1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
Japan Militär Soldaten Shinzo Abe
Image: Reuters/T. Hanai

Examining Japan's defense policy

Srinivas Mazumdaru
July 16, 2015

Japan's lower house has passed security bills that for the first time since WWII could allow the country's military to fight alongside allied nations in case of an attack. DW examines the implications of this shift.


The passage of the security bills by the lower house of Japan's parliament's on Thursday, July 16, represents a major victory for PM Shinzo Abe who, despite growing popular discontent, has been seeking to revise Japan's security policy and re-interpret the country's 1947 pacifist constitution in a bid to expand the role of Japan's military forces.

The legislation will now go to the upper house, which will have 60 days to vote. But even if lawmakers vote down the bills, they will go back to the more powerful lower house, which can overturn the decision with a two-thirds majority.

Fewer restraints

The US-drafted post-war Japanese constitution imposed significant constraints on the country's military, known as Self-Defense Forces (SDF), with Japanese troops restricted to defending themselves and the country.

Many of Japan's previous governments interpreted the constitution in a way that bound the country from a broader security role, said Jeremy A. Yellen, a historian of modern Japan and an associate in research at Harvard University.

"In the process they imposed a number of restraints on participation in security affairs, from refusing to deploy Japanese troops overseas to avoiding participation in collective defense arrangements, limiting military spending and power projection capabilities, and refusing to export arms or share defense technologies," he told DW.

However, PM Abe believes such policies have become a hindrance to deeper military collaboration with allies such as the United States. The Japanese leader has hence long argued that the current defense policy constricts Japan's ability to protect its fundamental security interests.

Japan Militär Soldaten Luftwaffe
The US-drafted post-war Japanese constitution imposed significant restrictions on Japan's militaryImage: Getty Images/AFP/K. Nogi

Abe's arguments

The PM's push for revising Japan's defense policy comes amid heightening tensions with China over territorial disputes in the East China Sea. Tokyo is wary of Beijing's growing political and economic clout in the region accompanied with its rapid military modernization. Japan is also increasingly concerned about its nuclear-armed neighbor North Korea.

According to analysts, Abe has consistently justified his re-interpretation of Article 9 of the constitution - which renounces the right to war - in two ways. First, he has placed the move in the context of Japan's alliance with the US arguing that allowing the exercise of collective self-defense would allow its forces to protect US vessels and help sweep mines in the Persian Gulf.

"The Abe government privately fears that if Japan does not show a broader willingness to fight for the United States, then Washington might abandon its commitment to defend the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, leaving Japan at the mercy of China in the East China Sea," Yellen told DW.

Abe's second key argument has been China's maritime advance abroad. He has referred to the clashes in the South China Sea between China and Vietnam and the Philippines as evidence of China's aggressive intent.

"Abe has hinted that collective self-defense could be extended to such nations as South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and India, if threats from China or other aggressive states bring matters to a head. And this would all be in the name of 'active pacifism,'" added Yellen.

A greater military role

This is why the recently passed bills will permit Japan's SDF to take part in collective self-defense, thus enabling Tokyo to come to the aid of US forces threatened by a third country. They also allow for more global military cooperation and lead to greater US-Japan security coordination in the region.

James L. Schoff, Senior Associate at the Asia Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the measures will allow Japan to expand the range of support activities for the US, such as helping to protect US ships if they are attacked, more coordinated missile defense activity, and helping out with mine-sweeping at sea and other actions to protect secure sea lanes.

For instance, Japan would be able to intercept missiles fired at its allies, and the country's armed forces could be deployed to protect oil supplies from the Middle East.

While Tokyo and Washington previously separated their defense activities into distinct zones and separate activities, they have now shifted to a much more integrated approach. "The US will still handle the bulk of combat operations with Japan in more of a support role in the case of security cooperation beyond the defense of Japan," Schoff said.

"Whereas the US-Japan defense alliance in the past was almost completely about the US helping to protect Japan, the new policy suggests a more balanced relationship, even if Japan still limits the situations where it can use military force," he told DW, adding that Japan should be able to provide more information and logistical support to the US in a conflict than it ever could before.

Japan Parlament Abstimmung Sicherheitsgesetz
Abe's push for revising Japan's defense policy comes amid growing tensions with China over territorial disputesImage: Reuters/T. Hanai


The security bills, however, do not significantly alter the balance of power in East Asia, say experts. "They do, however, provide a plan for how Japan and the US can make more effective use of the resources they currently possess, and they signal a strong political commitment and slightly improving interoperability and bilateral capability that should strengthen deterrence," said analyst Schoff.

But despite the threats, the security bills prove controversial and face considerable opposition both inside and outside Japan. Polls suggest a majority of Japanese are against Abe's plans. Many also argue that the provision of collective self-defense is not allowed under the country's constitution.

Internationally, while the US and several Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam are in favor of Japan's decision to revise defense laws, China and South Korea have been highly critical of Abe's attempts at revising Japan's defense policy.

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section Related topics