My Lowy Post: Relax (again), Japan is Not ‘Re-Militarizing’


If there is any one trope in Korean and Chinese international relations writing I don’t like, it is the causal, constant, angry insistence on reading Japan as always ‘remilitarizing.’ In just about everything I read by Korean and Chinese authors on northeast Asia this is repeated relentlessly, as a truism, and usually in the worst possible normative light: not only is Japan ‘remilitarizing,’ it also apparently has neo-imperial designs on Asia.

Sorry, Koreans and Chinese, but this is just not true, not at all really. Note for example, that Japan always seems to be in the process of re-militarizing in this manner of writing. It is never actually done doing so; it’s constant and insidious. No matter what Japan does on national security, it always is described as re-militarizing. Apparently Japanese remilitarization has been going on for decades; which is another way of saying it isn’t really happening at all. Note too, that no one ever seems to remark on Japan’s paltry defense spending or systemic dependence on the US military. So this is just silly boilerplate; it’s far more about Korean and Chinese nationalist dislike for Japan than any real empirical trend. But since it gets repeated so often, and seems to be taken for granted by just about everyone in Korea and China, it is worth laying out in some detail why is is bunk.

The essay below the jump is re-post of this essay for the Lowy Institute in Australia.


Last week, I argued that the last few months have seen a spike in punditry that the status quo is about to change in northeast Asia, and that conflict is more likely. Japan’s constitutional revisions have provoked exaggerated responses from South Korea and China, while Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent successful trip to South Korea has been interpreted in Japan in a similarly negative manner.

But much of this is exaggerated nationalism and posturing from regional hawks (and some American think-tanks) about a stable, but disliked status quo. As I argued yesterday, South Korea is not in fact ‘finlandizing’ or going over to China. Such talk is more indicative of the Japanese right’s glee in snubbing Korea whenever possible. Not to be out done, one can always rely on Chosun Daily in Korea, or the Global Times in China (here is a link of special interest to Australian readers) to over-react to Japanese military developments.

But most of this is exaggerated and little of it is helpful. Northeast Asia is fairly stable. It could certainly be better, but compared to many regions, it is doing rather well. Trade and tourism are robust. The problems of state-failure and irregular wars, so common elsewhere, are not apparent. As Dave Kang has noted, much of the maritime tension is being ‘fought’ by fishermen and coast guards; for all the big talk, there has no war in the regions since the 1950s. So should you really care that Japan ‘re-interpreted’ its constitution? Not really:

1. Until Japan actually spends more on defense, the ‘re-interpretation’ makes little difference.

Japan spends less than one percent of GDP on defense. This is even lower than the European members of NATO who are routinely castigated by the US for free-riding (as the Ukraine crisis is demonstrating yet again). Modern militaries cost huge amounts of money to field comparatively small forces. The logistical tail – the number of support staff, technicians, trainers, crew, and so on – behind each actual warfighter or platform is longer today than ever before. Modern militaries – basically since WWI – have also increasing relied on technology and combined arms tactics whose complexity requires even greater resources. (Steven Biddle explains all this nicely in the opening chapters here.) The long, troubled, and hugely expensive history of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aptly demonstrates the spiraling costs and troubles of modern platforms. So sure, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may want to buy an aircraft carrier, but does a troubled economy have an extra 5-10 billion USD for that? Perhaps, but until the budget numbers change, it’s all just talk.

2. Unless Japan can actually translate that extra spending into genuine capabilities, that too reduces the importance of the ‘re-interpretation.’

A basic materialist approach to Japanese ‘re-armament’ would simply be to look at GDP percentages as in point 1. But just bigger budgets are not enough either, because money has to be translated into capabilities – the deployment of modern complex platforms by highly skilled technicians in complicated ways (combined arms, the networked battlefield, and so on) to achieve some goal. Very few modern militaries have been able to do that successfully, and most of them in the twentieth century were western. Just throwing money at the defense ministry is not enough.

Japan too of course had a reasonably successful military in the twentieth century, but that is 70 years past and coupled to a decisive social break against Bushido, militarism, and so on. Since then the Japanese military has not fought once. No one really knows how well it fare (a point that applies to all regional militaries actually). The conventional wisdom seems to be that JSDF navy is the most competent, followed by the air force, then the army, but these are soft qualitative judgments at best. (Here is a good outlet on this issue.)

Finally, it has been widely noted that the Japanese public is either indifferent or opposed to the ‘re-interpretation.’ That should be comforting to those worried about militarization. Abe may be able to squeeze more resources out of the finance ministry (point 1 above), because his parliamentary coalition is unnaturally large due to quirks of Japanese election law. But without public support – not just tepid disinterest, but genuine support – he will find it hard to build a force capable of much beyond homeland defense. A serious expeditionary or power projection capability – necessary to do anything serious with the Americans in the region – will require public support, and, at the moment at least, it is not there.

