 9, as well as the adoption of new legislation based on Abe’s National Security Strategy (NSS). Domestic protesters used slogans as “we don’t need a prime minister that wants to start a war” and “abolish the war law now” (Yamamoto, 2015). As the Guardian compiled a number of profiles on protesters, the common element being in their reasons for opposing the new security legislation is the idea that Japan will be dragged into conflicts that are not directly related to the security of the country or that the new legislation would allow the Prime Minister to start wars easier (McCurry, 2015). In the domestic opposition the idea of Abe’s changes are strongly linked to the idea of Japan going to war with opinions such as:

If this law goes through it will make it easier for Japan to go to war […]
With collective self-defence the risk of people dying will be much higher.
[The Japanese Constitution] calls on everyone to work together to realise its aims [peace], and now Abe has come along and decided he wants to destroy all that.

(McCurry, 2015)

During the end of August, 2015, there were more than 300 protests, the largest estimated to mobilize over a 120,000 people, chanting slogans such as “no war” (Takenaka, 2015). There seems to be significant domestic opposition to the changes proposed by the Abe administration, especially among younger Japanese. Seeing the slogans and the public outcry, one would be forgiven to assume that PM Abe proposed the restoration of pre-1945 Imperial Japanese militarism.

Internationally, this is strongly the narrative that is pushed, especially by China. A survey of articles published by the official Xinhua News Agency shows a strong Chinese opposition to and condemnation of Abe’s legislative efforts. One can discern a number of common traits within these articles:

First of all, many of these articles, most prominently the commentary and news analysis published by Xinhua, argue that the recent changes of Japanese defence policy run contrary to the idea of peace, and that these reforms would promote the offensive use of force by Japan. A commentary – published in September, 2015 – says that the changes to defence policy mean that Japan is now “marching again on a road to war under the […] banner of ‘self-defense’” (Tian, 2015). Another commentary from a PLA officer states that “the ascendance of Abe to power was no accident in that Japan’s militarism was reborn and on the rise, with Abe at its centre” (Xinhua News Agency, 2014a). Another commentary (by the same author as the first one) argues that “Shinzo Abe […] realized his dream of abandoning post-war order and to switch his country back into war mode”. (Tian, 2015) The commentary continues in a melodramatic tone to state that “the historically bloodied "samurai sword of Japan" could once again be wielded by its troops in every corner of the world” (Tian, 2015). A news analysis also refers to the changes as “war bills” (Day, 2015). Articles published on Xinhua also aim to showcase that other regional states share China’s concerns over these changes. Xinhua quotes sources from various South Korean political actors highlighting worries over these changes. A spokesman for the Saenuri Party is referenced stating that these changes might resurrect Japanese militarism (Xinhua News Agency, 2015). Similarly the article quotes a spokesman for the New Politics Alliance for Democracy arguing that with these changes Japan is abandoning pacifism (Xinhua News Agency, 2015). Another article highlights Taiwanese protests against the changing military doctrine in Japan (Xinhua News Agency, 2014b).

Secondly, most of the articles and commentary highlight that there is domestic opposition to these changes in Japan, predominantly due to fears that it will drag Japan into wars, which supports the existing narrative on the resurgence of Japanese militarism. Xinhua highlights a South Korean source arguing that 80 percent of Japanese citizens are against the changes (Xinhua News Agency, 2015). Xinhua also mentions opposition sources within Japan that argue that the new defence policy goes against the will of Japanese citizens, one criticism being that “the bills being enacted have gone against the public's will” (Day, 2015) and that these actions “have rendered Japan's Constitution meaningless and have browbeaten this peaceful nation into remilitarizing” (Day, 2015).

Thirdly, the most common justification for this anxiety surrounding Abe’s changes to Japanese defence policy is Japan’s historical legacy, besides characterizing Abe as an ultranationalist. The argument is made in all of these sources that Japan is guilty of committing aggression against other regional states, as well as unspeakable acts of brutality, in the past. Thus any change that would potentially increase Japanese military power holds the inherent risk of Tokyo repeating the policies of Imperial Japan. Essentially, there is anxiety that if Japan would ever normalize its defence posture, it would also somehow rekindle Japan’s desire to institute a new Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, and thus to act once again in an offensive manner with East Asia.

At this point it is interesting to contrast the two countries held responsible for World War II: Japan and Germany. Both countries were key aggressors in the conflict, both committed unspeakable atrocities, and both were defeated at great loss of life. Following the war, Japan was forcibly disarmed and severe limitations were put on its military in the form of Article 9 of the Constitution (Auer, 1973). Interestingly, Germany suffered a similar fate, although one World War prior. Essentially, Japan faced the terms Germany faced in the Treaty of Versailles, which offered strict provisions on the size and composition of the German armed forces (Dulles, 1934; firstworldwar.com, 2009). But unlike Germany that rebelled against the restrictions and embraced fascism, leading to World War II, Japan embraced the limitations and incorporated them into the core of its own political ideology (Oros, 2008).

