TCS Daily

The Sun Also Rises

By Melana Zyla Vickers - March 21, 2006 12:00 AM

TOKYO -- On a recent, chilly day, from behind the carved, wooden doors of a guard house on Japan's imperial palace grounds, passers-by could hear protectors of the national sovereign practicing the ancient, highly physical art of kendo. As the guards' bamboo swords clacked against each other, they would bellow and cry out in the way that Japanese martial arts experts do.

It all sounded very serious and militaristic, until two mainland Chinese tourists walked by. The middle-aged men started mimicking the aeeee-ah sounds of the guards, and then broke into fits of laughter.

Whether mainland Chinese will still be laughing about Japanese military methods ten years from now is an open question. It's true that Japan's "Self-Defence Force" is among the most legally hemmed-in in the developed world, and that ever since Japan's monstrous WW II aggression, it has labored under a U.S.-written constitution that makes "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes." But Japan's defense posture is now changing very quickly, in response to the increasingly dangerous neighborhood in which it lives: Democratic capitalist Japan, wholly dependent on open sea lanes for all its energy needs, faces potential aggression from China and North Korea.

Japan is considering whether it should, in 2009, buy the most advanced, stealthy fighter in the world, the American F-22, to replace its Vietnam-era F-4s and other old fighters. In some potential future conflict with China, the F-22 would allow Japan to penetrate Chinese air defenses undetected and, with air refueling, to reach Beijing and beyond.

Japan's consideration of the fighter comes on the heels of a January announcement that the Self-Defense Force is pushing ahead with joint U.S.-Japan theater missile defenses. Japan is to buy 36 missiles for its destroyers starting next year. The missile defenses would protect Japan from an attack by China's new ballistic missiles, and from a nuclear attack by neighboring North Korea.

Of course, it's North Korea's firing of a Taepo-dong missile across Japanese territory in 1998 that woke Tokyo to the changed environment. Add to that China's aggressive military buildup in recent years, and now, in 2006, Japanese officials' talk about foreign policy and defense sounds nothing like it did in the late 1990s. Back then, talking to Japanese officials about foreign and defense policy was like talking to, well, West Europeans: One would hear nothing but mouthfuls of white rice. But now, Japanese defense thinking has clarity, insight, and an impressive forward-view.

"Japan cannot afford a hostile China because we are next to China and we cannot move away from China. If you look at our life lines, the East China Sea, the South China Sea, through the Arabian Peninsula to the Gulf, we cannot afford a hostile China," says Major General Noboru Yamaguchi, vice president of Japan's National Institute of Defense Studies. Ideally, Japan, the U.S. and China will capitalize on the fact that they "share a common interest in a stable energy supply" and maintain peace. But if there is aggression, say, in the Taiwan Strait, then "China will lose, Taiwan will lose, Japan will lose and the U.S. might lose, so no one wants to see bloody things happen in Taiwan."

With such plain speaking coming from Japanese officials, it's no wonder that Japan and the U.S. have in recent months spelled out their common strategic objectives, and that their defense cooperation is expanding apace. Interestingly, Japan sees all this as American evolution, not just its own. "The U.S. seems to be willing to deal with possible contingencies in the (Asia-Pacific) region," Yamaguchi said. "That area is exactly where Japanese sea lines of commerce, communication, and energy are existing so in that sense securing those areas is in our interest. If the U.S. is going to do it... we recognize our own responsibility" to do the same, Yamaguchi said.

Japan's evolution has been a dramatic one. The country has up until recently interpreted its international security responsibilities in purely financial terms, for instance by contributing $16 billion (with Germany) to the 1991 Gulf War. "We paid a lot but the international community did not appreciate it at all. That was a shock for Japan so we have tried to figure out what else to contribute." To wit, Japan sent a small contingent of troops to Iraq in 2003, the first time they'd ventured into hostilities since WWII. But the Japanese in Iraq were highly dependent on other countries for force protection, and their contribution was largely symbolic.

