The Platform

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. (Tobias Kleinschmidt)

Japan is ready to ditch its pacifist ways.

Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party is expected to seriously ramp up defense spending in the years ahead. Nikkei Asia explains: “Japan’s defense budget is expected to exceed 6 trillion yen ($43 billion), more than 1% of gross domestic product, for fiscal 2023 as the country hastens to improve its defense capabilities in the face of growing geopolitical risks. The Ministry of Defense finalized its budget request on Wednesday. It asks for 5.59 trillion yen, the highest figure ever.”

Spending on such a scale could move Japan from ninth to third place in the world in terms of defense spending (after the U.S. and China), despite the fact that the “pacifist” constitution remains largely unchanged.

Why would a country that has “renounced the use of armed force as a means of settling international disputes” spend so much money on its military? The war in Ukraine, rising tensions around Taiwan, and North Korea’s continued missile tests are the reasons for the drastic increase in defense spending.

Calls for changing the “peace” article of the constitution have been made since the beginning of the 21st century, so it is safe to assume that Japan is systematically moving towards remilitarization. According to Japanese law, to change the constitution the country must have the support of two-thirds of MPs in both houses of parliament and then submit the amendments for a public vote. Until recently, there were no clear regulations for holding a referendum, making constitutional revision virtually impossible. In 2021, the parliament legislated the rules for the referendum, thereby opening the way for changing the basic law and further militarising Japan.

Speaking of the draft military budget for fiscal year 2023, it is worth noting that it originally envisaged a very modest increase. But Japan’s defense ministry is now considering the prospect of purchasing new weapons including advanced missiles and air defense systems capable of intercepting rockets launched from China and North Korea, including hypersonic missiles.

In addition, drones are to be adopted. Japan is seeking to expand its arsenal to 1,000 rockets that could be launched from ships and planes and hit targets in North Korea and China. Funding would also be used to jointly develop a new-generation fighter aircraft with the UK. In addition, a significant increase in the salaries of Japanese military personnel is under consideration.

That said, the risks of a direct invasion of the Japanese homeland are practically nil. The United States opted to use nuclear weapons, the first and only time in history, versus a full-fledged invasion realizing the folly of such a strategy. In principle, Japan could be attacked by Russia, China, or North Korea. However, neither the former nor the latter is ready for that. Russia is now dealing with its own problems in Ukraine and is likely to continue to do so for a long time. China is trying hard to avoid a war, hoping to dominate the world and replace the United States with a powerful economy, while North Korea intimidates the world with its nuclear weapons precisely because it is terrified of foreign intervention.

The policy of militarization should therefore be regarded as a deliberate choice by Japan’s political elite, which wants to “Make Japan Great Again” to borrow phrasing from America’s former disgraced president. On the one hand, it is impossible to speak of Japan’s political independence, because on politico-military and strategic issues Tokyo completely relies on Washington. But on the other hand, the Japanese people’s historical memory of the former greatness of the Japanese empire that conquered half of Southeast Asia is still too alive and relevant. Therefore, Japan’s militarization may have its roots in Tokyo’s desire to become a stronger and more relevant player on the world stage once more. And there is now every reason to believe that the country of rising militarism is moving systematically towards that goal.

Alan Callow was born in Japan, and graduated from Western Mindanao State University (Philippines). Alan is a freelance journalist with experience in writing about the Asia Pacific region.