Japan’s military: Standing on the edge of a cliff

By Rohan Singh

Ever Since World War II when two nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan, the Japanese constitution that was formed stated that Japan would not take active part in military operations around the world and would only raise a military for self-defense. The Peace Constitution of Japan has restricted the country from becoming a world strong military power and has kept the government at bay. Recently under the administration of the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Constitution’s Act regarding the military has been re-interpreted and has been passed in the parliament to allow the increase of military activity. Abe saw the previous policy as a very timid move on Japan’s part and was eager to implement the new policy. This policy was received extremely well by it’s allies like United States of America, Australia and India but was seen harshly by China, North Korea, Russia and also from South Korea but only to a certain extent as South Korea is more suspicious rather than threatened. “In Washington, Abe’s vision for the Japanese future has been well received” (John Lee, 66).

Reinterpreting the Constitution was probably one of the most important agendas for Shinzo Abe as being the Prime Minister he has to keep the nation’s interests in mind. Even though not everyone was happy with such a move to make the military more active, but there was a majority support. This support garnered after Japan started facing problems with its neighbors in the north of Japan and also in the South. Japan has been facing continuous problems with Russia and China, as Russia and Japan are having disputes in the north of Japan over Kuril Islands and Japan and China are having conflict in the south of Japan over the Senkaku islands. It is true that in each of these conflicts the countries claim the islands to be their own territories and these conflicts are one of the main reason for Japan’s new military strategy. And even though there was a majority for Shinzo Abe, the policy to make the Japanese military more active was not the best decision but, Japan should not also be summed into the Self-Defense forces that it is now. This Paper offers a new Policy solution that keeps the Japanese military at par with it’s threat while also not attracting unnecessary threat that could lead to a war, which would lead to nearly 100-year setback for Japan.

Measuring the current status

According to the CIA World Factbook, Japan uses only 0.9% of it’s GDP on military spending which gives it a rank of 102 in the world in terms of the spending on military in direct proportion with the country’s GDP. Statistics are showing that Japan has kept it’s military spending on the backburner for many years but with the re-interpretation of the constitution the numbers are set to rise soon. In comparison with Japan, China and Russia spend 2% and 3.5% of their total GDP on military, which in this regard may not seem much but is actually humungous when seen in actual terms. Toshi Yoshihara who writes for Orbis did some research on China and Japan and found that in 2013, Japan spent a total of $51 billion on military spending and in comparison China spent a total of $112 billion which is more than double of what Japan spent. In terms of sheer numbers, Japan is outnumbered by both China and Russia. Though, Japan does have a military pact with the United States, in the off-chance of a two front war with Russia and China it is doubtful that the United States would want to step in and fight Russia and China at the same time in the interest of their own people and also to prevent a global nuclear war outbreak. China’s continuous rise in the last three decades has led to a rise in Chinese confidence and the new Chinese government wants to make sure that Japan is never able to humiliate China again like it did in the two Sino-Japanese wars. This new found Chinese confidence has led to friction being created in the East China Sea, “Abe has increasingly viewed the Chinese not only as a problem for Japan but for the postwar liberal order itself. The cause of these new misgivings is the increase in Chinese aggression in the region’s maritime domains since around 2010” (John Lee, 68). With Russia spending $100 billion in 2015 (Double of Japan) under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, a new military strategy has been set in motion to bring Russia to the similar superpower it was during the Soviet Union era. According to Lamont Colucci’s “Great Power Struggle” the new Russian military strategy under Putin has a new focus on the Kuril Islands, which puts them at dispute with Japan.

Japan’s new stance

In 2015, Shinzo Abe managed to convince the people and the majority of the parliament that Japan needs to be able to deploy military overseas to be able to protect the nation’s personal interests. According to John Lee’s ‘Tokyo Ascending’ Shinzo Abe has pushed the most for proactive military role, “Abe’s determination to go beyond protecting national sovereignty and inextricably and explicitly tie Japan’s more ‘proactive role’ to upholding and protecting regional order is several steps further than any contemplated by his postwar predecessors” (John Lee, 68). This new interpretation of the constitution has its positive and negative aspects. The comparison between these is as follows beginning with the positive aspects first.


Japan’s Allies especially the United States, India, Australia and even Singapore (John Lee, 69) have warmly welcomed the move of Japan as all these countries have been worried about China’s sudden rise and the Chinese threat to the instability of the Asia-Pacific region. China has been continuously bothering Japan in the East China Sea, Singapore in the South China Sea, and India in their border disputes and the United States in the Asia-Pacific waters. For these countries having an extra ally to back them up in the fight against China’s bullying tactics can only be seen positively for these countries especially the United States, as they do not feel that Japan was over-dependent on them for Japan’s own security.


