Japan has a new prime minister, and in the year ahead, Fumio Kishida will likely chart a different, more assertive course for Japan’s military, the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). The foundations of this strategic move were set by his predecessor Shinzo Abe during his eight years in office, but there are even more consequential decisions to be made as the military balance in the Indo-Pacific continues to shift ominously for Japan.

Kishida may seem an unlikely champion of a more muscular Japan. He has spent his career advocating Japan’s interests through diplomacy and arms control, but in September, after announcing his candidacy for the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party, Kishida laid out clearly the challenge China poses to Japan’s future and stated he would support the idea of investing in offensive capabilities if necessary to defend Japan. The LDP has embraced a clear call for investing in greater military power. For elections for Japan’s lower house of parliament, taking place this weekend, the party manifesto includes the goal of doubling the share of Japan’s military spending as a proportion of GDP.

Whether the public is willing to embrace this more hawkish agenda remains to be seen, but the Japanese people are becoming more worried about China’s growing military presence in the region. Annual polling conducted by the Japanese government reveals that although only 13.5 percent of respondents in 2000 thought that Japan’s defenses needed strengthening, by 2018 that number had increased to 29 percent. Japanese attitudes toward China have hardened as bilateral tensions over trade and the Senkaku Islands—a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea known in China as the Diaoyu Islands—erupted in the 2010s. By 2020, annual polls conducted by the Japanese think tank Genron NPO revealed that 63 percent of respondents saw China as Japan’s greatest military threat.

Yet the October 31 election, which is expected to diminish the LDP’s seats in the lower house, could complicate any major shift in Japanese defense policy. Kishida is likely to have a far different political hand to play from that of either of his predecessors, Abe or Yoshihide Suga, who both enjoyed a supermajority in the lower house of the Diet, Japan’s parliament. Suga’s resignation as prime minister after only one year in office raises concerns that party rivalries could once again be the LDP’s Achilles’ heel. Kishida will need to ease the generational tensions within the ranks of the LDP that were on display in September by producing victory at the polls not only this fall but again in next year’s upper house election. These unsettling dynamics at home will temper Kishida’s agenda. Yet neither North Korea nor China seems ready to take a pause. Missile launches by both Koreas in the last two months have worried Tokyo’s defense planners, as have reports of China’s testing of a hypersonic missile. And the United States will be hoping for Japan to join it in far more robust efforts to deter Chinese pressure on Taiwan. To make that happen, Kishida will be looking to Sunday’s elections for an early indication of just how far he can push his national security agenda.

PUMP UP JAPAN?

Kishida is best known for his diplomatic experience as Japan’s foreign minister under Abe, and Kishida led his own bid for the presidency with a clear signal that Japan’s security was of paramount concern. Even before others jumped into the race, Kishida had committed himself to supporting greater firepower for the Self-Defense Forces. Also, in an interview with the newspaper Nikkei, Kishida did not hesitate to lay out his concerns about China and proclaimed that to protect “basic values such as freedom, democracy, the rule of law, and human rights, we will work with those that share the same values, such as the United States, Europe, India, and Australia, to stand against authoritarian systems.”

There are others in the party leadership who have less interest in diplomacy and more interest in building Japan’s hard power. Sanae Takaichi, who was trying to become Japan’s first female prime minister and was backed by Abe, unabashedly embraced the agenda of the party’s right flank: government visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war dead but is seen by China and South Korea as a symbol of past Japanese aggression; revision of the Japanese constitution, including Article 9, which renounces the right to threaten or use force as a means of settling international disputes; and restriction of the position of emperor to male heirs in the imperial family. But it was her positions on Japan’s military options that drew the most attention. She called for doubling Japan’s defense spending from one percent of GDP to two percent and for the deployment of U.S. intermediate-range missiles on Japanese islands.

Although Takaichi did not attract much support from the general public early on, her support among party members rose dramatically during the race, and when it came time for members of the Diet to vote, she won more support among her peers than Taro Kono, the front-runner. In a runoff, she threw her weight behind Kishida, and after his win, he gave her the plum job of leading the party’s policy council. Takaichi’s idea of doubling the share of Japan’s military investment was included in the LDP’s election manifesto.

The Japanese public may be more concerned about their country’s defenses today, but they are unlikely to embrace a dramatic departure from military self-restraint.

This year, a majority of candidates running for seats in the lower house have argued to increase spending on Japanese defense. In a candidate poll conducted by the Japanese broadcaster NHK in advance of the lower house election, 504 of the 834 who answered the survey said they thought more defense spending was needed, an impressive 60 percent. Not surprisingly, 93 percent of the LDP candidates answered in the affirmative, and most of the candidates from the LDP’s junior coalition partner, Komeito, did as well, even though their party president, Natsuo Yamaguchi, balked at the idea of doubling Japan’s share of military spending to two percent of GDP. Notably there are other smaller parties, such as Nippon Ishin no Kai and Kokuminto, that also have a high proportion of candidates running on a strong defense platform. Japan’s defense minister, Nobuo Kishi, noted in an interview in Nikkei this May that the government no longer feels bound by historical restraints on spending. But how willing Japanese citizens are to shift the nation’s resources away from other priorities to invest in their military remains to be seen. 

