Battle-Ready Japan?

The Real Story Behind Tokyo's First National Security Strategy

Bayonets belonging to the Japanese Self-Defense Force are seen in front of Japan's rising sun flag, which is used by the forces, October 2013. Issei Kato / Courtesy Reuters

Last month, as the world focused on China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea and its unveiling of political and military reforms after its Third Plenum, Japan was busy, too. In mid-December, Tokyo released a host of defense and security reforms aimed at reconfiguring Japan’s security posture, including new National Defense Program Guidelines (NPDG), the establishment of a new U.S.-style national security council, and further progress toward reinterpreting the role of its military, the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). With these reforms, Japan has created its first-ever national security strategy, for a time when Japan is “confronted by complex and grave national security challenges.”   

The specifics of the new national security strategy should not be surprising to those familiar with the region. Nevertheless, the document received bristling reviews. China’s defense ministry quickly released a statement decrying Japan’s attempts to “create regional tension and roil the regional situation.” South Korea called on Tokyo to remove any references to its claim on the Dokdo Islands (known as the Takeshima Islands in Japan), which both countries claim. The international press, meanwhile, bemoaned Japan’s shot across the bow at China. The Economist opined that the reforms “heighten already acute tensions.” Even Asahi Shimbun, the liberal Japanese paper, fretted that conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s strategy “undermines Japan’s postwar pacifism.”

Abe’s unwise decision in late December to visit the Yasukuni Shrine -- a Shinto shrine dedicated to Japan’s war dead from a wide range of conflicts, from the Satsuma rebellion to World War II -- made matters worse. Earlier this week, China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom slammed Abe’s trip to Yasukuni and stressed that “Mr. Abe has worked hard to portray China as a threat, aiming to sow discord among Asia-Pacific nations, raising regional tensions and so creating a convenient excuse for the resurrection of Japanese militarism.” Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a professor at Australian National University, argued that the visit serves as a

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