Japan has proposed a scheme to significantly increase its military spending budget.

For many years, the US and Japanese governments have tried to increase defense spending in Japan. Under the command of former President Donald Trump, NATO members were encouraged to fulfill the 2 percent defense expenditure protocol. Japan, though not a NATO member state, has always held a strong bond with the alliance. In June, Kishida, a Japanese leader, attended the NATO partner summit for the first time. Still, more money and better coordination do not always lead to enhanced military forces. As one analyst stated, the “triumphant declarations” regarding the expansion have obscured the challenging task Kishida and Japan will face when attempting to implement the proposed growth.

This week, US representatives promised their assistance to Japan’s schemes to speed up their defense spending in light of the rising tensions with China and North Korea after some decades of limited expenditure since World War II. Nevertheless, the support of the US and other allies notwithstanding, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s plan to transform their Self-Defence Forces into an army to counter the threats from their neighboring nations will hinge on the Japanese people’s acceptance to pay and staff the growth. 

Japan’s new security stance will upraise the nation’s military budget by 56%, from about 27.47 trillion yen over five years to about 43 trillion yen (equivalent to $215 billion to $324 billion as of the market close on Friday). Historically, Japan has kept its safety spending low because of its constitutional pledge to abstain from war, though they possess a defense budget and have been maintaining the Self-Defence Forces since 1954. US President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin met with their Japanese counterparts in the past week, putting into action the new postures laid out in Japan’s new approach. 

“We’re modernizing our military alliance, building on Japan’s historic increase in defense spending and new national security strategy,” Biden said at his meeting with Kishida on Friday, telling reporters that the US is “fully, thoroughly, completely committed to the alliance.” Blinken, in a press conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, Austin, and Japanese Minister of Defence Hamada Yasukazu, promised that Japan, under the new security plan, would “take on new roles” in the Indo-Pacific region and “foster even closer defence cooperation with the United States and our mutual partners.” However, Blinken didn’t give any details about those new roles. 

Kishida has used Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a warning of the menace Japan and other East Asian countries face from a more and more militarized China — and has also used Ukraine’s successes on the battlefield to gain support from international allies to explain Japan’s most recent military position. 

Despite the commotion this week and the commitment of the US and other allies to Japanese military expansion, there are still doubts as to whether Kishida can persuade the Japanese people to agree to devote both the financial and human resources that his proposed enlargement would necessitate. 

The US and Japanese leadership have been trying for years to augment Japan’s defense spending; the US, under Trump, prodded NATO allies, in particular, to raise their defense spending to the 2 percent required under NATO member defense spending protocols. Japan has had close ties with NATO for a long time, despite not being a member state; Kishida in June attended a NATO ally summit, the first Japanese leader to do so. Still, increased spending and coordination don’t necessarily mean a more robust military, and the “victory laps,” as one analyst described it, around the announcement have overshadowed the difficulty Kishida and Japan will face in achieving the proposed growth.

Japan’s Long-standing Defense Expenditure, Explained

Kishida’s plan to raise defense spending is of great importance, though to suggest that Japan is now moving away from pacifism is mistaken. Japan does have its own military forces, and its defense budget has been increasing for the last nine years; for the fiscal year 2023, the Japanese government approved an increase of 26.3 percent, bringing the proposed spending to 6.82 trillion yen. In 2023, Japan intends to purchase eight F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters and eight F-35B Lightning multirole fighter planes as part of a much more extensive group of F-35s it is set to receive from the US. Additionally, Japan will develop a sixth-generation fighter with the militaries of Italy and the UK and purchase 500 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the US while also expanding its own counterstrike missile capabilities and increasing the domestic production of missiles, including a hypersonic model. 

Tom Phuong Le, an associate professor of politics at Pomona College, explained to Vox that the new posture is more focused on procuring technology and weapons systems than recruiting people to serve. In a culture where most people have secure jobs after graduating from university and no family or cultural ties to military service, basically asking, “what would be the incentive in joining the military and facing Russia, China, and North Korea when you can have a comfortable career in the regular economy?”

The security situation has become more hazardous in East Asia and other places. With China provoking Taiwan, North Korea testing missiles and nuclear weapons, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many countries, including Japan, are anxious about what the future may bring and the possibility of conflict. This has created the circumstances for proposed policy changes which “the elites have been striving for some time,” according to Phillip Lipscy, director of the Center for the Study of Global Japan at the University of Toronto. “

The willingness of the Japanese public to accept a more robust defense has probably changed, or the leadership believes that public opinion has been altered due to the war in Ukraine. However, as Mike Mochizuki, associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, stated, the likelihood of Japan being sucked into a direct conflict with either North Korea or China is limited. 

“North Korea is not going to attack out of the blue,” he said, and China’s threat to Japan isn’t a direct attack. “The threat is […] a military conflict over the Taiwan Strait and because of Japan’s geographic proximity, because of the US-Japan alliance, and because US military assets in Japan are seen as critical for any kind of viable US military intervention in the Taiwan crisis — because of that, if there is any kind of Taiwan conflict, there is a high probability that China would attack Japanese territory.”

Political Intervention

Prime Minister Kishida’s plan to augment defense costs likely means he will have to increase taxes, which will be hard considering Japan’s aging population and the need for more resources for their care. Japan has the highest public debt compared to its GDP of any G7 nation since 1998; adding to the deficit could strain the economy. In addition, Kishida’s popularity has been damaged due to the scandal about his predecessor Shinzo Abe and the LDP’s connection with the Unification Church. 

If Kishida decides to run an election before the proposed tax hikes, as he said in late December, it might become a vote on the proposal. Many people in Japan assume Kishida will only last for a while if this happens. Kishida is a moderate person from the Kochikai faction, which favors stable connections with China, and his foreign minister, Hayashi, shares this view. However, Kishida’s unpopularity has pushed him and Hayashi toward the more extreme members of the LDP. Kishida is trying to get support from Joe Biden, yet the US and regional threats make it more likely that Japan will take more significant steps. 

“Kishida himself is quite moderate, and he comes from the faction knowns as the Kochikai, which has been more moderate on defense issues, much more open to stable relations with China, and his foreign minister, Hayashi, has those same views.” However, Kishida’s unpopularity has pushed him and Hayashi toward the more hawkish elements of the LDP. “He’s basically acquiesced to the defense side of things,” Mochizuki said.

“What Kishida’s been trying to do is to get Biden to embrace him,” Mochizuki said.

Although the US has shown its commitment to the US-Japan alliance recently, there are no plans to realistically make the changes Kishida hopes for.

As for now, the US-Japan alliance still has a long way to go. 

“Both sides aren’t talking about it because they don’t have solutions,” said Phuong Le.