How Asia’s Rising Threats Convinced Tokyo to Abandon its Defense Taboos

On December 16, Japan took a major step towards becoming a “normal” world power by approving dramatic changes to its decades-old policy of military restraint. Under its new national security strategy, Japan will not only double its military spending, adding some $315 billion to its defense budget over the next five years. It will also develop a new “counterstrike” capability enabling it to conduct retaliatory attacks on enemy territory—a remarkable departure from its previous policy.

These moves signal a profound transformation. For years, observers of international relations have noted that Japan certainly has the demographic, economic, and technological potential to be a great power: it plays a prominent role in global governance, development, and many other aspects of international politics. But militarily, Tokyo has traditionally confined its activities to multilateral peacekeeping and the US-Japanese alliance, and limited its defense spending to only one percent of GDP.

This military restraint has been at the core of Japanese national security policy since World War II. During the Cold War, successive Japanese governments quashed the military’s influence in politics and shied away from military statecraft. The United States frequently pressured Tokyo to spend more and do more, and some conservatives in the country’s dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) favored boosting defense capabilities. But such calls ran into Japan’s postwar concept of “defensive defense,” according to which its military should be configured for self-defense and should eschew offensive capabilities and missions. This doctrine is grounded in the constitution and other legislation and has been defended by wary opposition parties and the Japanese public. Japan’s highly restrained security policy created several taboos and redlines about power projection—placing prohibitions, for example, on long-range missiles, amphibious capabilities, and aircraft carriers.

Over the years, at times of rising threat, Tokyo has occasionally revised its ideas about defensive versus offensive roles and capabilities. For example, after North Korea test-fired a missile over Japan in 1998, Tokyo decided to acquire military satellites, which it had previously considered an unlawful militarization of space. Japan now has small aircraft carriers and a marine corps. But the nation’s defensive policy has remained broadly fixed.

The new national security strategy, however, represents a stunning change. By doubling defense spending and committing itself to acquiring a “counterstrike” capability, the government is enacting policies that have been debated for decades, but were always blocked. Until now.

In response to the announcement, critics in Beijing and elsewhere will charge that Japan is returning to the militarism of its dark past. This is false. Japan is responsible global citizen: a world leader in governance, development, technology, arts, and culture. Even with the announced changes, its security policy will continue to be anchored in the US-Japanese alliance. Far from embarking on militarism, Japan is reacting—after significant hesitation—to growing regional threats. From the perspective of the United States and its partners, Japan’s new national security strategy should be applauded: a peaceful country with tremendous economic and technological resources is increasing its contribution to regional security.

DANGERS IN ASIA

Formidable new challenges in Asia are responsible for Japan’s historic shift. China is engaged in a major buildup in both conventional and nuclear weapons. Chinese aircraft and military vessels make frequent military incursions into Japanese waters and around islands disputed with Japan. Beijing increasingly menaces Taiwan—whose democracy Japan celebrates and whose autonomy Japan regards as crucial for its own security. As China’s military threats grow, its government stokes anti-Japanese nationalism, emphasizing Japanese atrocities in World War II.

North Korea has grown more threatening, too. It has increased the pace of missile testing: conducting 86 tests this year, compared with a previous high of 26 in 2019. Japanese citizens are becoming accustomed to hearing screaming sirens and announcements telling them to take shelter, as North Korean missiles sail through their airspace . Since 2006, Pyongyang has conducted six nuclear tests, with experts warning of a seventh. From an arsenal that used to contain only a handful of small fission bombs, North Korea is making real progress towards developing vastly more powerful thermonuclear weapons, and has recently changed its nuclear doctrine to allow preemptive strikes and tactical nuclear weapons use on the battlefield.

The war in Ukraine has also shifted Japanese perceptions. Ppublic opinion has strongly supported the sanctions effort against Russia, and Ukraine’s successful defense against the invasion has driven home the message of the need for military preparedness against possible aggression.

These growing threats have pushed the Japanese government to make historic changes to its security policy. First, the new national security strategy will roughly double the defense budget over the next five years. Japan currently spends $54 billion on defense, and the shift will increase it to almost $80 billion by 2027. This is a stunning change. Since 1958 Tokyo has confined its military budget to about one percent of GDP, a ceiling that became a symbol, both inside and outside the country, of its national security restraint. Although tested over the years by many conservative leaders, public opinion and the efforts of the opposition kept the one percent ceiling in place. But in today’s more threatening environment, the Japanese public supports a spending increase. The change would make Japan (currently ninth in the world in military expenditures) the world’s third-largest defense spender, behind only the United States and China. It will leapfrog India, Saudi Arabia, and the European major powers (although Germany has also announced a major boost in defense spending that may move it up this list as well).

Second, China and North Korea’s growing missile capabilities are leading Tokyo to shift from relying solely on missile defense to also embrace “counterstrike” capabilities. In the event of a war in Korea or Taiwan, the adversary would probably target Japanese bases to knock out key airfields used by US forces. Given the buildup of missile capabilities in both China and North Korea, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and other Japanese leaders fear that Japan’s existing missile defenses are no longer adequate. So the government is turning to the counterstrike concept.

Tokyo’s embrace of counterstrike capabilities and doubling of its defense budget are remarkable developments.

A counterstrike capability would enable Japan, if hit by enemy missiles, to retaliate against enemy missile launchers and command-and-control sites to thwart further attacks. Kishida has requested that the United States sell Japan 500 Tomahawk missiles, which would allow Japan to reach targets across North Korea and in nearby parts of China. Washington has agreed to the sale; US President Joe Biden called Tokyo a “high priority buyer.” Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Forces are also working on extending the range of their Type 12 surface-to-ship missile, with the updated versions expected to deploy in 2026.

Japanese leaders have been debating such capabilities for decades. In 1956, the LDP prime minister Hatoyama Ichiro argued that counterstrikes were defensive and therefore legal. “I don’t think the constitution means that we just sit and wait for death,” he declared. But domestic opposition overpowered his push for change. Today the region is different, and so are Japanese politics. Even the LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito—which identifies as pacifist—supports the move to acquire counterstrike capabilities because of the growing regional threats, although its lawmakers advocate a range of constraints regarding targets and the conditions under which strikes could be launched.

These historic moves come amid greater Japanese cooperation with regional partners. Bilateral relations with South Korea have long been strained, particularly since a dispute over a 2018 South Korean Supreme Court verdict regarding Japan’s use of World War II-era forced labor. In response to the quickening pace of North Korea’s missile testing, however, Japanese and South Korean leaders have expressed interest in pursuing a previously abandoned intelligence-sharing agreement. The two nations have also increased their bilateral missile-defense exercises with the United States. Tokyo and Seoul still have a territorial dispute, which colored Seoul’s response to Japan’s historic announcement. Although the two countries still cannot agree on whether to call the body of water they share the Sea of ​​Japan or the East Sea, they did agree to send their navies there this October to conduct trilateral missile defense exercises with the United States.

Tokyo’s embrace of counterstrike capabilities and doubling of its defense budget, amid renewed security cooperation with South Korea, are remarkable developments. Inevitably, China and other critics will accuse Japan of destabilizing the region. But for 75 years, Tokyo has pursued one of the most restrained defense postures on the planet, one that makes Canada seem hawkish by comparison.

Today’s changes are motivated by protection, not ambition. They are being negotiated transparently among coalition partners, before a watchful and dovish public. At least from the perspective of the United States and its partners, Japan’s moves are good news and signal a greater contribution by a peaceful country to security in Asia.

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