Some argue that Japan has lost its edge and is slowly on it’s decline, such a maneuver can help Japan rise back up to the world power it had been for around two decades. Japan was a vibrant nation during the World War II and the military spending and military activeness must be given credit for being responsible for Japan’s rise. Just like the Western countries, Japan too had colonies in Korea and China and was fighting a war across the Pacific and was fairing well for being such a small island nation. Now with the same threat that was seen in World War II of fighting a two front war with China and Russia, Japan’s new re-interpretation will not only provide jobs for the youth, but also boost the economy of it’s own countries as well as for it’s allies while giving the nation a new reason to take pride in joining the military.


During the World War II days, Japan was manufacturing it’s own weaponry, machinery and equipment that was needed by the armed forces. There will be an increase in revenue for military companies especially the American firms as Japan relies on the United States for most of it’s military equipment, “Japan leads every other Asian country when it comes to foreign aid and foreign direct investment into the region” (John Lee, 69). The United States will see a slight boost in its economy and also in the job market as the demand from Japan will now increase. Japan itself will start looking towards it’s domestic companies to start producing weapons and equipment which will increase Japan’s employment and exports as Japan’s advanced technologies will be available for sharing and export to it’s allies, “Japanese military equipment and technology may also be sold to like-minded Southeast Asian states that join in the effort to resist China’s expanded territorial claims and maintain both the territorial status quo in the South China Sea and the shape of the regional order more generally” (John Lee, 72).

With such positive impacts from Japan’s militarization, there has to be a resistance, which was felt by the Abe administration bringing us to the negative aspects of Japan’s move to become militarily active.

China and Russia

China and Russia will now take Japan seriously and will want to challenge them in every possible way. Ever since the World War II both these countries had overlooked Japan as Japan was not willing to be involved in any military conflict, but now with Japan taking America’s side, China and Russia know that Japan will not hesitate to help the United States in the off chance of a possible future war. According to Toshi Yoshihara, China has overtaken Japan in every aspect, from the naval ships to number of troops to Air-Power, China has over taken Japan by a huge margin and that Japan will never be able to catch up with China, “Consider that China has not only overtaken Japan in economic size, but dramatically surpassed Tokyo in defense spending” (Yoshihara, Orbis).

Russia too is not letting Japan breathe as both these countries are still at dispute over Kuril Islands, where both countries are claiming the sovereignty over the Islands, “For the nearly 70 years since then, the dispute has prevented Russia and Japan from signing a formal peace treaty” (Tine Burrett, 360). Even though Russia and Japan are trying hard to come to a peaceful conclusion, the egoistic pride of both nations comes in the way of coming to a conclusion.

America’s weakening stance

Washington D.C. took Japan’s new stance towards an active military extremely positively, because they want Japan to become more militarily independent so they can spend less money on protecting Japan. America would like to still be able to sell arms to Japan till Japan becomes completely independent militarily. One of the reasons is that America does not necessarily want to be dragged into unwanted disputes with the Russians and the Chinese, because such a situation will lead to a global nuclear war. Japan can also not wholly rely on the United States anymore, “If Washington signals to Tokyo that it is downsizing its protections, Japan will accelerate its strategic independence” (Colucci, 49). Now that Washington knows that it does not have to bear the brunt of disputes in North East Asia involving Japan, they would like to slowly and slowly over a period of time pullout of Japan on the pretext that Japan can handle it’s personal interests now that they too have an active military.

Japan’s backyard problems

Many had voiced a concern in Japan that Shinzo Abe’s move to re-interpret the constitution and make the military more active would be a problem for Japan in the long run. China’s rise to power will never be matched by Japan in a military aspect, “Japan can no longer respond to every offensive Chinese capability with an exclusively defensive measure” (Yoshihara, Orbis). Secondly Japan’s biggest crisis is that it’s population is aging extremely fast and that will be a problem in sustaining a military in the long run as a military needs a constant supply of youth. Japan’s aging population will force the government to rethink it’s public policies, “Public pensions and government medical expenditures in our model capture key institutional features of these programs in Japan” (Anton Braun and Douglas Joines, 3). Japan has also raised concern over it’s ties with the United States as Japan and it’s people are not in full support of joining America in it’s war expeditions around the world, “For example, the Abe government recently concluded that it was not constitutionally possible for Japan to join America and contribute militarily to the fight against the Islamic State in the Middle East” (John Lee, 70). The biggest problem is raised by the people of Japan themselves as there were massive numbers who were not in support of the re-interpretation which would allow Japan to send troops to foreign countries, “Multiple surveys and studies across a long period of time, including up to the current period, show that any expansive use of Japanese military assets would be strongly resisted not only by large numbers of staunch advocates devoted to the postwar pacifist philosophy but by much of the population. Around half of all Japanese surveyed are opposed even to the fairly modest reinterpretation of the Constitution to allow collective self-defense under the limited conditions mentioned above. These are hardly domestic conditions conducive to the revival of pre-war Japanese militarism, which Abe’s critics charge is his ultimate objective.” (John Lee, 71). Clearly, Abe’s administration has racked up more problems than solutions in re-interpreting the constitution.

