The contingent of Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces planning on conducting joint naval maneuvers with the USS Carl Vinson strike group as it transits towards the Korean Peninsula reflect a growing Japanese military chafing within its constitutional limits of pure self-defense.

The four helicopter carriers Japan is sending will conduct a series of helicopter landings and other military drills as the strike group travels near Japanese waters. Japanese leaders have struggled with the delicate political situation regarding their military, which is on paper not  even a military at all, but an extension of their national police force.

The restrictions placed on Japan stem from their constitution written just after the conclusion of World War Two, where the Japanese nation embraced pacifism and swore off the use of military force forever.

But rapidly changing regional threats posed by China and North Korea have forced the issue back into public debate. Many Japanese politicians, in particular the more conservative ones aligning with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s LDP party, seek to rewrite that portion of their constitution to allow for a military with the authority to conduct offensive operations, a topic long taboo in post-war Japan. They argue that an economic powerhouse such as Japan should have a commensurate military able to project that power and protect its interests if other allies like the United States cannot, or will not.

But observers of the Japan Self-Defense Forces will notice that in many ways, that vision of a powerful Japanese military capable of flexing considerable military muscle is already here, just carefully concealed.

Many experts have said the Japanese military could go toe-to-toe with anyone, right now. It’s navy is rated among the top 5 in the world. The restriction on exclusively offensive weapons and units has allowed them to focus on developing other, more flexible systems, like submarines.

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The four helicopter carriers Japan maintains could, with a few adjustments, potentially support future use for vertical take-off and landing aircraft such as the F-35B. Japan is set to receive 42 F-35A variants from U.S. manufacturers, with more heavy investments in their air power coming in the near future.

Coinciding with recent amphibious landing exercises conducted jointly with the U.S. Navy, the Japanese are growing a maritime infantry force comparable to the U.S. Marine Corps, likely in light of ongoing threats and territorial disputes between Japan and China on a number of islands in the East China Sea.

Japan is also well suited to develop nuclear weapons, should it decide to do so. It possesses the infrastructure and technical capacity to quickly build a nuclear weapon; from start to finish would take six months. Numerous political conditions exist that make that scenario highly unlikely, but it did not stop former Vice President Joe Biden from threatening China with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Japan before.

Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy