Defense Policy Reform

Japan’s Defense Agenda—Translating the Abe Reforms into Action


The debate over Japan’s basic defense policy is heating up again amid an increasingly challenging security environment. The author urges the government to take swift steps to address Japan’s weaknesses instead of wasting time and political capital rewriting policy guidelines.

Defense policy has risen high on Japan’s political agenda in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s saber rattling in the Taiwan Strait. The discussion thus far has focused on plans to revise Japan’s National Security Strategy and two other key policy documents (discussed below), along with proposals for a sharp increase in defense spending. Below, I offer my own view of the security reforms Japan needs most urgently and the best way to go about implementing them in a timely fashion. But first, let us take a look at the three documents on which so much appears to hang.

Codifying Japan’s Defense Policy

Occupying the supreme position among the three documents is the National Defense Strategy, which broadly outlines Japan’s national interests and security objectives and its approach to achieving them. The current National Security Strategy was approved by the cabinet in December 2013; before that, surprisingly enough, Japan had no comprehensive security strategy document. All it had was the bare-bones Basic Policy on National Defense, adopted by the cabinet of Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke on May 20, 1957.

The 1957 Basic Policy on National Defense, drafted with the war-renouncing provisions of the postwar Constitution in mind, was an extremely terse document. It began with a simple statement, one with which no one could find fault: “The objective of national defense is to prevent direct and indirect aggression, but once invaded, to repel such aggression, and thereby, to safeguard the independence and peace of Japan based on democracy.”

Next, the document enumerated, in very general terms, the means by which Japan intended to pursue these goals. The first three are uncontroversial:

(1) Supporting the activities of the United Nations, promoting international collaboration, and thereby making a commitment to the realization of world peace.

(2) Stabilizing the livelihood of the people, fostering patriotism, and thereby establishing the necessary basis for national security.

(3) Building up rational defense capabilities by steps within the limit necessary for self-defense in accordance with national strength and situation.

But it was the fourth strategy—a decidedly problematic one—that shaped the character of Japan’s defense policy during most of the postwar period

(4) Dealing with external aggression based on the security arrangements with the U.S. until the United Nations will be able to fulfill its function in stopping such aggression effectively in the future.

The item above points to one of the major failings of the 1957 Basic Policy, namely, its inflated expectations of the role the United Nations could play in maintaining global security. At that time, there were high hopes for the peacekeeping capabilities of the United Nations, especially in Japan, which had only gained admittance to the organization in 1956. Inasmuch as a multinational military force under UN command had actually been deployed during the Korean War (1950–53), the idea of eventually relying on the United Nations for security may not have seemed altogether unthinkable. But that was the last time a UN army was formed, and expectations of the organization’s ability to maintain peace have plummeted in Japan as in the rest of the world.

The other big problem with the 1957 Basic Policy was that it was excessively simple and general. The 2013 NSS represented a milestone in that it elaborated on the principles and objectives of Japan’s security policy and detailed the security challenges facing Japan before laying out at length Japan’s strategic approach to national security.

Under the overarching theme of “proactive pacifism” based on international cooperation, the 2013 NSS articulates a commitment to bolster Japan’s own capabilities on various fronts, strengthen cooperation with the United States and other partners, and contribute to international efforts aimed at global peace and stability. These policies are as valid today as they were nine years ago.

From a present-day perspective, the 2013 document’s description of Japan’s security environment is lacking in that it understates the threat from China and omits that from Russia entirely. Additionally, since the NSS was adopted before Prime Minister Abe Shinzō set forth his vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific in 2016, it mentions neither FOIP nor the (Australia-India-Japan-US) Quad Dialogue.

The question is whether updating the National Security Strategy to emphasize the threats from China and Russia would enhance Japan’s security. The answer, I believe, is no. We would be better off promptly pursuing the necessary reforms and upgrades within the framework of the 2013 document. Similarly, where FOIP and the Quad are concerned, the basic policy frameworks are already in place; we need only adopt the requisite measures. This can all be done without revising the National Security Strategy.

Guidelines and Medium-Term Plan

Next down in the hierarchy of security policy documents is the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), which sets forth Japan’s basic defense policies, explains the role of various defense capabilities, and outlines targets for development. And finally, we have the Medium-Term Defense Program, a defense spending and procurement plan based on the NDPG. The current medium-term plan was adopted in December 2018.