As China once again raises the spectre of World War II to condemn Abe’s defence reform, one has to ponder whether there is something that would inherently exclude past aggressors from normal statehood, i.e. is it possible to commit atrocities so grave that would require one to be barred from military power forever. Germany has adopted policies similar to those of Abe’s for a long time. Germany has been one of the Top 5 arms exporters for decades (SIPRI, 2016). Germany is and also involved in providing support to various international military endeavours, such as the War in Afghanistan or the War in Syria one a much more active level than Abe’s reforms seek for Japan (BBC, 2001; Bundestag, 2015). Yet, Germany has not faced the same condemnation in Europa as Japan faces in Asia. When Germany exports the Leopard 2 or when it sends troops to Afghanistan, France does not decries the move as a precursor to another offensive against Paris. Germany has been going beyond the scope of Abe’s defence reforms, demonstrating that past aggression is by no means indicative of future aggression, without the backlash faced by Japan.

Once again, reading through the narrative provided by China leaves the impression that under Abe Japanese Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) troops are gearing up to re-establish Imperial Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, and are ready to subjugate China and the rest of the region. The key question to consider then is whether there is any merit behind the domestic and international criticism of Abe’s defence policy. Is PM Abe gearing up Japan for war? Or have the implications of his policies been blown out of proportion? To determine this it is necessary to take a critical look on what the recent initiative in Japanese defence policy actually entails.

Key Legislative Changes under PM Abe

Since his re-election in 2012, PM Abe pursued two broad key policy avenues: On the one hand, ‘Abenomics’ aims to revitalize the Japanese economy and end decades of economic stagnation. On the other, Abe’s National Security Strategy (NSS) that aims to end Japan’s traditional reluctance to get involved in international security issues, envisioning a Japan that adopts a more pro-active strategic posture. While ‘Abenomics’ is an important issue, it is beyond the scope of this paper, which will focus on PM Abe’s NSS and the legislative actions aiming to realize its objectives.

PM Abe was elected at a time when the growing challenge posed by the assertive rise of China increasingly highlighted the limits of Japan’s post-Cold War security strategy. Traditionally Japan presented a timid posture, limiting its international presence to its Official Development Assistance (ODA) programme, while showing reluctance to take a more direct role in regional security matters. Overall, Japan had a fairly passive approach to regional security. A number of political defeats highlighted the unsuitability of this reactionary approach to deal with the rise of China: The 2010 collision between a Chinese fishing vessel and a Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) vessel led to the retreat on the subject matter of Tokyo in face of strong Chinese pressure. In early 2012, Tokyo desperately scrambled to limit the damage from Shintaro Ishihara’s plan to purchase the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands from its private owners, but these efforts only resulted in the further escalation of tensions as shown by a significant spike in Chinese activities in disputed waters (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2016c). When Shinzo Abe was elected in December that same year, he made the promise to stand up against China.

The crux of the NSS is that Japan needs to become a proactive member of the international community when it wants to influence the regional security architecture. As the NSS states “Japan must have the power to take lead in setting the international agenda and to proactively advance its national interests, without being confined to a reactionary position to events and incidents after they have already occurred” (The Office of the Prime Minister of Japan, 2013, p.14-15). The NSS seeks to break with Japan’s traditional posture where the government was condemned to react to crisis due to the severe self-imposed restrictions. The NSS has a number of key provisions on how to achieve this, including, but not limited to increasing Japan’s military power. Japan is often considered a security outlier, a major power without the military force to back it up. While this is an incorrect assessment as Japan possesses significant capabilities in the form of the Japan Self-Defence Forces (JSDF), the country arbitrarily restricted its own military potential in light of Article 9 of the Constitution. Naturally, a more active Japan needs the military power to matter on the international stage, which necessitates a break from traditionally anti-militarist attitudes in the country. The NSS also urges Japan to adopt a leading role in maritime security. As an island nation, the protections of key sea lines of communication (SLOCs) from both traditional (interstate aggression) and non-traditional (e.g. piracy and terrorism) security threats is crucial for the economic wellbeing, especially as PM Abe made economic revitalization a key issue of his tenure in the Prime Minister’s Office. In all of these efforts the NSS argues that Japan needs to seek both closer cooperation with traditional allies, such as the United States, and new partnerships with regional states, such as the ASEAN members. The NSS recognizes that Japan cannot maintain the status quo on its own and that it needs to break with its traditional passivity and actively cultivate relationships in the security realm to protect its national interests. Overall, the NSS is an ambitious plan to significantly alter Japan’s strategic posture, seizing the initiative to shape the regional security environment in accordance with Japanese national interests (The Office of the Prime Minister of Japan, 2013).

The NSS, as a document, outlines the broad objectives of the security policy by the Abe Administration. However, they have to be translated into legislative action in order to be realized. Since the presentation of the NSS in 2013, the Abe Administration has been pursuing a number of key legislative steps to translate the NSS into action:

In 2014, the Government of Japan adopted the ‘Three Principles of Transfer of Defence Technology and Equipment’. This seeks to revise Japan traditional stance on the sale of defence technology. A strict interpretation of Article 9 meant that Japanese defence manufacturers were barred from selling military equipment to states other than Japan. While in most countries the defence industry achieves economies of scale by selling equipment to allied states, benefiting both the corporations and their respective governments, who can strengthen their allies and create a strategic dependence that keeps them in line, Japan isolated its defence industry from the global markets. While the American M1 Abrams or Germany’s Leopard 2 main battle tanks were sold to key allies and other interested states, Japan’s Type 90 main battle tank was never offered outside Japan. Under the new guidelines, defence manufacturers such as Mitsubishi can enter the international defence market. Defence equipment can be exported with the prior approval of the Government if it promotes either Japanese security or international peace (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2014b).

