Japan and Its Military

Japan and Its Military

Japan’s constitution forbids a traditional military, allowing only a narrowly defined Self Defense Force, or SDF. Some experts now see acceleration in the longstanding movement to modernize and strengthen the country’s national defense.

April 13, 2006 1:43 pm (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

More on:


Defense and Security

This publication is now archived.


Since 1947, Japan’s constitution has forbidden the formation of a traditional military force. The country has maintained only a Self Defense Force (SDF), the mission of which has been to protect the Japanese mainland. Even within these limitations, the SDF has performed a paramilitary, logistical role, supporting U.S. troops based in Japan in exchange for promises of protection. Some experts now see this dynamic shifting. Arguments for "remilitarization"—or military "normalization," as many proponents term it—have gained currency over the last two decades. Since 9/11, SDF forces have been deployed overseas for the first time (to Afghanistan and Iraq). Their roles have been almost exclusively support-based, but their deployment is seen as symbolic of a change in attitudes as well as a challenge to the constitution. Japan is already one of the world’s largest spenders on national defense, and the SDF is a robust force, though expenditures are narrowly targeted and essentially protective—they include no long-range bombers or missiles, no aircraft carries or nuclear submarines. Japan has come under increasing pressure to redirect this focus and expand its military operations, both from the United States and also domestically, in response to feared threats from China and North Korea.

Why does Japan’s constitution forbid a military?

Japan’s current constitution was written in 1947 under the auspices of the American forces deployed to occupy and rebuild Japan after World War II. The new constitution celebrated goals of peace and democracy; as John W. Dower says in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on postwar Japan, Embracing Defeat, the document was the "crown jewel of the [American] reformist agenda." Article Nine explicitly forbade Japan from maintaining a military or from using force internationally for any reason. It permitted only a narrow self-defense operation, which was founded in 1954 as the SDF. Dower argues that fatigue and disillusionment with wartime nationalism made the Japanese readily willing to accept this doctrine. Much in agreement with General Douglas MacArthur, the leader of the American forces in Japan, they envisioned a "Switzerland of the Far East"—a nation that would make its way by finance, not force.

This acquiescence was made possible by promises of continued American military support. Under the 1954 Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement, the United States pledged to protect Japan under the condition that it could establish permanent military bases on Japanese soil. According to data from 2004, the United States still maintains nearly 50,000 troops at over seventy military bases in Japan, localized overwhelmingly on the southern island of Okinawa.

How strictly has Article Nine been followed?

This is a matter of debate. Some claim Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has already violated the constitution by using military force outside Japan’s national borders. In late 2001, the Japanese navy sank a North Korean spy ship in Chinese waters. Much more publicly, Japan has sent troops to play a supporting role in the American-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq—the first Japanese deployed abroad since World War II. Some experts say this required creative interpretation of Japanese law. To support U.S. troops in the Indian Ocean during the Afghanistan invasion, for instance, Japanese forces worked around a law forbidding cooperation in international military campaigns by providing logistical and refueling support.

Are changes to Article Nine likely?

Some politicians, including Koizumi, have suggested Japan’s constitution, including Article Nine, should be amended. Opinion is mixed on what this might mean in practice, though officials have already said that the first clause of Article Nine, stating that Japan will not go to war, will not be changed. But experts say the second clause could be revised, either to allow the SDF to participate in overseas peacekeeping operations, or more drastically to allow for participation in collective defense campaigns. "A change would help people know what they’re getting," says Ellis Krauss, professor of Japanese politics at the UC-San Diego. "Not changing the constitution gives the LDP [Liberal Democratic Party] much more leeway to interpret as they please."

What is the status of Japan’s military forces?

Japan’s SDF currently has more than 240,000 personnel—all technically civilians, in accordance with the 1954 law establishing the SDF. Its annual budget is nearly $50 billion, divided among land, sea, and air forces. Japan’s navy is considered the most formidable of these three branches, and among the most sophisticated in the world. The air force, historically less powerful than the navy, is currently working with the United States to develop a Theatre Missile Defense system (TMD), and is also considering expanding its long-range precision missile technologies, should the LDP secure either legal approval or amend the constitution.

But given their mandates, the SDF’s naval and air forces have faced some significant constraints. For instance, the navy is not allowed to have nuclear submarines or aircraft carriers, which are considered "offensive weaponry." Some experts have also criticized the overall efficiency of the SDF, given a historical lack of coordination among its branches. "Ten or fifteen years ago, [the branches] couldn’t even communicate with each other," says Masaru Tamamoto, an editor at The Japan Insititute of International Affairs. "An army without air cover is useless." A March 2006 bill has enabled the consolidation of oversight of these operations, marking the first organizational change to the SDF since it was founded. Experts say the bill is likely to increase the SDF’s efficiency, and could also foreshadow a shifting of funds from ground forces to improved air and naval forces

How long have efforts to bolster Japan’s military been underway?