Since the end of the Cold War, the government has drawn up a new NDPG five times: in 1995, 2004, 2010, 2013, and 2018. On each occasion, the prime minister has convened the Council on Security and Defense Capabilities (CSDC), a private advisory group composed of retired Self-Defense Forces staff and former defense and foreign affairs officials, along with scholars and business leaders. The CSDC deliberates and prepares recommendations, which the competent ministries and agencies typically follow closely when drafting the NDPG.

As one might expect, the CSDC’s agenda tends to reflect the prominent security issues of the day. For example, in 1995, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the council began by asking why there was still a need for the Japan-US Security Treaty, originally formed in response to the Soviet threat. In 2004, three years after 9/11, issues pertaining to global terrorism and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were high on the agenda. North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs were the overriding concerns of the 2009 CSDC (although the revision of the NDPG was disrupted by the change in government that occurred the same year). In 2010, under the Democratic Party of Japan (which replaced the Liberal Democratic Party as the ruling party from 2009 to 2012), the rise in Japan-China tensions over the disputed Senkaku Islands drove much of the deliberation, and the report called for a shift in the focus of Japan’s border defense from Hokkaidō in the north to the outlying territories to the south. In 2013, the emphasis was on the integration of ground, air, and maritime operations, and in 2018 it was on multi-domain defense capabilities encompassing the outer-space, cyberspace, and electromagnetic domains.

All of that said, the actual pace of change under the CSDC system tended to be extremely slow. As a rule, collective decision making in Japan relies heavily on consensus, and in the CSDC, reaching such a consensus is especially difficult because the council’s former SDF and Defense Ministry officials are generally loyal to a particular branch of the military. Because almost any substantive change in policy entailed compromise based on lengthy negotiations, the status quo often prevailed.

The Abe Reforms

Contrasting sharply with this glacial process were the bold reforms implemented under the leadership of Prime Minister Abe during his second tenure as prime minister (2012–20).

The first priority for the Abe cabinet at the time was the passage of legislation to protect sensitive security information from public disclosure and penalize leaks of such information. At the time, the handling of security information in Japan was so lax that our global partners were reluctant to share critical intelligence with us. The so-called state secrets bill was extremely unpopular, but Abe was determined to push it through the Diet even at the cost of a sharp drop in the cabinet’s approval rating. The Act on Protection of Specially Designated Secrets was enacted in December 2013.

Around the same time, the Diet passed a cabinet-sponsored law establishing the National Security Council (along with the supporting National Security Secretariat). For the first time, Japan had a central “control tower” to coordinate its foreign and defense policies and decisions. As mentioned above, the National Security Strategy was also adopted in late 2013.

In 2014, the cabinet adopted the Three Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology. Prior to that, arms exports had been effectively prohibited, and Japan had been unable to participate in international joint production projects. Also in 2014, a cabinet decision reinterpreted Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution so as to partially lift the ban on participation in collective self-defense. In 2015, overcoming fierce political opposition, the Abe cabinet pushed through a package of bills that established a legal framework for security policy based on this new interpretation.

On August 15, 2015, the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, Abe delivered televised remarks in which he acknowledged and apologized for past Japanese aggression and conveyed the nation’s determination to work for world peace in the years ahead. By winning the understanding of governments and peoples around the world, the “Abe statement” made an important contribution to Japan’s national security.

It was on the strength of the foregoing accomplishments that Prime Minister Abe’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative met with the approval of the United States and the other Group of Seven countries gathered in Nairobi in 2016. In each case, the prime minister’s strong and decisive leadership was the key to progress. Even when Abe convened advisory organs, he personally selected their members, set their agenda, and steered the deliberations.

Toward a Balanced Defense

Similar leadership is needed now, particularly given the urgency of the security challenges facing Japan. It seems to me that rather than waste precious time revising the documents described above, the government should be moving forward, under the prime minister’s leadership, to address immediate weaknesses in Japan’s defense. The most pressing challenges are in the areas of arms procurement and training, and the key to improvement in both areas is budgeting.

For many years the Japanese defense budget has been constrained by two conflicting considerations. On the one hand, Japan has been under pressure from its ally to buy the most advanced US weapons systems. On the other hand, it has been under pressure from the Japanese public to keep defense spending to no more than 1% of gross domestic product. As a result, we have cutting-edge weaponry, but we suffer from serious shortages of personnel and ammunition, and protection for our weapons and bases is weak. We must correct this imbalance and place greater emphasis on our ability to keep fighting in the event of a protracted conflict.