In 2015, the Government pursued two key legislative packages to further the objectives of the NSS. First, in February, the Abe Administration revised Japan’s official rules for ODA, adopting the Development Cooperation Charter (DCC). The DCC continues the theme of ‘proactive contribution to peace’ that is at the core of the NSS. ODA traditionally was the most prominent component of Japan’s foreign policy. In the absence of relying on the coercive force of military power, Japan based its international influence on its economic might and ability to finance projects abroad. The logic of this policy was that supporting economic development will reduce conflict. For example, after its opening, Japan invested heavily in China through its ODA in the hopes of that through integrating China into the regional economy it would be less likely to pursue revisionist intentions. The prominence of ODA is illustrated by the fact that Japanese foreign policy is often referred to as ‘check book diplomacy’. An examples is, when major powers were engaged fighting in Afghanistan, Tokyo was willing to monetarily contribute, but reluctant to directly engage as it was perceived that such action would be incompatible with the provisions of Article 9. The DCC departs from the traditional stance by arguing that economic development is not sufficient to guarantee stability, but rather specific factors are needed to achieve the stability required for sustainable development. The DCC highlights that assistance should prioritize projects that promote factors such as the rule of law, effective governance, basic human rights and democratization as these are essential to create the stable conditions conducive to sustainable economic development (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2015a). This introduces a strong political and ideological component to Japanese ODA policy aiming to encourage traits, such as democratization, which are in harmony with Japan’s own national ideals. This breaks with the neutrality of previous policies that primarily sought to improve the economy of the recipient country assuming that it would lead to positive changes. The fact that decades of ODA did very little to aver the current political crisis between China and Japan is likely a strong contributing factor to this shift.

Furthermore, the DCC also removes certain restrictions concerning the provision of support to military forces. Under the new rules Japan can provide assistance to military forces for non-military use, such as disaster relief. With the stipulation that such assistance would be approved on a case-by-case basis, the DCC removes the blanket ban instituted by the previous ODA policy. Finally, the DCC argues that Japan should take a proactive role in proposing development opportunities to host nations rather than waiting for requests (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2015a). Overall, the DCC takes the NSS’s objectives of proactivity and more substantial regional security presence, and translates into Japan’s ODA policy.

In 2015 the Abe Administration has also pushed through the Diet a large legislative package ‘Japan’s Legislation for Peace and Security’ that seek to further put the NSS into action. The key difficulty faced by any attempts to alter Japanese security is Article 9 of the Constitution, a remnant of post-war U.S. reshaping of Japanese politics.

Article 9
Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

(The Constitution of Japan)

Despite being the product of post-war American strategic manoeuvring, Article 9 is the foundation of Japanese anti-militarism. The strictest interpretation of Article 9 would require Japan to not to possess military power at all, as it would prohibit the maintenance of any armed forces. This is a clearly unrealistic proposition. Japan recognized the unfeasibility of this through the 1954 Self-Defence Forces Act, which laid the foundation for the creation of the JSDF, which is a military force in all but name. Ever since, various Japanese governments sought creative ways to circumvent the restrictions of Article 9 in order to protect Japanese security. On a side note, U.S. annoyance on Japanese anti-militarism since the Korean War is fairly ironic as it is based on legislation Washington forced on Japan (Auer, 1973).

Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) has sought to revise the Constitution for years. Prior to the 2012 elections the LDP provided a revised constitution as a summary of their political platform. One of the key changes is a number of revisions to Article 9 beginning with changing the title of the article from ‘Renunciation of War’ to ‘Security’. Changes to the first paragraph aim to clarify the existing text, highlighting that Japan renounces war as a sovereign right, and that Japan may not use threat or use of force to settle international disputes (Library of Congress, 2015). The second paragraph is removed and it is replaced with a paragraph 2 that would clearly state that Japan maintains the right for self-defence (Library of Congress, 2015). The proposed changes to the constitution contain further additions to Article 9: Article 9.2.1 would clarify that the armed forces are under the control of the Prime Minister, and Article 9.2.2 that certain uses of the armed forces shall require Diet approval. Article 9.2.3 establishes that the armed forces can be used beyond self-defence, such as peace keeping operations or disaster relief. Article 9.2.4 would clarify the organization, internal control, etc. of the armed forces. Article 9.2.5 would establish military courts. Finally, Article 9.3 would require the Japanese government to protect Japanese sovereignty on land, at sea and in the air (Library of Congress, 2015).

While the constitution itself was not revised, and Article 9 remains deeply entrenched in Japanese politics, the Abe Administration did push through the aforementioned legislative package, ‘Japan’s Legislation for Peace and Security’. The key provisions of the legislation are: (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2015b, 2016a, 2016b)

Law to Ensure Security for Situations that will have an Important Influence on Japan’s Peace and Security: Changes a current special measures law on the SDF providing logistical and search and rescue (S&R) support to foreign forces into a permanent one, provided that certain UN resolutions are met. Adopt new legislation to allow the SDF to provide logistical and S&R support to foreign militaries undertaking activities affecting Japanese security, extending support not only to the US but potentially to other states.

