Behind Japan's Big Arms Buy

How Washington Is Militarizing Its Asian Ally

(Yuri Gripas / Courtesy Reuters)

Last December, Tokyo announced that it would purchase Lockheed-Martin's F-35 Lightning II as its next-generation jet fighter. In doing so, it disappointed BAE Systems, the European maker of the Eurofighter Typhoon, which had hoped to win the $4.7 billion contract itself. For a while, it seemed as though it might. The Lockheed deal had its downsides: Initially, Japanese firms would have played no role in producing the new jets; likewise, they would not have had access to the secret technologies used in the F-35's design. It was not until Lockheed agreed to allow domestic contractors to participate in building the new jets and share some top-secret technologies that Japan decided to make the deal. In retrospect, that move should never have been in much doubt. The contract closely follows Japanese defense policy precedent: acquiring the most advanced American military hardware available under licensing agreements, producing that hardware in Japan to boost the economy, and keeping the U.S.-Japan alliance tight, positing Japan as a buffer between the United States and the region's major powers.

Japan has filled this role for decades. In 1946, during the United States' postwar occupation of Japan, General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander for the Allied Powers, insisted that the country's new constitution include a clause barring Japan from maintaining war-making capabilities. In return, Washington would protect Japan from outside attack and maintain a sizeable military presence there to do so. When the Korean War broke out, the number of U.S. troops in Japan dwindled as soldiers were moved from Japan to fight on the Korean peninsula. Realizing that the force it could afford to retain in Japan was not sufficient for maintaining order or fending off a communist infiltration, the United States pressured Japan to relax the ban on maintaining military forces. Under the guidance of the U.S.-dominated Allied General Headquarters, the country created a paramilitary force, the National Police Reserve (which gradually morphed into the Self-Defense Forces, or SDF, Japan's main military organization today). Meanwhile, military production contracts from U.S. firms poured into the country. For example, during the three years of the Korean War, 235 Japanese companies produced $500 million worth of ammunition for the U.S. military. 

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