Why it matters and where to go from here?

Japan’s national image and interests are at stake like they have never been before as they are feeling threatened by China, Russia and to some extent from North Korea. This threat has led to a miscalculated decision made by the government by re-interpreting the nation’s constitution which now allows the military to be deployed overseas to protect the nation’s interests. This has been like sweet music to the ears for Japan’s allies but has gotten strong revolt from the Japanese people themselves and also from China and Russia who would not like to provoke a war in the East Asian region. Japan does get a few benefits like the approval from allies and an economic boost but these are short-term and the long-term disadvantages outweigh these benefits. So was there even a need to re-interpret the Japanese constitution? Yes, there was an urgent need to re-interpret the constitution because the constitution has not changed in relation with the changing threat to Japan. The current re-interpretation forces Japan to join its allies, mostly the United States inwhatever war they are involved in.

Instead of re-interpreting the constitution to allow Japanese forces to deploy overseas, it should have been re-interpreted in this form, that in case of a war breaks out Japan should be able to use its forces to protects its own people and only help allies if the allies are fighting for Japan’s security and ask the Japanese government for support.

Policy implications

With this new interpretation, the Japanese citizens will be at peace that Japan is not being dragged into unnecessary wars that are being waged by the United States. A sense of self-defense is still alive in case a foreign country attacks Japan, then Japan has the freedom to retaliate by sending forces to that foreign nation. The United States will also be re-assured that in case the United States do get involved in a conflict with China, Russia or North Korea, Japan is willing to provide backup support. Since Japan can deploy forces abroad if Japan’s interests are being protected even if there is an ally that is directly involved in the war, Japan has to boost it’s military spending and that created jobs in the manufacturing sector and will also improve the economies of Japan and it’s allies with increased military trade.


  1. Lee, John. “Tokyo Ascending.” World Affairs 178.2 (2015): 66-73. Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 Nov. 2015. (This article gave a detailed analysis of what Japan’s plans are after the re-interpretation of article 9 in their constitution, and was the most useful of sources.)
  2. Colucci, Lamont. “Great Power Conflict.” World Affairs 177.5 (2015): 44-53. Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 Nov. 2015. (Colucci talks about the Asian Powers and their fight for regional hegemony which highlighted a lot of the conflict between China and Japan.)
  3. BURRETT, TINA. “Reaffirming Russia’s Remote Control: Exploring Kremlin Influence On Television Coverage Of Russian-Japanese Relations And The Southern Kuril Islands Territorial Dispute.” Demokratizatsiya 22.3 (2014): 359-381. Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 Nov. 2015. (This study by Burrett was extremely useful in understanding why Japan and Russia are trying to prevent a conflict but nationalism and pride is hampering any future succession.)
  4. Braun, R. Anton, and Douglas H. Joines. “The Implications Of A Graying Japan For Government Policy.” Working Paper Series (Federal Reserve Bank Of Atlanta) 2014.18 (2014): 1. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 25 Nov. 2015. (This study was used to find out Japan’s future government policies as they deal with an aging population.)
  5. Izumikawa, Yasuhiro. “Explaining Japanese Antimilitarism: Normative And Realist Constraints On Japan’S Security Policy.” International Security 2 (2010): 123. Project MUSE. Web. 25 Nov. 2015. (This article was the most helpful in bringing out the reason behind the Japanese people’s anti-militaristic attitude and was helpful in providing the evidence for my theory.)
  6. Yoshihara, Toshi. “Sino-Japanese Rivalry at Sea: How Tokyo Can Go Anti-Access on China.” Orbis: 62-75. Print. (Toshi Yoshihara’s study gave an extensive maritime comparison between China and Japan while also touching on budget spending and technological advances which gave a good comparison between the two nations.)
  7. Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency. Web. 26 Nov. 2015. (CIA-World Factbook was used to collect primary factual and empirical source on Japan, China and Russia.)

Rohan Khattar Singh is a student of International Affairs at Jindal School of International Affairs at O.P Jindal Global University, India. He is enrolled in the Masters of Arts program majoring in Diplomacy, Law and Business.

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