International Peace Support Law: Enable the JSDF to provide support to collective international efforts beyond UN peacekeeping efforts to maintain international peace and security.

Law Concerning Cooperation for U.N. Peace Keeping Operations (PKO) and Other Operations: Extends the scope of activities the JSDF can partake under the auspices of UN PKO operations. Updates JSDF rules of engagement to be better in sync with current UN standards.

Ship Inspection Operations Law: Allow Japan to conduct ship inspections for to purpose of ensuring international security.

Japan Self-Defence Forces Law: Enables the JSDF to rescue Japanese and other (under certain conditions) nationals abroad. Allows the JSDF to protect the weaponry and equipment of foreign military forces. Expands the JSDF’s ability to provide assistance to US forces in peacetime, including providing ammunitions.

Legislation regarding Response to Armed Attack Situations: Clarifies the JSDF’s mission to use force under the new ‘three conditions’: One, an armed attack is carried out against Japan or a nation whose security would impact Japanese security. Two, there is no other avenue but armed resistance. Three, use of force is limited to the minimum necessary to ensure the security of Japan, and in case of collective self-defence under the norms of international law.

The most contentious issue associated with the legislation has been the issue of ‘collective self-defence’. Conservative interpretations of Article 9 prohibited Japan from engaging in such arrangements. Even the Japanese-American alliance is not a traditional collective security treaty as it poses no expectation on Japan to intervene on behalf of the U.S. However, the Abe Administration interprets Article 9 to allow such arrangements. The cabinet argues that Article 9 of the Constitution cannot possibly be interpreted to prohibit Japan from taking measures of self-defence necessary to maintain its peace and security and to ensure its survival (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2014a). Under the contemporary conditions one nation’s security can hardly be isolated from the larger security of its home region. As the justification states, “in the future, even an armed attack occurring against a foreign country could actually threaten Japan's survival, depending on its purpose, scale and manner, etc.” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2014a). In essence, the Abe administration argues that (a) Article 9 cannot prohibit the defence of Japan and (b) the defence of Japan might require intervention in conflicts not directly threatening Japanese territory, thus Article 9 cannot prohibit collective self-defence. This is a significant departure from Japan’s traditional stance of simply not getting involved in security issues beyond its own borders, and not surprisingly received harsh domestic and international criticism as seeking to drag Japan into wars not related to the security of the country.

Overall, one can observe that the Abe Administration has been busy executing the plan presented in the NSS. Each of these changes sought to offer more flexibility to the government in building stronger security ties abroad and taking the initiative when it comes to issues that might affect the security of Japan. While these changes are major, whether they represent a significant shift in Japan’s overall strategic posture to a more aggressive one, as its critics argue, will be discussed later on in this paper. Before assessing just how substantial the changes are, it is prudent to look at another relevant area where PM Abe is seeking changes; Japan’s defence expenditure.

Japan’s Rising Defence Budget

Besides the proposed policy changes, the Abe administration has been increasing Japan’s defence budget in each successive year, breaking with the trends that characterized the previous decade. Since its election the LDP government raised Japan defence spending from 4.65 trillion yen to 4.93 trillion yen. The international media is fascinated by the idea of record high Japan defence spending (BBC Online, 2015).

While construction begun prior to 2012, the Izumo-class became the material symbol of the perceived Japanese remilitarization. Standing at 20 000 tons Izumo-class ‘destroyers’ clearly resemble aircraft carriers. The Chinese media quickly picked up on this referring to the class as an “aircraft carrier in disguise” (Keck, 2013). The construction of the Izumo-class was interpreted as a further departure from Japan’s anti-militarist ways – as the Japanese constitution is traditionally interpreted as to prohibit the possession of weaponry such as carriers. The negative perceptions surrounding the Izumo-class are not helped by the fact that aircraft carriers were crucial components of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and played significant role during the Pacific War. The idea of Japan once again possessing such weaponry, and the general remilitarization it possibly symbolizes makes some regional states, most importantly China, fairly uncomfortable.

From an offensive realist perspective defence spending is a crucial component in determining the intentions of states, which in turn affect the severity of security dilemma, even more so than the legislative changes proposed by the Abe administration. If Japan is remilitarizing through increasing defence spending, then it could potentially become a threat to other regional states, justifying their concerns. However, such a determination is contingent on Japan actually seeking to significantly bolster its combat potential. To determine this it is imperative to take a critical look on just how significant the increase in defence spending was, and potentially more importantly what Japan is spending these increase resources on.

Taking a look at the long term changes in Japanese defence spending reveals that, while the Abe administration increases defence expenditure, it is better understood as returning it to previous levels rather than radically breaking with traditional Japanese defence spending (Ministry of Defence of Japan, 2015)

Even if the Diet approves the latest proposed changes the Japanese defence budget would merely return to the pre-2003 level, rather than Tokyo radically spending more on defence. This is supported by the SIPRI numbers1 (see Figure 1) (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2014).