They're clearly up for more: Future cooperation between the countries might include an expansion of the theater missile defense plans. Doing so would deter North Korea and other countries from buying and developing missiles and Weapons of Mass Destruction, because Japan would be protected against them. Meanwhile, U.S.-Japan intelligence-sharing on North Korea, China, and others could expand as well. The trouble is Japan's intelligence gathering establishment is hamstrung by current interpretations of the national constitution: If the intel community shares intelligence with Japan's ruling politicians, they are not bound to keep the information secret. And so Japanese spies limit their work to communicating with North Koreans in Japan and radio watching. All that could change if constitutional interpretations change, paving the way for stepped-up efforts in intel.

Of course, all this building up of the military in response to Japan's nuclear-armed neighborhood prompts the question why the rich, technologically savvy nation doesn't build nukes of its own. Indeed, in the aftermath of the North Korean missile launch, nationalist politician Shingo Nishimura suggested modifying Japan's pacifist laws to allow Japan to host U.S. nuclear weapons. But the proposal was beaten down by the country's pro-Chinese, pro-North Korean political Left, and never really emerged from the fringes.

All bets are off on where Japan will be ten years from now, though. Its position will in part depend on who's in charge, and whether that politician has the same forward-looking vision as current Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. One thing is for certain, though: Japan's military posture is sure to go well beyond kendo.

The author is a TCS contributing writer.



Why No Nukes
TO: Melana Zyla Vickers
RE: The Reason

"Of course, all this building up of the military in response to Japan's nuclear-armed neighborhood prompts the question why the rich, technologically savvy nation doesn't build nukes of its own." -- Melana Zyla Vickers

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it has something to do with the Japanese constitution prohibiting their possession of such weapons.


[Among other evils which being unarmed brings you, it causes you to be despised. -- Niccolo Machiavelli]
P.S. I would not mind Japan being armed with nukes. I've grave misgivings about North Korea and Iran.

A nations's military isn't measured by numbers
Japan's military will remain rather feeble because the Japanese cannot be taken seriously, anymore than the Vatican Guard can be considered a real military force. A military composed of sheep but led by a lion is to be weighed differently than one composed of lions and led by sheep.

This is why the world watches North Korea with trembling and why the Japanese can be safely discounted. If they were truly willing to make their weight felt they'd deploy an anti missile system and develop an air force that would control the air over East Asia. Its doubtful Japan can even defend its sealanes in the face of a PRC naval buildup of impressive size and scope.

The Vatican's Swiss Guard
TO: ThomasJackson
RE: Seriously, Folks

"...cannot be taken seriously, anymore than the Vatican Guard can be considered a real military force." -- ThomasJackson

Actually, I understand the Swiss Guard ARE trained as a very good SWAT team.

But you're right. They don't have nukes either.



Pikes and cross bows R Us
As Stalin said, "How many divisions does the Vatican have?"

funny double standard or TJ wrong again!
It would be funny idea if as the Author say "Democratic capitalist Japan, wholly dependent on open sea lanes for all its energy needs, faces potential aggression from China and North Korea".
This is the exact reason Japan started it's war with the US in WW2.
As for Japan armed forces TJ as is the norm wrong, wrong. Armed forces are measured on weapons, training and size and willingness to fight. Japan has show in the past it can do all if it wants. You see TJ is a racist fool he thinks that Yanks are superior to everyone else when in fact the reality is Yanks are the same as everyone else. You see you get what you pay for if you want the best armed forces in the world then you have to pay about 500,000,000 a year. Japan also gets what it pays for.

Geeks in search of lithium
We all realize yout vast expertis based on your long military career and years studying national security matters combined with a years residing in Japan.

So I thought I might draw upon your vast knowledge and give you the chance to show off for the readership by answering a few questions:

1. What was your MOS?
2. What is the TOE that would indicate Japanese's Army establishment?
3. How does the Netherlnd pay scales compare to Japan's? What do they indicate about military effectiveness?

Thank you for demonstrating the degree of knowledge; education; and luidity that is your trademark.

By the way we all know you'll be able to answer based on your year's of experience playing with your GI Joe in the sandbox. By the way have you cleaned up your sandbox and put your GI Joes away?

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