DIFFICULT CHOICES

One issue of importance to the Kishida cabinet is the accelerating missile race in Japan’s vicinity. In September, South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile, and a week later, North Korea announced that it had successfully tested a long-range cruise missile. North Korea has also carried out shorter-range missile tests. On October 18, Kishida left the campaign trail to hold a press conference, where Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno announced that Japan would increase its missile defenses, and the prime minister followed by discussing the impact of regional missile proliferation on Japan’s own defense choices. Similarly, Tokyo is carefully monitoring reports that China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile earlier this month as part of its nuclear upgrade.

These developments will be addressed by the Kishida cabinet over the next year as it drafts a new National Security Strategy. The Abe cabinet approved the first such strategy in 2013, and this follow-on statement of Japan’s strategic goals will likely address the deepening concerns about China. Following that, Tokyo is expected to review its ten-year national defense plan, including a midterm procurement commitment. This will be the moment for Japan’s consideration of new capabilities, including missiles and other weapons that would allow the Self-Defense Forces to strike back if attacked. With the growing missile threat to Japan, the Ministry of Defense and the LDP’s Defense Policy Committee consider that the ability to retaliate may now be needed in order to dissuade others from attacking Japan. Similarly, strengthening Japan’s indigenous military technology, as well as diversifying its defense partners as it develops new weaponry, is also on the agenda.

When it comes to security, Kishida has emphasized the importance not only of military hardware but also of economic instruments such as sanctions and protections for critical technologies. He even created a new cabinet-level position, minister of economic security, and integrated it into the National Security Secretariat, Japan’s strategic planning agency. This focus will be welcomed by Japan’s Quadrilateral Security Dialogue partners, the United States, Australia, and India, which have agreed to pool efforts to build economic resilience and deepen cooperation on technological innovation.

Finally, before the year is out, Kishida will need to address a tricky question for the U.S.-Japanese alliance: What is Japan prepared to do about rising tensions across the Taiwan Strait? Later this year, officials from Washington and Tokyo are expected to meet to consider this and other improvements in alliance security cooperation. For some time now, Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi and his state minister of defense, Yasuhide Nakayama, have spoken publicly on the need for a U.S.-Japanese plan in case of Chinese aggression against Taiwan. Additionally, U.S. plans for increasing its own capabilities in the region, including intermediate-range forces as stipulated in the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, have many in Japan wondering if they will be asked to host these new capabilities. 

THE BALLOT BOX RULES

Since the end of the Cold War, Japan’s Diet has been increasingly involved in shaping the emerging role of the military in Japanese statecraft. The LDP continues to push for a stronger Japanese military but has done so alongside its more cautious coalition partner, Komeito. In the past, Komeito has acted to slow—but not stop—the LDP’s defense policy ambitions. Yet new parties have emerged in Japanese politics to support the idea of a stronger, more assertive military posture.

A single election will not determine the contours of future Japanese military power, of course. But the results might shed light on three questions that will have enduring significance. First, to what extent will the more hawkish elements of the LDP platform affect voter choice at the polls? Doubling Japan’s defense spending is a bold ambition and will likely make some voters think twice. Allowing the Japanese military to field offensive weaponry is also likely to draw protests, but this is unlikely to be presented to the public until after next year’s upper house election. The Japanese public may be more concerned about their country’s defenses today, but they are unlikely to embrace a dramatic departure from military self-restraint. Second, will the LDP that emerges from this election be more heavily populated by those who support a more muscular Japan, or will it continue to reflect its traditional balance between liberal and conservative views? The conspicuous uptick in Chinese military activities in and around Japan, as well as North Korea’s successful upgrade in its missile and nuclear capabilities, has provided fodder for a fuller debate on Japan’s military options within the LDP. Younger LDP Diet members are far less restrained by the taboos of their elders when it comes to evaluating and asserting Japan’s military needs. How much this defense realism becomes entwined with a more revisionist nationalism, however, remains to be seen.

Finally, and perhaps most important, will the LDP maintain its grip on power? The party currently occupies 276 seats, and with the added 29 seats of its partner, Komeito, the governing coalition enjoys a two-thirds majority in the 465-seat lower house. Few expect the conservatives to hold on to this advantage, and Kishida has lowered expectations by announcing that he hopes to win a simple majority for the coalition. That would mean a loss of at least 60 seats for the LDP, a whopping setback for a ruling party. Such an outcome would leave the coalition in control of the government but would circumscribe Kishida’s ability to push significant change in Japan’s military and foreign policies. A strong Japanese voice is now integral to shaping an increasingly unpredictable region. But if Japan’s prime minister wants his country to step up, he will need the support of the Japanese people.

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