Figure 1: Defence Spending in Japanese Yen

Figure 1: Defence Spending in Japanese Yen

Both reveal that after a period of gradual decline in Japanese defence spending, primarily due to the continuous recession of the Japanese economy which led to cuts in the defence budget, the Abe administration is gradually returning to the previous level. If Japan’s defence spending is examined as percentage of government spending or percentage of GDP the picture becomes even clearer (see Figure 2) (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2014)

Figure 2: Defense spending by % (SIPRI)

Figure 2: Defense spending by % (SIPRI)

Despite the increases pursued by the Abe administration, Japanese defence spending remains at the traditional 1 percent level of the GPD. In terms of defence spending as percentage of government spending one can even observe a decline, stabilizing at around 2.5 percent. The most obvious explanation for this is that the LDP’s Abenomics managed to improve Japanese economic performance, thus allowing Tokyo to somewhat increase defence spending, without deviating from traditional patterns. That said, if one examines Japanese defence spending in terms of constant (2011) USD, then one can observe a gradual decline in the purchasing power of the Japanese defence budget, even as the budget rises in Japanese Yen (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2014).

This suggests that while the actual numerical value of the budget increases, this does not necessarily translates into the actual expansion of Japanese military capabilities. In effect, while on paper the budget increases, it can afford the purchase of the same or lower level of capabilities that previous budgets did. Besides improvements to the Japanese economy, changes in defence spending can also be influenced by a weakening Japanese yen. The Japanese yen has seen an increase in value relative to the USD between 2008 and 2012, after a period of weakening. However, since 2012 the Japanese yen weakened relative to the USD, both due to US economic recovery and Japanese economic performance, thus once again the Japanese budget loses purchasing power despite the Abe administration increasing it, as the graph illustrates it.

Finally with regard to the absolute size, it is important to understand that despite the hype it is not an objectively significant increase in the overall Japanese defence budget. The difference between its highest and lowest point (based on the official Japanese numbers) is a mere 5.8 percent. Within this four year period the average growth rate was only 1.46 percent. To put this into perspective one can compare this with China’s defence spending, Japan’s main regional rival. During a mere two year period China defence spending has risen 16.78 percent, this is around triple the increase of what Japan did in a four year period. China also maintains a defence budget almost four times larger than that of Japan’s (Stockholm Institute of Peace Research, 2014). Within this context, while Japan’s increasing defence spending is a significant factor, it does not seem to meaningfully alter Japan’s traditional pattern of defence spending. Rather than supporting the narrative of remilitarization, the numbers offer the narrative of stabilization in defence spending following economic recession.

But beyond the mere size of the Japanese defence budget, it is crucial to examine what the money is spent on. If Japan pursues an active acquisition of offensive weaponry, then it would be a major concern for regional states, following the logic of the security dilemma from an offensive realist perspective. Beneficial for this question is that Japan is fairly transparent on its defence spending, unlike China, and thus it is easy to gain insight into the capabilities Japan seeks to acquire. The 2013 to 2016 defence budgets distribution by capability type can be represented as per Figure 3 (Japan Ministry of Defence, 2013 - 20162 ).

Figure 3: Total defence spending (2013-2016) by type

Figure 3: Total defence spending (2013-2016) by type

Examining the kind of capabilities Japan is purchasing shows that the budget follows a balanced approach. The purchase of offensive weaponry is not disproportionately predominant that could suggest that Japan is gearing up for an offensive.. 51 percent of budget has been distributed amongst supporting capabilities (surveillance, transport and amphibious), surveillance being the single largest expense category. The distribution of the budget is suited to a country seeking to secure remote naval territories, evidenced by the high investment in surveillance, naval and air capabilities. The low investment in amphibious capabilities do not support any accusation of Japan harbouring intentions to acquire capabilities that would enable power projection beyond Japanese waters.

Rather than interpreting the recent budgetary trends as the remilitarization of Japan, they can be better understood as Tokyo’s response to a changing security environment under Abe’s NSS. The end of the Cold War has diminished the Soviet Union in the north as the primary threat to Japan. The conclusion of the Cold War also largely eliminated the threat of a total or major war that would threaten the territorial security of the Japanese main islands. These changes were paralleled by the rise of China and the increase in tension this brought to maritime Northeast and Southeast Asia. The defence of outlying territories and the waters surrounding them became the top priority, therefore a major challenge to the JSDF is to adapt its hardware as it prepared all these years to defend the main islands from attack. A good symbol for this within the ranks of the JSDF was the reduction in the number of main battle tanks, and diverting funds into the acquisition of aircrafts and naval vessels.

At the same time one has to consider the age of the equipment maintained by JSDF. Well-designed military hardware can serve for an extraordinary long time. The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress strategic bomber is proof of this. It is still in service, despite its introduction in the 1950s. However, as technology improves, hardware eventually has to be replaced. The main surveillance aircraft of the JSDF is the Lockheed P-3C Orion, a plane introduced in 1962. And while it is an excellent plane, which has undergone several modernization cycles, it eventually needs to be replaced. The JSDF is introducing the Kawasaki P-1 for this purpose.

