News | Feb. 10, 2020

Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power

By Nathaniel L. Moir Joint Force Quarterly 96

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Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power
Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power
Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power
Photo By: Harvard University Press
VIRIN: 200207-D-BD104-014

Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power
By Sheila A. Smith
Harvard University Press, 2019
352 pp. $29.95
ISBN: 978-0674987647

Dr. Nathaniel L. Moir is an Ernest May Postdoctoral Fellow in History and Policy in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

According to the June 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy, the U.S.-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. The strategy also explains why it is imperative that the U.S.-Japan alliance adapt to meet the challenges that threaten our security and shared values. Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power examines how Japan is responding to the challenges of Chinese military modernization, a rogue regime in North Korea, and environmental crisis by improving the Japanese Self Defense Force’s (SDF) joint structure and, politically, by adapting the Japanese constitution to support the SDF’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. As the book makes clear, the security interests of the United States and Japan are closely intertwined.

Sheila A. Smith, a Senior Fellow for Japan Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, analyzes Japan’s position as a cornerstone of the Indo-Pacific alliance. Smith is objective in her assessment of the alliance, and the book is unique in its focus on the relationship between the SDF, Japanese politics, and Japan’s alliance commitments. It is an exemplary work, drawing on an array of primary sources, government documents, and a deep understanding of Japanese history to produce a comprehensive and engaging analysis. The only substantive criticism one might levy is the sparse assessment of changes in the U.S.-Japan alliance as a result of the Vietnam War and rapprochement with China after 1972. Readers unfamiliar with those events will benefit from her suggested reading list.

Established in 1954, Japan’s SDF faced restrictions against collective security participation and offensive operations because of Japan’s actions during World War II. While Smith provides enough history to contextualize contemporary advancements, her focus centers on explaining how Japan is adapting to new threats, primarily through constitutional interpretations that permit increased collective security cooperation. These changes are evolving quickly as Chinese and North Korean threats to Japan metastasize. As a result, Smith emphasizes the evolution of the SDF and regional alliances after 1989.

The end of the Cold War complicated the U.S.-Japan alliance. For decades after World War II, the United States provided Japan with security guarantees in exchange for basing rights and economic assistance. Smith’s diagnosis suggests that historic cooperation is now called into question because of the changing threat environment and current alliance structure. The U.S.-Japan alliance differs from the Nortah Atlantic Treaty Organization and the U.S.–Republic of Korea alliance because the U.S.-Japan alliance has no combined command structure or contingency plans. Moreover, the SDF’s ability to adapt remains constrained by lack of command structure and planning, let alone by restrictions against using military force. Politicians, especially Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, seek to alter this through revisions to the 1947 constitution. However, modifications, even new interpretations, are strenuously disputed in the National Diet of Japan.

The Japanese constitution’s Article 9 is the central legislative guidance for civil-military relations and the regulation of military force. It states that the “Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right.” During the Cold War, Japan could rely on U.S. nuclear deterrence to provide national security, so revising Article 9 and deploying the SDF was largely unnecessary. Today, however, changes in the threat environment have forced debate in the National Diet concerning not only reinterpreting Article 9 but also creating the laws required to permit the SDF to deploy beyond the Japanese archipelago. The SDF’s support for Iraqi reconstruction demonstrates how Japanese law adapted in the past and may adapt again for future deployments. This issue of deployment, along with greater responsibilities and self-reliance for the SDF, are central debates in Japan today.

While Smith devotes ample attention to the Chinese and North Korean threats, she also provides a unique look at the role of the SDF in environmental crisis management. This aspect is central for arguments underpinning efforts to revise Article 9. The Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the recent devastation of Chiba by a typhoon in October 2019 have necessitated broader interpretations of national security that require the capabilities of the SDF in ways the architects of Article 9 did not envision. Smith argues convincingly that Japan’s ability to increase its crisis management capability will entail SDF expansion and greater freedom of action. These changes are not uncontested politically but are emerging out of necessity and come with broad implications for the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Japan Rearmed is not prescriptive, but Smith does an extraordinary job offering a diagnosis of the many challenges ahead for the SDF and U.S.-Japan alliance. For national security professionals and those in the joint force focused on the region, Japan Rearmed is the most authoritative account available on the SDF, its political, organizational, and legal challenges, as well as a reminder of the importance of U.S.-Japan cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. JFQ