Japan’s Security Evolution

In 2015, Japan passed landmark reforms of its national security laws, including a reinterpretation of its constitutional prohibition against collective security activities. Now Japan can legally cooperate with the United States in defensive military operations. In response, observers have declared that Japan is abandoning the pacifist principles that have underpinned its national security policy since World War II. Such pronouncements are misguided; these reforms are only the most recent recalibration of Japan’s postwar grand strategy. Japan spends 1 percent of its GDP on defense, which is less than half of the global average of 2.3 percent. Its people are unlikely to support higher defense spending. As Adam Liff argues, “Japan’s security policy remains far more self-restrained than any other major economic power.”

Since World War II, Japan has relied upon the U.S.-Japan alliance for its national security. It prefers to“buck-pass” to the United States, but—at times of growing threat and uncertainty about the U.S. commitment—Tokyo has built greater military capabilities and accepted more roles within the alliance. The most recent national security reforms conform to this familiar pattern: Japan continues to buck-pass, but—as its threat environment grows increasingly dangerous because of a more powerful and more assertive China—Japan has accepted a larger role within the alliance. The recent security reforms represent continuity, rather than change, in a pattern in which Japan relies upon the United States for its security but contributes more to the alliance when its security environment worsens. From Washington’s standpoint, Japan’s greater activism and burden-sharing within the alliance is welcome news.

Click here to read the full publication →