Similarly, a portion of the Maritime Self-Defence Force (MSDF) fleet was built in the 1980s-1990s. While destroyers can last a long time, and they are constantly subject to upgrades and modernization, they have to be eventually replaced as seen with the Shirane-class. This is especially so as the past 15 to 20 years saw a remarkable improvement in in military technology, such as introducing low radar profile destroyers to counter the ever more devastating and accurate missiles employed by opponents. Naturally there will be some overlap during the introduction of new hardware, but military budgets prepare for both the conflicts of tomorrow and the conflicts 10 years from now. Most of the major items on Japan’s defence budget can be understood as motivated by one or both of the reasons discussed above:

The high investment into the procurement of a large number of new P-1 aircrafts (20 new aircrafts in 2015) is both motivated by the changing security environment and the need for replacement. Under increasing pressure to protect its southern waters amidst increasing Chinese activity, Japan is facing the daunting task of covering a vast area of water with higher frequency than ever before, while doing so with an ageing P-3C fleet. Although the budget devotes resources to upgrade the existing fleet of P-3Cs, Japan has to prepare for their eventual retirement, while also increasing the number of flights covering the area as the number of intrusions by China has risen drastically, necessitating a higher level of vigilance. The increasing demand amidst growing Chinese activity, both in the air and sea, also explains the acquisition of other hardware. Investment into E-2D airborne early warning and E-767 airborne warning and control systems aircrafts is mandated by growing Chinese air activity, which has quadrupled since 2010 (Ministry of Defence of Japan), especially following China’s declaration of a conflicting air defence identification zone (ADIZ). The acquisition of surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) can be explained by the need to better monitor activity on remote, uninhabited islands, whether it is detecting the presence of activists or foreign military forces. Similarly the need to have better coverage also explains the purchasing of new patrol helicopters. The need to better monitor remote islands also explains the investment into creation monitoring units.

The naval investment, which is the second largest expense category, can be explained by a combination of factors. One, maintenance of strength. While older models are upgraded, they will have to be eventually replaced with newer classes, a process that can take years in the case of a completely new class (which is the case for the MSDF) as it progresses from construction through sea trials to eventual commissioning. This is especially true for the MSDF submarine force where the older Oyashio-class is essentially called back from retirement, while the newer Soryu-class is being built, to address growing tensions on the East China Sea. Two, preserving the balance of power. While Japan has a strong surface combatant fleet, it faces ambitious potential adversaries with large defence budgets. China is in the process of introducing the new Type 052D-class, potentially adding three new destroyers a year to its fleet, while also already working on the 10 000 tons Type 55-class. Allocating resources for one new destroyer a year allows Japan to slow down any Chinese attempts to close the naval gap. When it comes to submarines the situation is direr. While Japanese submarines have a technological edge, they are severely outnumbered compared to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N). Introducing a new submarine each year, while modernizing older classes allows Japan to maintain the necessary forces to counter existing threats.

One can observe a similar situation in the air. The bulk of acquisition focuses on purchasing the new F-35, while modernizing the existing fleet. The Air Self-Defence Force (ASDF) is reliant on F-15s and F-2s (the local version of the F-16). While both of these are excellent aircrafts, they have been in service since the 1970s and 1990s respectively. For example neither classes offer even limited stealth capabilities. They are not only face a numerical challenge from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLA-AF), but as Chinese aircrafts become increasingly sophisticated, they also increasingly face a technological challenge. Again, the acquisition of new aircrafts can be explained by the growing military power of the states surrounding Japan, especially its neighbour China.3

The investment into transport and amphibious capabilities can also be explained by Japan’s changing security environment. Traditionally the JSDF has prepared to fight on the home islands, which necessitated neither massive air transport capabilities nor extensive amphibious forces. However, as the key frontier has moved to remote islands the JSDF faces the obvious challenge of how to actually get forces there without suffering the indignity of having to argue that they will rely on chartering civilian vessels. The C-1 aircraft was constructed in a way to have limited operational range to satisfy the provisions of Article 9 to a frankly absurd degree. It is not suitable to reach Okinawa under some conditions, let alone the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The JSDF has purchased some C-130s to remedy this, but the fleet remains small. Introducing the C-2 would allow Japan not only to increase air transport capacity, but to do so with a more modern aircraft. At the same time, Japan has never maintained amphibious forces. Thus if it would wish to retake potentially captured islands with anything other than paratroopers, which is a fairly risky proposition, it would have faced difficulties from lack of equipment and specialized troops. Recent investments into amphibious equipment and training can be explained by the recognition that it might need to retake remote islands due to rising tensions. But even so, Japanese amphibious forces remain very small, they are sufficient for limited war, but not suited for expeditionary warfare.

Overall, the fact remains that Japan’s defence budget continues to be a status quo one. There is no indication that Japan would gear up for the abandonment of its traditional posture, or that Tokyo is even significantly remilitarizing, as critics would like to believe. All of the major expenses can be explained either by the necessity to replace aging equipment or as a response to the growing military power of potentially hostile neighbours.

PM Abe’s Defence Policy: Is Japan truly on a Warpath?

The two sections above outlined the various changes pursued by the Abe Administration to Japan’s security policy. The key question to consider then is how this changes affect the regional balance of power. As discussed above, these changes have been condemned as war legislation (domestically) and as a return of Japanese militarism (by China). But such condemnation is either largely done on principle or is motivated by strategic manoeuvring as the actual pragmatic content of the changes fails to validate such criticism.

