12 September 2015

Japan’s Armed Forces: The Ultimate Military or an Out-of-Date Relic?

By Paul D. Shinkman
Sept. 9, 2015

Nations celebrating the 70th anniversary of World War II question the current balance of power in the Pacific.

Japanese Self Defense Force troops participate in a new year military drill at a training grounds in suburban Tokyo in January 2013.

Japan's armed forces provoke a range of emotions. Founded in the nation's brutal inherited history with China and South Korea, its more-recent desire to match the military might of its modern economic peers sharply juxtaposes with lessons taught in schoolrooms of an empire that entered into a catastrophic conflict ending with bloody throes on its own shores.

The economic powerhouse is now in the midst of a critical debate. While nations around the world mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Japan's legislature is weighing a new law that would reinterpret fundamental rules that have governed the country's military in the wake of surrender in 1945.

Now a conservative leader, a predominantly hands-off American military policy and an increasingly boisterous neighborhood force the island nation to reconsider its own laws that muzzle its ability to wage war.

At first glance, Japanese military forces look like that of any other country of the same size. It spent roughly the same last year on its armed forces as Germany, for example. Its ground troops, seamen and pilots wear uniforms and operate much of the same machinery as its patron, the United States, which has sold Japan almost $5 billion in military equipment in the last decade, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. It possesses modern rifles, missiles, jets, seafaring vessels that bear aircraft, and all of the other framework that the common observer would associate with an offensive force.

The difference lies in those small details that align with Article IX of its post-war constitution, enshrining the Japanese people's aspiration to "forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes."

Those missiles, for example, can shoot at other aircraft and other ships, but not ground targets, for that latter requirement would only be necessary for an offensive military. Its military does not have what other world forces call "ground-attack doctrine," or the rules, training and techniques to root out and destroy an opposing army. It has vessels that look like aircraft carriers, but most of its aircraft can't actually land or take off directly from them.

Japan has, however, stretched and reinterpreted previous restrictions on the use of its Self-Defense Forces and found ways to contribute to the international security agreements from which it benefits. Its military actively participates in an international anti-piracy initiative based in Djibouti providing aerial reconnaissance and surveillance. It even sent engineers and humanitarian assistance to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq during the last war – but could not provide its own security. Instead, Dutch armed forces protected the Japanese troops, contributing to a growing sense of humiliation among some corners of the historically fearsome nation.

"The leadership in Japan is trying to fix, or rectify, or improve what they see as an unfortunate situation for Japan, this post-war environment," says Jim Schoff, a former Defense Department senior adviser for the region. "They've accepted a military that is less capable, less internationally respected or even respected domestically – it's all this legacy of self-restraint and neutering themselves when they should be able to do what other countries do."

Indeed, the Japanese legislature's upper house is currently considering a new law that would slightly expand the role of its self defense forces. The law, which passed the lower house last month, would allow Japanese troops deployed abroad to use force to protect themselves from allied countries when deployed abroad. This could apply, for example, to the Japanese contribution to anti-piracy operation in Djibouti or if it participates in a U.N. peacekeeping operation. It would also alter the requirement that the Japanese military must get special legal permissions from its government to send logistical support out to deployed troops, such as aerial refueling tankers.

The proposals have been met with intense, widespread blowback from protesters who claim it represents government overreach and a misrepresentation of Article IX.

The debate also comes at a time of renewal for Japan in international security issues. Japan will likely resume a position on the U.N. Security Council when the General Assembly convenes this fall, after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe persuaded Bangladesh to withdraw from the election as Japan's only opponent for the region. The Japanese delegate will also serve as the chairman of the G7 industrialized powers next year, when Japan will also host a summit for the bloc.

Japan's historic inability to reciprocate to its military allies has become the chief argument of relatively hawkish Abe for bolstering the forces, perhaps beyond a strictly self-defense role.

"A military alliance is a blood alliance," he wrote in a 2004 book. "If Japanese don't shed blood, we cannot have an equal relationship with America."