Though some experts say efforts have accelerated recently, the idea of strengthening and modernizing Japan’s military is not new. Yasuhiro Nakasone, conservative prime minister during the 1980s, brought vitality to issues of nationalism and security during his tenure and urged strengthening the SDF and Japanese military ties to the United States. He was also the first prime minister to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to Japanese soldiers killed in World War II including several convicted "class A" war criminals (Koizumi has been criticized for making visits to the same shrine). Though Japan rejected U.S. requests for SDF support during the Gulf War, in 1996 the country agreed to provide nonmilitary support to American forces functioning in a military capacity "near Japan." The Japanese had only so much choice, says Tamamoto. "The Cold War ended and everything came into flux. The question was: Can we continue to rely on the United States? The first answer is, well, we have to. So what’s the price?" The price, says Tamamoto, was cooperation and military modernization at Washington’s behest; hence the 1996 agreement, and, to an even greater extent, the SDF’s participation in Afghanistan and Iraq. Pressure from Washington has only increased since the 9/11 attacks.

What are the arguments in favor of remilitarization?

Japanese pragmatists increasingly voice concerns about their country’s "rough neighborhood." These concerns have fed a desire to bulk up defenses. John H. Miller, a former Foreign Service officer and associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, writes in the World Policy Journal that the main catalyst has been the "rising threat perceptions of North Korea and China." Miller points to Pyongyang’s 1998 launch of a missile over the Japanese mainland, and to confrontations with North Korean spy boats, including the one sunk in 2001. As two former U.S. ambassadors to the Republic of Korea discussed in this January 2006 CFR meeting, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il continues to engage in "nuclear brinksmanship," and Japan has increasingly felt the uncomfortable pinch.

China is also increasingly perceived as a threat. According to December 2005 polls conducted jointly by Gallup and Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun, 72 percent of Japanese said they did not trust China (the lowest numbers since the poll began in the 1970s), and 73 percent feel relations will deteriorate further before they improve. Tamamoto agrees on the chilliness of relations, though he adds that "nobody wants a bad relationship with Beijing." The problem, he says, is that "the political class is stuck"—both because of Koizumi’s repeated, controversial visits to the Yasukuni shrine, and because of mutual intransigence surrounding a recent textbook spat.

Finally, there are increasing concerns from within Japan that the United States might not always embrace its role as Japan’s protector, should the political landscape in East Asia begin to crumble. "There is some concern that the U.S. might not be there when Japan needs its support," says Yuko Nakano, research associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. "When there was a [North Korean] Taepo Dong missile launch in 1998, a conspiracy theory appeared in the Japanese press that the United States was aware of the launch but didn’t inform Japan in a timely fashion. So yes, I think this is a concern of the Japanese."

What is the U.S. stance on Japanese remilitarization?

The United States has long pressured Japan to take a more robust military posture. Though U.S. military bases in Japan serve a critical function for the United States—allowing it to project an image of strength in a potentially volatile region—American military resources are already spread thin worldwide, and U.S. officials have encouraged Japan pick up some of the slack, at least regionally. Developing this relationship could be essential to maintaining regional stability. As Chris Hughes put it in his recent book, Japan’s Re-emergence as a ’Normal’ Military Power, "the framework of a strengthened U.S.-Japan alliance will be crucial for the U.S. in terms of its ability to mobilize regional allies."

What is Japanese public opinion on the question?

Opinion is mixed, experts say, and often depends on how the question is presented. "If you ask Japanese people today if they support ’remilitarization,’ most would say no," says Nakano. "But if you ask the question if they support a broader role of Japanese self-defense forces in the global community, then I believe a higher number would react positively." Tamamoto agrees on this point, and says that much of what is perceived internationally as Japanese "nationalism" or "militarism" might simply be political posturing. "The political class may talk in nationalistic terms, and the world press will pick up on it," he says. "But the basic point is, the population is much more moderate. The military policy, the public is really not excited about it."

Miller and Krauss both argue that there is demographic divide emerging between the postwar generation and the more nationalistic younger generations. "I think it’s definitely true that people in their twenties and thirties ask these questions more than the older generation," says Krauss. "They ask: Why shouldn’t we be like any other country and have a military? Why shouldn’t we have peacekeeping forces?"

What kinds of changes can be expected in the near future?

Krauss predicts that the constitution could be changed within five years, particularly if cabinet secretary Shinzo Abe succeeds Koizumi later this year, as is expected. Other experts say that barring an unforeseen catalyst, changes that are other than purely cosmetic could take a longer time coming. Pacifism is still a culturally entrenched ideology, if also weakening, and there is likely to be resistance to rapid change, even if the constitution is amended. So long as the American military safety net remains, the majority of Japanese seem loath to engage what Miller calls "the rough-and-tumble of international power politics."

More on:


Defense and Security


Top Stories on CFR

International Law

The high court’s decision could allow future U.S. presidents to commit grave abuses of power with impunity, with serious implications for U.S. foreign policy and national security.

Election 2024

The Ohio senator is Donald Trump’s choice as his running mate for the 2024 presidential election.

Election 2024

After a shooting that injured former President Donald Trump and killed a spectator at a campaign rally, leaders of both parties must unite behind efforts to calm and stabilize the political climate.