A large chunk of the legislative package aims to clarify the role of the JSDF and its rules of engagement. Whether anti-militarist critics of the Government are pleased with it or not, the JSDF is here to stay. The idea that a sovereign state could exists without independent means of defence is not a sound one. Article 9 in its current form is short and simplistic and most matters concerning of the JSDF are based on reinterpretations of the constitution and various cabinet decisions. It is troubling when calling the 7th strongest armed force on the planet a ‘military’ is considered a gaff (Aoki, 2015; Global Firepower, 2016). The various legal clarifications provided by the new legislations are crucial to provide clarity and transparency to how the Japanese government would use the military power it has.

The most contentious issue has been the idea of collective self-defence. A reductionist interpretation of the proposed changes could lead a reading of the Abe Administration’s stance as a gateway to American-styled interventionism. However, this ignores the crucial proposition that Japan can only provide assistance in a conflict if the outcome of said conflict is deemed important for the security of Japan itself. Renouncing the right to collective self-defence, which is granted by Article 51 of the UN Convention, would mean that Japan arbitrarily dooms itself to resist aggression from a weakened position. Critics of the legislation would prefer that Japan continues with its passive stance towards regional security, which would prevent the Government of Japan of taking proactive action to protect the sovereignty of Japan. Rather than getting involved at an early phase of regional conflicts that potentially threatens Japan as it evolves. If the critics had their way Japan would be required to observe from the side-lines until a direct attack is made against Japanese territory. At that point defending Japan might be a considerably more difficult task. And if that fails, they expect Japan to stand up to the aggressor on its own, or more likely to cower behind the U.S. provided security umbrella. The right to collective self-defence, if used according to the spirit of the law, is a key avenue to states to undertake their responsibility for regional security and oppose revisionist states in a collective manner. While one can debate the merit of individual cases of collective self-defence, a blanket ban on the concept is an irrational and irresponsible policy position. Calling the right to collective self-defence ‘war legislation’ is simply wrong. The current rules do not permit Japan to act aggressively towards its neighbours. It only provides Japan with the right to intervene in conflicts that would eventually involve Japan anyway at an earlier stage, improving Japan’s odds of maintaining security through lower costs.

The entire package discussed above seeks to allow Japan to build strong ties with regional states in order to resist attempts to alter the status quo, and it lacks aggressive components that would justify the criticism. Collective self-defence allows Japan to terminate relevant conflicts before an actual attack is carried out against Japanese territory. The new arms export rules allow Japan to strengthen allies, decreasing the need for Japan to engage in collective self-defence as better armed allies have a better chance of resisting aggression on their own. It also benefits Japan by strengthening the native defence industry, achieving economies of scale and reducing potential dependency on foreign arms. The new ODA rules also seek to improve ties with allies and strengthen Japan’s image as a responsible regional power. Limiting humanitarian assistance on the basis of military involvement, as the previous ODA policy’s restriction on cooperation with military entities would require, is counterproductive. It is especially so in the case of national emergencies where one can expect strong military involvement. This is not uncommon in various key regional states where the military continues to be an important institution.

When discussing the new legislative changes, one’s imagination should less go to the Imperial Japanese Army marching through China in the 1930s and 1940s and more to the JSDF providing disaster relief to the Philippines in 2013. The legislative package allows the Government to respond to challenges with more flexibility, but there is no component (in its current form) that would enable Tokyo to act aggressively towards its neighbours.

Furthermore, Japan’s defence spending further disproves any accusation of Japan gearing for war. The JSDF lacks any significant expeditionary capability and there is no provision that would seek to change this. Rather the increase in defence budget seeks to address traditional Japanese weaknesses, such as the inability to transport troops within its own territory. The expansion of Japan’s amphibious capabilities is small, barely suitable to deal with crisis on Japan’s remote islands. Other investments, such as the purchase of new vessels and aircraft is reactionary in nature. While China’s desire to close the military gap is rational in its own right, the logic of balance of power politics dictate that Japan would attempt to preserve the status quo. While the increased spending is sufficient to maintain pace with Japan’s regional rivals, it is not a military build-up that seeks to alter the balance of power in its own right.

The key theme of this legislation is that it is reactionary in nature. Japan seeks to improve its ability to preserve the status quo. Based on the current legislation it does not seek to alter it. Thus, it is this research’s conclusion that the current direction of Japanese security legislation is not expected to significantly upset the balance of power. It is highly unlikely that these changes would put Japan on the warpath. Even if the Abe Administration would have the will to revive Japanese imperialism, they lack the political capital and military might to do so, beyond the restrictions in place even the new legislation would not permit such behaviour.

To provide further illustration on the matter one could compare Japan’s changing defence legislation to that of Germany, another key aggressor of the 19th and early 20th Century with a legacy of imperialism, conquest and mass atrocities:

Germany has been one of the major arms exporting countries in the post-Cold War era. A defence manufacturer requires an export license approved by the government (BAFA, 2003).
In 2014, the German Government aimed to adopt a stricter approach to approving export licenses to reduce exports to ‘problematic’ countries (Vasagar, 2014).
Despite these efforts, German arms export nearly doubled since 2014, and it continues to supply countries such as Saudi Arabia (Deutsche Welle, 2016).

