Recent rhetoric concerning the East China Sea and the Senkaku Islands, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands, makes it appear that the Japanese government is taking a tougher approach on foreign policy and military affairs. Its decision to purchase the disputed islands in September triggered outrage from China and spawned observations that Japan is veering toward the right.

But this move is not as aggressive as it might seem. In fact, it was designed to be anti-inflammatory -- keeping matters from going from bad to worse. It comes in response to the plans of hawkish Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who sought to purchase the islands by collecting public donations. Given Ishihara's aggressive nationalistic views, that purchase would have undoubtedly further escalated the dispute. The federal government's purchase, which blocked the efforts of the Tokyo metropolitan government, thus signals a conflict-averse approach.

To be sure, there are some signs that suggest a shift to the right. Citizens' awareness of territorial issues with China, South Korea, and Russia has indeed risen in recent years, and conservative politicians are dominating headlines with declarations of Japan's growing muscle: last month, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda vowed that he would "never compromise" on the territorial dispute with China. And even his rival, Shinzo Abe, former prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has similarly pledged to defend Japan's territorial assets.

Even before the Senkaku spat, Noda argued in July that Japanese troops should be allowed to defend allies in combat -- a practice banned under the current interpretation of the country's pacifist constitution. And despite legal restrictions, Japan continues to have one of the largest and most capable armed forces in the world. Last year's defense budget of 4.7 trillion yen ($59.3 billion) was the sixth largest in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Japan's fleet of more than 100 warships outguns any other Asian power. And the government has decided to buy next-generation F-35 stealth fighters to replace its aging fighter fleet. After last year's tsunami, Tokyo quickly mobilized more than 100,000 troops -- an impressive logistical feat.  

The "dynamic defense" strategy, approved by then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan in late 2010, attempts to strategically reallocate these impressive defense resources in order to counter China's rise. The plan calls for lighter, more mobile military capacities and a shift of Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) from the north -- originally stationed there to defend against a Cold War invasion from the Soviet Union -- to the south, positioned to face a potential threat from China. Dynamic defense has also meant mobilizing surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence divisions, as well as forming an amphibious warfare unit to defend southwestern islands. Late last month, some 40 Japanese troops conducted joint exercises with the U.S. Marines in Guam in order to learn amphibious warfare conduct.

But in practice, these developments are tactical, not strategic, and many of these initiatives have made minimal progress. The recent bold rhetoric is deceiving. For the better part of the past two decades, Japanese conservatives have called for amending the constitution, as well as increasing the role of the SDF. Yet, with the exception of a few incremental improvements, the SDF still operates under suffocating restrictions during overseas peacekeeping missions. Japanese troops abroad aren't allowed to defend themselves -- or friendly troops -- unless they come under direct attack. Consider the deployment of Japanese troops to South Sudan: UN commanders agreed that, should hostilities occur, Japanese soldiers would be protected by other peacekeeping forces -- in this case, the Rwandan Army. The fact that highly trained and well-equipped troops from one of the world's richest and most technologically advanced countries were forced to rely on soldiers with questionable training from an underdeveloped country should be cause for alarm. Yet virtually no one in the Japanese parliament took issue.

Instead, sideshows distract the political and public debate on defense issues. Ongoing bickering over the Futenma airbase in Okinawa exemplifies this. Sixteen years ago, Tokyo and Washington agreed to relocate the small airfield away from the crowded city of Ginowan. Since then, Japanese officials have been preoccupied with matters like the size and shape of the runways at a proposed replacement facility, which still hasn't been built or even approved.

Futenma plays a small role in the overall defense of Japan. U.S. Marines use the base primarily to train with a few dozen transport and attack helicopters and to support a small expeditionary unit. Its importance pales in comparison to the big U.S. Air Force bases at Kadena and Misawa or the U.S. Navy base at Yokosuka.

The Futenma problem, according to one former U.S. negotiator on the matter, is "peanuts" compared with other pressing issues that Japan needs to address. Despite renewed tensions in the East China Sea, few politicians have shown any sense of urgency about the snail-paced implementation of dynamic defense and the lack of a cogent national security strategy. Instead, they are busy fretting about minor issues such as the Futenma spat, Washington's decision to deploy the MV-22 Osprey aircraft to Okinawa, and headlines such as the 2010 incident in which a Chinese skipper rammed into a Japanese Coast Guard vessel.

When former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe upgraded the defense agency to a ministry five years ago, there was hope that Tokyo would finally give national security the attention it deserves. But the first defense minister following this promotion, Fumio Kyuma, was sacked after six months, ensnared by a verbal gaffe regarding the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His immediate successors proved to be more astute, but most stayed on for only a year due to the country's sorry habit of annually tossing out leaders. With prime ministers coming and going almost every year, Japan has been unable to sustain a consistent debate on defense.

Before appointing Satoshi Morimoto, one of Japan's top national security experts, the current prime minister tapped two know-nothing legislators for the post of defense minister -- a result of paying more attention to party politics than a prospect's ability or vision. The first, Yasuo Ichikawa, openly acknowledged that he was inexperienced and under qualified. When, to no one's surprise, Ichikawa made a mess of things, he was quickly replaced with Naoki Tanaka, the son-in-law of political power broker Kakuei Tanaka. Tanaka displayed an even more astonishing cluelessness about the most basic aspects of defense policy and he was soon gone as well.