In a speech before Congress in April, Abe called for greater military ties with the U.S. beyond the billions of dollars Japan contributes to American military bases in places like Okinawa, which serve as living symbols of the end of World War II and are a key part of President Barack Obama's much-touted but ill-defined "Rebalance to the Pacific."

And last month, the prime minister offered his office's usual "mea culpa" for Japan's involvement in World War II, but did not add any new apologies as tradition dictates; Abe repeated his predecessors' "heartfelt apologies," but stated future generations should not have to keep apologizing for their country's history. That move drew criticism from China and South Korea and indicated the Japanese leader believes his country might be ready to move on from decades-old balances of power.

Obama's signature policy also contributes to some of the biggest obstacles to Japan's shifting the way it uses military force. China, a principal U.S. trading partner, and South Korea, a key ally, both would likely object to an increasingly militarized Japan, particularly at a time when no country in the region can agree on who owns which shoals or what parcels of ocean.

"It's very emotional," says Yuki Tatsumi, a former special assistant for political affairs at the Japanese Embassy in Washington. She cites "understandable grievances" among South Koreans and Chinese at the historic human rights abuses committed by Japanese powers during previous conflicts.

But Japan, in turn, has reason to be concerned about its own security now, with the U.S. under Obama shifting away from quick-fire, even pre-emptive strikes in favor of prompting partner countries to fight for themselves.

"They're very worried about China. They're very worried about North Korea. And they are worried that although the U.S. does have a defense commitment to Japan based on the security treaty, they are aware that a U.S.-Japan alliance is fundamentally a one-sided proposition," says Tatsumi, now with the East Asia program at the Stimson Center.

Japan doesn't have the reassurances it needs that the U.S. will choose its ally over China if it came to an armed land dispute – a scenario as likely as ever following the release of a Chinese-made videodepicting its forces invading Okinawa. And local officials saw Russia's ability to seize and annex territory in Ukraine with relatively little pushback from the West as a signal to other great powers, such as China and North Korea, that they might be able to accomplish a similar grab.

These concerns are not shared by the entirety of the Japanese population. Those who are middle aged and older respond to what many local researchers call "the last battle of the Japanese left," encompassing the belief that Japan's history of war justifies a continued policy constrained to peace. That position is taught in most grade schools and universities and formed an ideology among many students that any war policy beyond the self defense forces' current responsibilities is morally abhorrent.

Indeed some interpretations of Abe's reforms believe they still align with Japan's legal restrictions to peaceful measures, as shown through some opposition within his own cabinet.

"Japan's military has grown into a powerful force, even though it's dedicated to a self-defense mission," says Sheila Smith, a regional expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. "Japan's military policy is not static and has adapted to both changes in the regional balance of power and to global efforts to organize collective military forces."

"Japan's prewar experience remains an important backdrop for the contemporary debate within Japan," she adds, particularly amid deep national resistance to using the military as an instrument of national security. "Worry about Chinese reaction is less a factor than it was in the past, given the sense of many Japanese that Beijing's military power is growing and increasingly worrisome. But there is no appetite in Japan for military conflict with China, and [they] prefer diplomacy as a means for peacefully settling disputes."

Japan's constitutional embrace of peace also serves as an example of what some consider the ultimate military. Imagine, for example, if all world powers possessed only the ability to defend themselves and not the power to attack one another.

"That clause is still a beacon of hope in a way for how international relations could be conducted," says Schoff. "What if we all had constitutions that forbade the ability to use force to settle disputes? What if we all designed our militaries to be very potent in a defensive way, but relatively impotent in an offensive way?"

That may, however, do little right now to assuage concerns over graphic depictions of China's launching shock troops to conquer Japan. Even if that situation never plays out in reality, Beijing's propensity for building its own real estate in Japan's neighborhood still serves as fodder for Japan's conservative visionaries.

Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at pshinkman@usnews.com

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