There has been much discussion of proposals to boost defense spending from less than 1% to 2% of GDP, but this debate exaggerates the magnitude of the increase needed in the short term. The fact is that Japan is already spending close to 1.3% of GDP if we include in the budget such items as veterans’ pensions and coast guard expenditures, as other countries already do. Moreover, correcting the imbalances discussed above will eliminate the need for a sharp buildup.

The shortage of personnel presents a serious challenge, since it relates in part to demographics; Japan’s population of young people is shrinking rapidly. To cope, we need a three-pronged strategy: (1) accelerate the shift to unmanned systems and operations, (2) raise wages and improve benefits (especially in the personnel-strapped Maritime Self-Defense Force), and (3) build environments and systems conducive to greater participation by women. We should also consider the possibility of using mercenaries. After all, the foreign security firms that we hire to protect our diplomatic missions abroad are mercenary forces of a sort.

Building a Counterstrike Capability

The concept of a “strictly defensive” posture has been enshrined in successive Japanese defense guidelines and white papers over the years. But the fact is that a strictly defensive posture is strategically untenable. After all, in a typical wartime situation, lost territory must be retaken.

Over the years, successive governments have disposed of this objection by citing the Japan-US security arrangements, arguing, in effect, that Japan furnishes the shield, while the United States provides the spear. The only leader to openly acknowledge the need for an independent strike capability was Prime Minister Hatoyama Ichirō. Speaking to a committee of the House of Representatives, Hatoyama presented the concept of an “enemy-base attack capability,” explaining that, if a missile attack were imminent, Japan should be able to strike the enemy’s missile base preemptively, not just sit passively and “wait for death.” In fact, such a preemptive strike is virtually impossible with today’s military technology, since our potential enemies have numerous missile bases, some of them hidden underground.

By contrast, counterstrikes (considered a legitimate and integral aspect of defense in most countries) can target any and all aspects of the enemy’s military apparatus, not just a specific base. Since 2007 I have been arguing that Japan needs to acquire counterstrike capabilities. It has taken all this time for the concept to gain acceptance in Japanese policy-making circles.

The members of the 2018 CSDC were aware that China had replaced North Korea as the most serious threat to national security, and experts on the council argued that Japan’s missile defense system was no longer effective. Nonetheless, no major changes were adopted. Over the past few years, however, the majority has come to the belated realization that Japan must abandon both the posture of a “strictly defensive” military and the unrealistic goal of “enemy-base attack capability” and build a general counterstrike capability sufficient to make the enemy think twice about launching an attack—in other words, an effective deterrent.

Walking the Walk

This Japan must do as quickly as possible, and while it would be ideal to have the new policy spelled out in the NDPG and the Medium-Term Defense Program, it is not absolutely necessary. As long as we understand that the words “strictly defensive” refer to the spirit of Japan’s security policy and not the policy per se, we can build a counterstrike capability within the framework of our existing policy documents, without awaiting their revision.

As I see it, the job of hammering out a viable security policy framework for the new era is largely complete. Our task now is to ensure that we are equipped to carry out that policy in a real-world context.

Building a counterstrike capability is an urgent priority, but it is scarcely the only item awaiting action. How prepared are we for the possibility of a contingency in the Taiwan Strait? Are we ready, for example, to enter into prior consultations with the US military regarding the latter’s use of Japanese bases to launch its own combat missions? Would we be able to evacuate some 100,000 Japanese nationals living in China and some 20,000 residing in Taiwan?

The creation of an amphibious SDF force is progressing, but if China were to seize the Senkakus, a landing operation to recapture the islands would only be possible after intensive air strikes and naval bombardment. Are we prepared to undertake such an assault?

Plans are moving forward for the relocation of US Marine Air Station Futenma, but it promises to be an extremely expensive and time-consuming undertaking. What happens if a contingency in the region occurs before the new facilities are completed?

Finally, there is the lingering issue of revising the war renouncing provisions of the Constitution of Japan. I am of the opinion that Japan can build the defense capability it needs through the flexible interpretation of the Constitution, avoiding the contentious and drawn-out process of revision. But the government of Prime Minister Kishida Fumio seems to take the view that a revision of the Constitution is essential. If that is the case, then why not start now, instead of marking time in the futile hope that a consensus will emerge? Together, the pro-revision LDP, Komeitō, Nippon Ishin no Kai, and National Democratic Party control the two-thirds lower house majority needed to initiate the amendment process. Let them come together, agree on a draft, and submit it to the Diet without delay.

(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: Prime Minister Kishida Fumio reviews troops of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force at GSDF Camp Asaka in Tokyo on November 27, 2021. © Jiji.)

LDP security Kishida Fumio defense