Noda's initial choices may have been subpar, but the LDP, which claims to be more aware of defense issues than its rival, has only exacerbated the situation. During Tanaka's tenure, LDP politicians focused on humiliating him in parliamentary sessions rather than helping shape a more constructive debate about Japan's security. Current Defense Minister Morimoto possesses the necessary expertise, but opposition and mainstream media continue with their usual counterproductive nitpicking -- arguing that he is unfit because of his civilian background, even though previous LDP administrations also appointed civilians to key cabinet posts, including foreign minister.

Making matters worse, Japan's populace seems numb to the fact that it is surrounded by the nuclear states of Russia, China, and North Korea -- the latter two having opaque intentions. Arguably, Japan faces one of the most precarious geopolitical situations. Yet civilians seem largely apathetic to these potential threats. When North Korea tested a ballistic missile in 2009, the public was petrified at first but quickly lost interest. At the time, former defense chief Shigeru Ishiba expressed deep concern that both the public and politicians had become accustomed to these threats, showing signs of "North Korea fatigue."

As Japan remains distracted and weary, increasingly powerful rivals are setting the security agenda across Asia. China and Russia have embarked on a clear and consistent plan to expand their influence. Moscow, recovering from its post-Cold War slumber, wants to re-establish control over the Sea of Okhotsk and waters around northern Japan to allow its ships free access to the Western Pacific. To back up this claim, Russia announced plans to reinforce defenses of the Northern Territories with anti-ship missiles and ground troops, to increase sea and air patrols of the region, and to refurbish its Pacific Fleet. Russia's new Borei-class nuclear missile submarines -- armed with multiple-warhead ballistic missiles -- will dock in the renovated Vilyuchinsk submarine base on the Kamchatka peninsula, northeast of Japan. Two refurbished Cold War-era warships, the nuclear cruiser Admiral Nakhimov and the missile cruiser Marshal Ustinov, will be moved to another far east base in Vladivostok. And new Russian tanks, attack helicopters, and anti-ship and antiaircraft missiles are scheduled for deployment to the southern Kurile Islands, which the Japanese contest as their own territory.

Then, of course, there is China, which has boosted annual defense spending by double digits for most of the last decade and is stepping up its territorial claims in the South and East China Seas. In addition to the recent deployment of its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, Beijing is developing a long-range anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) with the aim to target U.S. aircraft carriers. The ASBM is the first of its kind, and naval analysts, such as Andrew S. Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College, fear it will be a game changer. The missile threatens to drive U.S. air and naval forces back from the Western Pacific and force the Japanese to stick close to home.

These developments will likely influence U.S.-Japan relations. Until recently, the U.S. was satisfied with Japan playing a backup role in the region: providing bases and specializing in key areas like reconnaissance and anti-submarine patrols. That could change, however, as the U.S. shifts forces to the Pacific and begins to flesh out its new Air Sea Battle concept, designed to counter China's growing capabilities. The nascent concept seeks to tie together ships, aircraft, missiles, and satellites to fight with great precision at long range and to retake airspace and waters that might be controlled by the Chinese. All of this could require increased collaboration with Japanese forces and the sharing of missile batteries, air defenses, electronic warfare technology, and other capabilities.

With China's increasing boldness, Washington's pivot to the Pacific has been widely welcomed in the region and Japan's lockstep alliance with the U.S. seems increasingly astute. At the same time, Tokyo needs to consider the full range of possible scenarios and security dilemmas it may soon face. What if the U.S. and China come to blows? Should Japan have the flexibility to pursue an independent course and become less reliant on the U.S. defense umbrella? Unfortunately, these questions have been left largely unasked.

In order to adapt to the new realities of regional and global security, Tokyo must re-examine its constitution, as difficult and wrenching as that might prove to be. Constitutional revision requires two-thirds of votes in both houses of parliament, as well as a national referendum. But first, Japan needs to pass a law on holding a national referendum. And according to a poll conducted by the liberal newspaper Asahi Shimbun in April, 55 percent of respondents do not want to reform Article 9 of the constitution -- the basis of Japan's pacifism. As a result, Tokyo has to deal with the legislative roadblock of passing a special-measures law every time it wants to send the SDF abroad, hindering efforts to play a more active role in global security.

All of this is a pity, considering that Noda actually does seem to have some type of vision for Japan's future. Last year, he chose to deliver one of his first major addresses as prime minister at Hyakuri Air Base, where he spoke movingly of the heroic efforts of the SDF in response to the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. He also warned of the rising military challenges facing Japan. The prime minister's speech was a remarkable break from the past, both because of its unsparing praise of Japanese troops and for its blunt declaration that the SDF is not simply a relief agency but a fighting force that needs to be prepared for rising regional challenges. Alas, the speech received little attention outside of Hyakuri. In that sense, the biggest threat to Japan's security is itself.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • TAKASHI YOKOTA is the editor-in-chief of Newsweek Japan and Newsweek’s correspondent in Tokyo. KIRK SPITZER is a Tokyo-based defense journalist and contributor to Newsweek Japan and
  • More By Takashi Yokota
  • More By Kirk Spitzer