On collective security, Germany is part of a number of security organizations, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the European Union (EU), all of which involve collective security measures. Currently, Germany is providing support to war efforts in Syria and has participated in the UN authorized war in Afghanistan. At the same time, Germany abstained from the intervention in Libya.

In many aspects, Germany has rules similar to what Japan aspires to, i.e. a normal security policy. With these legislation in place no one would suggest that Germany is reviving its early 20th Century imperialism or that it acts against the global or regional status quo. If anything, Germany, just as Japan, receives criticism that it needs to do more for regional and global security, especially as the EU and Germany, just as Japan, faces worsening security conditions (Mardell, 2014).

The comparison with Germany is also apt on what one can expect for Japan following the changes. Germany suffered 54 casualties in Afghanistan. The new rules under Abe would increase the likelihood of Japan being involved in an armed confrontation and suffering casualties. However, the price of intervention is expected to be lower compared with the price of having to defend Japan’s home territory, especially when it comes to civilian destruction. And as Germany’s conduct did not act as a gateway to once again annex the Sudetenland, it is equally absurd to propose that Abe’s defence policy would increase the risk of Japan occupying the Korean Peninsula.

Nevertheless, there is one type of actor that should be concerned with Japan’s legislations. A country that harbours revisionist intentions of its own. The policy direction pursued by the Abe Administration will enhance Japan’s ability to be more active on the international level, to support allies through ODA and arms exports, and to create a stronger coalition favourable to Japanese interests. On its own this is not particularly troubling as Japan has a vested interest in maintaining the existing status quo. However, this is troubling for China, as Beijing has significant interests in expanding its regional influence at the expense of the established power structures. Abandoning Japan’s traditionally timid stance would negatively affect China’s ability to exert influence over the East and South China Seas.

The refocusing of Japan’s ODA rules will be a critical component of Japan’s response to rising security challenges. Despite decades of stagnation the Japanese economy continues to be strong. And providing assistance to regional states, such as equipment for naval law enforcement, would be the least politically controversial way for Tokyo to act as it would not require the dispatch of the JSDF. Offering equipment and training to coast guards in key countries, such as the Philippines, would allow these countries to more effectively counter Chinese grey zone challenges and resists Chinese pressure on territorial disputes. While certainly upsetting to Beijing, this would be an effective and efficient way to pursue Japanese regional security interests.

Overall, the current state of Japanese defence policy brings the JSDF’s Izumo-class in mind. The class has been maligned as the symbol of growing Japanese militarism, an aircraft carrier in disguise. The class possesses no direct offensive weaponry. And Japan possesses no aircrafts or UAVs that could utilize it as a carrier (Japan has been purchasing the A variant of the F-35, not the B one which is capable of vertical take-off or landing, and the Global Hawk UAV is not armed). Even if Japan would acquire the appropriate aircrafts for the Izumo-class, the ships lack capacity to fulfil the role of an American aircraft carrier. Furthermore, Japan would need a sizable supporting fleet to employ them as part of a carrier group. Its most likely defence related use could be anti-submarine warfare (ASW), helicopter patrolling or to facilitate the retaking of remote islands. What it is not suitable for is to meaningfully threaten any of Japan’s neighbours in the absence of significant additional military build-up.


The security environment surrounding Japan is changing. Post-Cold War optimism surrounding a new era of peace gives way to rising new traditional and non-traditional security challenges. Japan’s security policy needs to adapt to the times. Yet, change is hard. Leaving the comfort of the existing known is difficult, especially for the unknown. The criticism against these new policies are not surprising. But nevertheless they are wrong. None of the changes proposed by PM Abe amount to ‘war legislation’ or would allow the JSDF to meaningfully threaten its neighbours. Japan can ill afford to neglect its security responsibilities and Tokyo recognizes that those responsibilities are increasingly intertwined with other regional states. The legislative changes seek to provide the flexibility needed for Tokyo to defend Japan under changing circumstances. No more, no less. Domestically, critics of the legislation have to realize that Japan’s previous stance on these matters has been abnormal. For the idealists it might be a point of unique pride, but one can ill afford to be idealistic in a dangerous world. Internationally, a regional rival, such as China, has a vested interest in the failure of these reforms, as they would negatively impact their own plans. The guilt of World War II is a convenient cover for their own realpolitik designs. The policies pursued by Abe are not unique nor they are deviating from global norms, they merely represent the partial normalization of Japan’s security posture, as also highlighted by Hughes (2004).

Japan does not possesses the capabilities to meaningfully threaten the territorial integrity of its neighbours. PM Abe’s policies do not change this. If Japan begins rapidly acquiring expeditionary capabilities, one should re-evaluate the regional security situation. But until then, Japan is merely seeking to preserve the existing status quo. This might upset some regional states, but does not warrant the criticism discussed at the beginning of this paper.


1 Data based on Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates, in contrast to data publicized by the Japanese Ministry of Defense

2 Data was compiled by the author across the various white papers released by the Ministry of Defence from 2013 to 2016.

3 On the growing sophistication of the PLA see: Cole (2010), Cordesman et al. (2013), Office of the Secretary of Defence (2013) and O’Rourke (2013).


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Last Updated: 10/01/2019