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Japan's Self-Defense Forces: What Dangers to Northeast Asia?

Authored by Dr. Thomas L. Wilborn. | May 1994

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This study examines Japan as a potential military power in the Asia-Pacific region, and tests the view held by many in the region that Japan could unleash its military and threaten the security of its neighbors. The conclusion is that Japan is not now and is not likely to become a military threat to East Asia, or anywhere else. In the first place, U.S. policy is to remain engaged, and retain a military presence, in the region. Most Asian observers agree that the U.S.-Japan alliance is a guarantor of a peaceful Japan; they worry about Japan because they mistakenly believe that America will "withdraw," and the alliance will lose its meaning.

Second, there is almost no support in Japan for a foreign policy based on military force. If it had not been for U.S. pressure after 1950, Japan probably would have only very small Self-Defense Forces (SDF), if it maintained armed forces at all. As it is, the SDF are under tight civilian control, and restricted by a long series of policy and budget constraints which make these forces the most restricted military organizations among the world's major powers.

Third, the SDF simply do not have the capability to threaten any nation, and could not develop one for years. Japan's defense budget is very large, but not as large as it seems when expressed in U.S. dollars. Moreover, Japan pays extremely high prices for weapons and equipment, and must spend some 40 to 45 percent of its budget on personnel related costs, an unusually high ratio. Additionally, the most generous burden-sharing contributions of all U.S. allies are included in the Japan Defense Agency budget. Except for its navy, the Maritime Self-Defense Force, Japan's armed forces are not superior to those of its neighbors, and are probably inferior.

It would be foolish to predict the future of Japan. Evidence available now suggests that a new generation of Japanese leaders may pursue more active diplomatic roles for Japan, including participation in U.N. peacekeeping activities. Unless the United States disengages from the region and tension develops with North Korea or China, there is little if any evidence that Japan will revert to the use of force as an instrument of national policy.

The United States can and should help change destabilizing perceptions about Japan in at least four ways:

  • By maintaining its alliance with Japan and remaining diplomatically, economically, and militarily engaged in Northeast Asia.
  • By being cautious about pressuring Japan to improve or enlarge the capability of the SDF, especially in ways which might be interpreted as offensive.
  • By supporting efforts, hopefully initiated by other Northeast Asian governments, for confidence-building and transparency measures among the armed forces of the region.
  • By supporting and participating in regional security dialogues and new regional security frameworks, including those initiated by others.


Throughout the Asia-Pacific region, but most noticeably in Korea and China, many defense intellectuals express concerns about potential trouble if--or, sometimes, when--Japan assumes an active, aggressive international role backed by expanded Self-Defense Forces (SDF) with the capability to project power on the mainland of Asia and into the waters of the South China Sea, the Western Pacific Ocean, and the straits and channels which connect them to the Indian Ocean.1 The mere possession of the capability, not to mention its use or the threat to use it, would, many say, cause Japan's neighbors to expand their armed forces and prepare to defend themselves. At the least, there would be troubling tensions and the diversion of assets from economic development to defense; at the worst, there would be instability or even war. Neither development would serve the interests of the United States, which increasingly looks to the region as a market for U.S. exports to stimulate U.S economic growth and global prosperity.

Such critics and others virtually all agree that the immediate catalyst for Japan to reverse four decades of security policy based on the formal renunciation of the use of force could only be the military disengagement of the United States from the region.2 Because of the end of the cold war and a plethora of economic and social problems at home, these critics assert that U.S. disengagement is inevitable. While some believe that Japan will adopt an assertive posture simply because, without U.S. restraint, the latent militarism of the Japanese will reassert itself, less hostile observers do not necessarily assume aggressive Japanese intentions. The latter contend that, having depended upon the alliance with the United States for its defense and the security of its sea lines of communications (SLOC), Japan will have no choice but to reconsider its military posture and security policy when the alliance loses its credibility.3 Many observers believe that the possibility of a rearmed Japan will become extremely high if U.S. disengagement were coupled with a North Korean nuclear threat, an assertive, powerfully armed China, or some currently unforeseen but equally disturbing development.

There is a widespread perception that the United States will soon disengage from the region. That is probably incorrect. Both post-cold war U.S. administrations have pledged to the contrary, making compelling arguments why maintaining a credible military presence and sustaining U.S. alliances--especially with Japan and South Korea--will be in the interest of the United States for the foreseeable future.4 Given open channels of communication and adequate information, perceptions tend to approximate reality,5 so that in time the perceptions of East Asian policy elites aboutU.S. steadfastness may change, assuming that the United States does indeed remain engaged as its leaders (and I) say it will. However, in the meantime, the perceptions of probable U.S. behavior and corresponding Japanese responses, whether correct or not, influence decisions of Asia-Pacific governments, with the potential of undermining the stability of the region.