3. Engaging in ‘collective self-defense’ is a right every other country in the world has. By embracing that, Japan is becoming more, not less, normal, and so more predictable.

David Pilling makes the useful point that collective self-defense is the right of every other country, that moving Japan in that direction is no big deal. Indeed, Pilling couches the argument in normative language, stating that it is Japan’s right to arm itself as it sees fit and align itself with whom it likes. All that is so, but it is clearly uncomfortable to Seoul and fuel for the Chinese effort to isolate Japan in Asia over its alleged militarism.

A better approach is to see that defense normalization makes Japan more like any other country in the world and therefore more predictable. It is Japan’s weird post-war state – radically pacificist, yet disturbingly unrepentant about the empire, located in Asia, but not really a part of the region – that makes it such a hot potato and hard for the region to predict. The more Japan is responsible for its own military and security, the more like every other country it is, the more it will come under pressure to conform to modern democratic norms on force. A more independent and normal Japan will be less tied to the US and more a part of its own region where it will have to engage normal diplomatic back-and-forth, including finding a modus vivendi with South Korea and China. A Japan responsible for its own defense, directly facing the costs of bad behavior, such as historical denial, is far more likely to come around, than one permanently hiding in America’s shadow as some kind of weird semi-pariah.

Northeast Asia is fairly stable. China’s rise is unnerving, but compared to places like the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean Basin, South Asia, or central Africa, regional politics is fairly predictable. Local elites are nationalist, but they are calculating. There has not been a major war since the 1950s, and the non-state violence so common elsewhere is non-existent. Nor do regional states spend as much on the military as the this year’s WWI analogies suggest. There’s no need to make it worse with hyperbole.”

7 thoughts on “My Lowy Post: Relax (again), Japan is Not ‘Re-Militarizing’

  1. Don’t know if you can read Japanese, but if you can, here is an interesting theory on this excess sensitivity:

    From what I can get out of it, it says that the Chinese are deadly scared of the Japanese. Their propagandist education says the Chinese are always having a numerical superiority, always winning, yet they are constantly being pushed back (I guess it is like the wartime Japanese saying they are killing lots of Yankee aircraft carriers … closer to Japan each repetition) – in essence, anyone reading *between* the lines can tell they aren’t really winning. And if they are really losing all the time even with superiority in the objective factors, what does that mean?

    Now, I don’t know how thick China currently stirs the propagandist slop so I can’t evaluate his claims on Chinese propaganda in education. However, the basic idea works just as well if we assume the Chinese are more or less truthful. In that case, they’ll still be having as much as 10:1 numerical superiority. Yet while you can of course cherry pick victories, the overall flow is still very much one of defeat after defeat, or at best the most pyrrhic victories where the Chinese, with several times the numbers, stop the Japanese from getting what they want … this time. Even in 1944 when Japan is being pushed back on all fronts … they are advancing on one … the Chinese front. This is despite all the assistance from America the Nationalists (Chinese) are getting.

    So. Why? Is it really just inferior technology and training? That explanation would satisfy the West, even the Japanese. But the Chinese might just be wondering … is it *really* just that? What if it is something more innate that the Japanese have that we don’t? If it is, then a 10:1 superiority might just not be enough. Maybe if the Japanese somehow landed … oh, their 7th Division onto Chinese soil, they might be able to break through to Beijing despite China being several times superior in an objective sense.

    Of course, such thoughts are silly and unobjective to Westerners and modern Japanese. But it might be very visceral after being a direct participant of these fights. Or to a Chinese who has been taught the Sino-Japanese War in great detail with (or even without) the propaganda.

    Just a note: I don’t think the guy is saying these beliefs have any objective bases, just that the Chinese *might* just be thinking that way and that’s causing the over-reaction.

    It is, to me, an interesting theory. What do you think?


      • Nothing so grand … even my major was not in the social sciences. Just a layman with a bit of interest in these matters.

        As for the guy I linked to, frankly I have no idea, but he does run one of the most famous sites in the Japanese security-related blogverse.


  2. I generally agree with you and your pushback against hyperbole. Here and elsewhere in the world, we seem to have lost perspective on what a real cold and hot war looks like. However, I feel you play down the potential for conflict too much. Wars have been started with less than conflicts between countries’ militarized fishing and coast guards, and the repeated statement that “there has not been a war since the 1950s” smacks a little of the fellow who jumps off the top of a 100 story building, and, as he falls past the 50th floor, remarks, “well, so far so good.” Let’s not be too comforted that, so far, no war.


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