Japan was once a great power with one of the world’s most feared militaries pre-WWII. After its unconditional surrender to the United States, the country’s imperial constitution was rewritten by Washington, and Tokyo spent decades of demilitarization with a military regulated to a self-defense force.
Despite decades of peace, prosperity, and economic growth, Japan has gained looming threats as its adversaries saw their nation’s demilitarization as a sign of weakness. Tokyo has now realized Washington can no longer be the only guarantor of its safety and has moved towards rebuilding their military in the face of three emerging threats.
Japan’s Decades of Demilitarization and Policies Towards Remilitarization
Post World War Two, Japan was militarily occupied by the United States for three decades, as stated in their unconditional surrender. Japan currently holds the largest contingent of US overseas forces, with 39000 spread nationwide.
Despite geopolitical threats from North Korea and the Chinese Communist Party, Tokyo had never truly worried about these national security threats. US Forces were a competent central to deterrence until the 90s.
After the US normalized relations with China, the latter slowly grew its economy and military capabilities, with rapid growth and development in the 90s and early 2000s. North Korea would develop its own nuclear weapons program, with unilateral missile tests that have been internationally condemned.
These various national security issues brought Japanese parliament members towards discussions of remilitarization, with the former Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, highlighting a need for a capable military.
The Russian Threat
Towards the end of the Pacific theater of WWII, the Soviet Union invaded the Kuril Islands and would subsequently ethnically cleanse the 17000-plus Japanese population. As Tokyo and Moscow never formally declared a peace treaty, the Isles’ status has been disputed for several decades.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia continued making claims of the former USSR, solidifying holds over the isles just like they did in their enclaves in Europe. Japan had worked hard to have a peaceful relationship with the Russian Federation, but the latter had aggressively militarized the isles.
Over the past several years, the isles of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Matua, and Paramushiri have been increasingly militarized, with the Kremlin becoming more paranoid and aggressive toward various nations in the international community. The isle chain is strategic for Russia, giving their Pacific fleet more freedom of movement in East Asia against the United States and Japan.
When Russia fully invaded Ukraine in 2022, Japan joined the sanctions for the G7. In response, Russia pulled out of the treaty over the Kuril Islands and ended the agreement of search and seizure of Japanese fishing vessels; frequent provocations have convinced Tokyo that it will need a stronger navy to combat Russian threats.
The North Korean Threat
Against the backdrop of the Korean War, the North has remained hostile to Japan—especially after the latter’s brutal occupation of the peninsula. The Korean War crippled Pyongyang’s industrial capabilities, and international sanctions turned North Korea into a Hermit Kingdom. Nonetheless, the North’s actual threat came when it tested its first nuclear bomb in 2006.
The North Korean nuclear threat shocked the world, and its allies, such as Russia and China, condemned their regular missile tests and provocations. Pyongyang has developed its Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) program to deliver these warheads.
Frequent missile tests have seen the North fire non-tipped missiles on the Sea of Japan, with some cases seeing missiles fly directly over the nation. North Korea’s successive hereditary dictatorship has labeled Japan as one of its mortal enemies, and this has led the latter to prepare for military escalation by the Hermit Kingdom.
Japan has begun reconciliation with South Korea with increased diplomatic and military partnerships. Tokyo was developing its own missile defense program and increased its partnership with NATO in the Pacific to challenge the looming threat.
The Chinese Threat
China’s emerging military capabilities have put the entire world on notice. Militarizing man-made isles in the Pacific, along with aggressive actions towards Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines, have not gone unnoticed.
Japan, which also agrees with America that Taiwanese sovereignty is detrimental to national security, sees China’s continuing provocations as existential. To combat the rising threat, Japan announced a full remilitarization of its military for the first time since World War Two.
Tokyo has put forth a five-year plan to fully rebuild its military capabilities—the near timeline Xi Jinping has aimed for a potential military showdown over Taiwan. Due to rising security threats, US Forces are spread thin in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the Korean Peninsula; Japan has realized it cannot rely on a single superpower for its own protection and must take its own initiative going forward.
Remilitarization was hailed by the Japanese parliament and their Pacific allies, with ironically China, Russia, and North Korea condemning the move.
Challenges Going Forward
Though Japan has taken steps to ensure its own national security, it faces several obstacles going forward. Much of East Asia is currently suffering from low birth rates, which is leading to demographic declines in several nations in the region, one of which is Japan.
Another obstacle is the possibility that North Korea and China could make moves against South Korea and Taiwan, respectively, which could force both the United States and Japan to spread much of their resources on simultaneous fronts. These threats were one of the main reasons the US highlighted that the Korean Peninsula would be defended, even with nuclear weapons, if Pyongyang decided to fire one off first.
Japan also must make amends for past massacres committed during the imperial period with fellow East Asian nations, many of which have not received formal apologies yet for the transgressions.
Nevertheless, Japan has realized the best defense is a great offense, and the geopolitical shift has convinced Tokyo to militarize once again. Facing threats from Russia, North Korea, and China, Japan will not be deterred by its rivals, and the technological powerhouse will display its much-feared military capabilities once more if provoked into conflict.
** If you’d like to read about the re-arming of Japan, click here.