The purpose of this monograph is to examine Japan as a potential military power in the Asia-Pacific region, and to systematically test the view that Japan will unleash its military and threaten the security of its neighbors. To do so, three major variables will be examined, including current defense policy as it evolved through the cold war to the fall of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) cabinet in June 1993, the capabilities of the SDF, and the attitudes of Japanese elites. To some degree, it will also be necessary to examine some aspects of Japanese politics and bureaucratic decisionmaking. The Japanese political system may be in the midst of a fundamental transformation, the direction and extent of which are not yet clear. It is extremely difficult, not to say hazardous, to speculate on how these domestic political changes will affect Japanese security policy. Nonetheless, some discussion of the possible impact of domestic political change is included. While the findings will not answer all of the concerns of many defense intellectuals in the region-- undoubtedly Japan's future behavior could conflict with the interests of its neighbors--on balance the conclusions should at least offer plausible alternatives to the hypothesis that Japan will become a military threat in Northeast Asia. For methodological reasons too complex and pedantic to be included in this essay, arguments based solely on geopolitical systems theory, such as those contained in The Coming War With Japan,6will not be included in the analysis. Suffice it to say that I believe that Japan's national policies are made by national leaders, influenced but not dictated by systemic factors like geography.7 Finally, the implications for the United States and some recommendations for U.S. policy will be presented.

Summation and Conclusions

The discussion thus far has considered Japan's security policy, the SDF, Japan's defense industry, and future international roles for Japan as currently envisioned by its political elites and defense intellectuals. The analysis does not support the hypothesis that Japan and the SDF are likely to become a military threat to Northeast Asia, or anywhere else, in the near term. Declaratory policy is certainly not aggressive--few governments ever openly admit aggressive intentions, but what governments say is important in this informationera--and, more significantly, the SDF does not have the capacity to project sufficient force to compete with its well-armed neighbors or sustain a conflict anywhere for more than a few weeks. The SDF are competent to effectively initiate defensive action, and in the case of the MSDF are probably best of any regional rival, but they would not be able to take the battle to mainland Asia or Taiwan. Undoubtedly, the Japanese economy, in time, could shift resources and restructure industry to produce whatever equipment and weapons systems were desired. But time would be required: the Japanese defense industry is not particularly robust, and it represents a small segment of the economy.

The movement in the defense consensus from idealistic pacifism enshrined in Article 9 to present defense policy and SDF was at least as much a response to U.S. pressures for contributions to the cold war as the result of internal pressures for security: the buildup in the SDF is normally described as a series of minimal Japanese responses to U.S. demands. In the last few years, with the taboo against publicly discussing the military broken, there are still few voices (and they represent an ultra-nationalist fringe) seeking a radical break with the pacifist tradition of the post-war era. The debate on PKO legislation, which eventually was adopted in watered-down form, related to Japan assuming responsibility for international stability and security, not for Japan developing military might to support its diplomacy. Against the assertions that deploying SDF units abroad violated Article 9, there were proposals to amend the Constitution. But the changes advocated by mainstream Japanese politicians and opinion leaders would not have affected the existing language which prohibits resort to force as an instrument of policy. Instead, they would add another paragraph giving explicit Constitutional recognition of armed forces only for self-defense and participation in U.N.-mandated collective security activities.

As far as economic and technological capacity is concerned, Japan clearly could commit more resources to maintaining and expanding its military. More than 1 percent of GNP could go to defense, a much larger share of its industry could be dedicated to weapons systems and military equipment, and with difficulty tens of thousands more possibly could be enticed or ordered into uniform.101 However, this implies the political capacity to fashion and adopt a new security policy, which is not at all self-evident.

If the 1993 elections in Japan did not unleash new political forces--if the rules of the old system are to continue to apply for the foreseeable future--then the likelihood of a new consensus behind radical policy departures is extremely low. As in the past, defense decisions will be designed to avoid or minimize domestic political conflict with little or no attention to substantive positions. The politics of defense in Japan will continue to mean the management of external and internal pressures, and only marginal adjustments in policy will be adopted.

On the other hand, if a period of fundamental political change is underway, departures from past practices in every arena, including defense, are possible. The current consensus on government policies-- even the requirement that important policies proceed on the basis of consensus--could be radically reshaped as new forces, new styles, and new ideas permeate Japanese politics. If it is true that the real motivations for the present political upheaval are the requirements for Japan to conform to the expectations of the transformed international system, then changes in security policy and defense posture are more likely than in many other policy areas.

But there is no evidence that the politicians pressing for political reform--the young, dynamic former Liberal Democrats who were frustrated by the old system--advocate militarily expansive policy at all. Most of them would like to see Japan more active in regional and international affairs by serving permanently on the Security Council, by participating in selected U.N. peacekeeping operations, by taking a leading role in regional security fora, and perhaps in creating new regional security frameworks. They will want to preserve Japan's alliance with the United States, and they probably will want to keep defense spending low. All this conforms with existing Japanese policy. At least until political reform has taken root throughout Japanese government, which may take many years, the most noticeable changes in Japan's security will be in style and timing. The least noticeable, because very little will be taking place, will be in the strategic posture of the SDF.

Implications for the United States and Japan's Neighbors.

