Japan’s New Security Strategy: Who Fights, Who Pays, and Who Decides?
Takako’s Take Vol 5
In my April 2022 essay in Foreign Affairs, I argued that the War in Ukraine is changing Japan in unprecedented and unexpected ways. One question I asked is whether Japan and its people are starting to think differently about the war.
Where are we now? One year after the war started, it seems that much has changed in Japan: Various opinion polls find firm public support for stronger defense. The new National Security Strategy, and the Defense Build-up Program that were announced in December 2022 outline a comprehensive and coherent plan going forward, reflective of the thorough deliberation among defense experts over the past decade. It then seems appropriate that the public chose the Kanji character 戦 (war) to represent the year 2022, and that the message was firm and clear: Japan is getting “battle ready” or “prepared for war.”
The overarching sentiment expressed prominently and frequently in these documents is that “the world only helps those who help themselves.” This is a reflection of what Japan may have learned through the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the War in Ukraine. “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” President Biden said in August 2021. The bravery of the Ukrainian forces and their determination to fight spurred a philosophical debate within Japan about what countries should fight for. And in every occasion possible, Prime Minister Kishida has repeatedly emphasized that it is important for all people to think of defense as their own matter, not as someone else’s business
Taking ownership of defense matters is not only important for Japan, but for the United States and the alliance going forward. As two democratic countries, we cannot assume that the militaries of both countries will be able to perform their expected roles without support from the people of both countries.
With this understanding, I believe that there are three important questions that remain to be asked: Who fights, Who pays, and Who decides? In other words, when we say, “the world only helps those who help themselves,” who are “they”?
The first question, “who fights,” is about people. It’s about the recruitment, training, and management of the personnel of the SDF. The new strategic documents ask the SDF for a lot more without increasing the number of personnel. While this may be a prudent and realistic decision given budget constraints and demographic challenges, it may well be the greatest challenge for the SDF going forward. How do you make sure that you not only have a sufficient number of personnel, but also the quality and capability expected from them?
The importance of this question is not only demographic or economic: we need to realize that “who fights” could mean “who will give up their lives to defend Japan.” This is a tough question that is unfamiliar to most people in Japan, and one that has not been discussed throughout post-war history. While conscription is thought of as something that should be avoided at all costs, Japanese society has never had a serious discussion about who serves, what it means to serve, and how to come up with a group of people willing to serve. While the SDF is now one of the most respected institutions in the country, owing partly to its role in disaster relief, it should be made clear that simply stating “thank you for your service” is not sufficient. I see signs of excessive deference by the public towards the SDF, perhaps as a form of (unintentional) compensation after years of indifference, neglect, and perhaps disrespect. There now needs to be a pragmatic discussion and a better understanding of what it means to serve the country — and what it means to have a military in a democratic country.
The second question is “who pays” for defense? This has been the most discussed topic so far within the Diet and in the media. Prime Minister Kishida faces two constraints: one from the opposition and one from within the LDP. He was heavily criticized by both sides when he said, “it is the responsibility of the current generation of people” to bear the burden of spending more on defense”. Critics argued that he (and the government) was imposing a burden on “the people” while not including themselves. The opposition is not uniformly opposed to defense increase per se (which is remarkable), but they are staunchly against a tax hike, especially those that will impact the general public. Within the LDP, a vocal group mostly consisting of Abe faction is pushing for paying for the increase by issuing bonds instead of a tax hike.
At the same time, trends in public opinion polls suggest that the public may be more aware of the responsibilities of the current generation than the politicians give them credit for. While more people are opposed to a tax hike than not, a poll by The Asahi Shimbun in February found 40% of the public supports a tax hike to cover increases in the defense budget. Tax hikes are never popular anywhere, and it is worth noting that there may be a rising awareness that the current generation may need to bear responsibility for the next generation.
The third and final question — possibly most relevant and important for the alliance — is “who decides.” There are several aspects to this: First is a question about how the NSS was presented to the public. While the process and timing in which it was announced were appropriate, it is unfortunate that a major transformation of defense strategy happened largely outside of public view. As a respected commentator on defense strategy noted, “it would have been nice if the government gave some kind of a heads up” to the public so that the people would have felt that they were part of the decision-making. There is an alliance component here as well: Kishida’s visit to DC and the endorsement of the NSS by the US government were important and necessary but may have left an impression that the US is more important than the Japanese public.
The current Diet session is precisely the opportunity for Prime Minister Kishida to better inform the public, and for the public to take ownership of the decisions made by its elected leadership. But I believe that we need to be careful about the tendency among experts to dismiss the public as being naïve and ill-informed and to regard the Diet process to be simply cumbersome.
Second, the Diet is an important part of decision-making according to the provisions in the 2015 Peace and Security Legislation. As Jeffrey Hornung writes in his excellent analysis, there may be a “delta between (those) legal permissions and what Japan is willing to do,” and the Diet is key in determining what Japan would do. A common view is that “when push comes to shove” the Diet (and the public) will “come to its senses” and will rubberstamp any government decision in a post-hoc manner. But contingencies around Japan may not be an obvious one for the Japanese public, and the public and parties, and possibly groups within the LDP, may not come to a quick and easy agreement on what the contingency will mean for Japan and what the appropriate response may be.
In the end, the “people” decide their fate in a democracy. Discussions about war are difficult, but we may need to start one, given the security situation surrounding Japan. Debates in the current Diet session will be a good starting point.