Hotspot - Japan

Hotspot - Japan Wikimedia Commons/Rikujojieitai Boueisho
24 Aug
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has big constitutional changes planned for Japan's military. Klaus Dodds asks what these changes will mean for Japan's role in the world

One of the fundamentals associated with the sovereign rights of nation-states is the ability to exercise security and defence policy, especially over national territories. National governments closely guard their rights and interests in these matters. For some countries, this right to pursue security and defence matters can attract considerably more national and international attention than others.

In July, the Japanese Parliament approved new bills that would dramatically change Japan’s military posture. In essence, the Japanese government has called for its forces to be allowed to fight overseas, whereas previously its military has only engaged in humanitarian missions abroad. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in favour and pushed the argument that the bill will support what he calls ‘collective self-defence’. The bills would allow Japan’s Self-Defence Force (SDF) to have greater operational scope and military posture, including supporting – when requested – others engaged in military operations.

There have been sizeable protests in Tokyo and Abe has admitted that public understanding of his plans is limited

The government argues that Japan should be able to mobilise its forces provided it can prove at least one of three conditions; a direct attack on Japan or when an attack on an ally might then have implications for Japan’s security, when Japan’s survival is at stake and all alternative means have been tried, and finally, that the use of military force should always focus on the necessary minimum. Japan does not possess WMDs, but it is widely believed that the US has stationed nuclear weapons at Okinawa. 

The US-Japanese security relationship remains pivotal. In April 2015, the two countries discussed their mutual security interests and these parliamentary bills should be seen in the context of Japan exercising greater responsibility for collective self-defence. When Abe took office in 2012, he promised voters he would be more proactive in defence matters. A beefed-up mandate for the SDF would fit well with the US’s agenda to see greater burden-sharing with its partners. It will also allow Japan to become more involved with other regional allies.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction from near neighbours has not been positive. China expressed concern that Japan was turning its back on its post-1945 past and introducing strategic instability to the East Asian region. Although one might easily argue that China’s ambitions in the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan, and continued tension with Japan over uninhabited islands and rocks in the East China Sea have played a part. The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands matter to both countries because of their proximity to fishing grounds and potential oil and gas reserves. They also lie close to Taiwan. South Korea, which has had its own issues with Japan, has called upon Japan to continue to play a positive role in regional peace and security arrangements.

Public opinion is very split in Japan itself. There have been sizeable protests in Tokyo and Abe has admitted that public understanding of his plans is limited. Many Japanese voters and constitutional experts worry that Japan is breaking the terms of the 1947 constitution (Article 9), which saw it give up the right to wage war. Protestors also note that these bills might give Japan a ‘green-light’ to get embroiled in disputes far removed from the country. This is disputed by the government who, implicitly at least, are asking the people to recognise that the country has been immersed in military matters since the Korean conflict in the 1950s. These new bills, if anything, further consolidate the close security relationship with the United States and perhaps underlie a basic truism that the Japanese government feels that this is a logical response to a region in which there are two nuclear weapon states (China and North Korea) with substantial conventional forces in close proximity.

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction

This article was published in the September 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine, and featured on the Geocast episode Hotspot: Japan.

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