Regardless of the qualities of the SDF, if Japan is viewed as a regional danger because of its military strength the stability of Asia is threatened. The United States seeks stability in its own right, because stability is a prerequisite for the pursuit of trade and investment opportunities, the expansion of human rights, and most other regional objectives. More specifically, Washington does not want Seoul to divert any of its defense resources to deal with a Japanese "threat" instead of focusing single-mindedly on the danger from the North, which accounts for 37,000 American troops on the peninsula. Japan's neighbors also value stability, if not necessarily for the same reasons. The logic of this analysis to the contrary notwithstanding, they are all, unfortunately, in various degrees concerned about the potential of Japan as a military threat.

To moderate the destabilizing consequences of perceptions that Japan is a military threat, at least four courses of action can be taken by the United States. It would be highly desirable if Japan's neighbors assumed the leadership in two of them.

  • The United States must maintain its alliance with Japan and remain militarily engaged in Northeast Asia to foster the conditions which would permit regional governments to view the SDF as nonthreatening military organizations. Since fears of U.S. disengagement seems to generate perceptions of a Japanese military threat, credible actions which show that the fears are unfounded are obvious first steps for the United States to take to weaken theseperceptions. I argue at the beginning of this report that, in fact, the United States is not disengaging in any significant sense, and that its leaders repeatedly indicate that it will remain engaged for the foreseeable future. As far as undermining beliefs that the United States is disengaging from the region, the United States needs only to continue the present course, articulate policy as forcefully as possible, and wait for the statesmen of Asia to recognize reality.
  • The United States should continue to be very careful and discrete about influencing the expansion and modernization programs of the SDF. Asian leaders tend to believe, with good reason, that the Japanese made improvements in the SDF in response to U.S. pressure. While they were unhappy about these U.S. demands, they could at least understand them in the context of the cold war. U.S. calls for Japan to assume military roles in Northeast Asia in the current international environment will be less palatable, and far more difficult to understand. That is not to say that the U.S. Government should not be at all concerned with Japan's military participation in the alliance. For example, it is appropriate for U.S. officials to publicly discuss co-development or co-deployment of theater missile defense systems with their Japanese counterparts; the weapons system involved is defensive, and the project is related to the security concerns of both nations. Suggestions that Japan increase spending for military purposes generally, or procure weapons with offensive potential against China, Russia, or Korea, would be bad policy and worse politics.
  • The United States should continue to foster--better if the initiative came from the region--military-to-military cooperation and openness among the armed forces of Northeast Asia. It is not necessarily true that increased information always leads to increased understanding, but in the case of the SDF and their counterparts in other nations of the region, greater interaction and transparency probably will lead to more understanding of each others' policies, capabilities, and limitations. If this analysis is correct and the SDF are not a threat to their neighbors, such a program should result in more secure relationships among Asian countries.
  • Finally, the United States should support regional security arrangements, hopefully developed by Northeast Asian governments, in which Japanese military powers can be legitimized and circumscribed. The nations of Asia will feel more secure about Japan having any level of military capability if it is woven into security arrangements in which all participate and in which all have some means of influencing what the others do. Exactly what form they should take is unclear. I have argued in another place that regional security arrangements in Asia should evolve from local initiatives, and probably should be limited in terms of participants or function so that they are related to real needs of the members.102 Other analysts have arrived at similar conclusions.103 From the U.S. perspective, such security arrangements would deserve support and participation because some of them, depending on their structure, might also encompass China, another potential challenger to stability in the region.


1. For a summary of these perceptions see Thomas L. Wilborn, How Northeast Asians View Their Security, Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, August 8, 1991.

2. For example, Thomas U. Berger, "From Sword to Chrysanthemum," International Security, Vol. 17, November 4, 1993, p. 148; and Eugene Brown, Japan's Search for Strategic Vision: The Contemporary Debate, Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, February 25, 1993, pp. 24-26.

3. Michael W. Chinworth, Inside Japan's Defense: Technology, Economics, and Strategy, Washington: Brassey's (US), Inc., 1992, p. iii.

4. For authoritative statements of the Bush and Clinton administrations, see James A. Baker III, "America in Asia: Architecture for a Pacific Community," Foreign Affairs, Winter 1991/1992, pp. 1-18; and William J. Clinton, "Building a New Pacific Community," an address to students and faculty at Wasada University, Tokyo, July 7, 1993, printed in Dispatch, Volume 4, Number 28.

5. Wilborn, p. 3, and sources listed therein in note 5, p. 5.

6. George Friedman and Merideth LeBard, The Coming War with Japan, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991. <T>

7. For a sophisticated discussion of the levels of analysis in the study of international politics, see James N. Rosenau, ed., Linkage Politics: Essays on the Convergence of National and International Systems, New York: The Free Press, 1969.

101. The military in Japan are held in such low esteem, that, in practice, recruitment might be a serious barrier to grandiose military build-up plans. Moreover, the size of the pool of military age males-- and females--is decreasing absolutely and as a proportion of the population.

102. Thomas L. Wilborn, Stability, Security Structures, and U.S. Policy for East Asia and the Pacific, Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, March 24, 1993.

103. For example, see Berger, p. 121; and Toshiyuki Shikata, "Perspectives on a Future Security System in East Asia," in Prospects for Global Order: Volume II, ed. Seizaburo Sato and Trevor Taylor, London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1993, pp. 64-65.