Japan’s new security strategy: changing national identity?

Author: Takeshi Yuzawa, Hosei University

In December 2013, the Japanese government issued the nation’s first National Security Strategy (NSS). The NSS is the result of government efforts to formulate a comprehensive and integrated approach to national security. It is based on an emerging principle of ‘a proactive contributor to peace’, which represents Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s desire to move Japan towards collective self-defence.

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) destroyer JDS Kongou (DDG 173) sails in formation with other JMSDF ships and ships assigned to the USS Kitty Hawk Carrier Strike Group in the Pacific Ocean (Photo: US Navy / Todd Cichonowicz).

Japan’s NSS comprises three sections and opens by defining the principles that guide Japan’s security policy. While stressing the importance of being ‘a peace-loving nation’, exemplified by its exclusively defence-oriented security policy and its three non-nuclear principles, the document argues that Japan needs to be more proactive to maintain international peace and stability. Abe has frequently referenced this policy, stating Japan will be ‘a proactive contributor to peace based on the principle of international cooperation’.

The second section discusses security challenges facing Japan at both the global and regional level. Global security challenges include dramatic shifts in the balance of power, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and risks to the global commons. At the regional level, the focus is on North Korea and China. North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile capabilities as well as China’s growing military power and its expansionist tendencies are regarded as serious challenges to Japan’s national security.

The third section elaborates on measures to make a proactive contribution to peace and to cope with the aforementioned national security challenges. These measures include strengthening the capabilities of its diplomatic institutions; developing an effective joint defence force; promoting joint development and production of defence equipment; increasing the effectiveness of Japan–US security cooperation; deepening political and security cooperation with like-minded countries; and strengthening Japan’s commitment to UN-related activities.

Although many of the security challenges and measures described in the document are nothing new — having already been mentioned in Japan’s diplomatic bluebooks and its defence white papers — the emphasis and nuance of each item are different. It is perhaps the first ‘official’ policy document that implies the government’s intention to exercise the right to collective self-defence. The key phrase in the NSS document is ‘a proactive contributor to peace’, which appears eight times. Although the document does not make any reference to collective self-defence, it is widely recognised in the Japanese media and among the public that the principle of ‘a proactive contributor to peace’ reflects Abe’s desire to expand Japan’s military role, especially in UN related missions and within the framework of the Japan–US alliance by recognising the nation’s right to collective self-defence.

The emergence of this new principle of national security reflects a growing need to reconsider Japan’s national identity and international role as well as incremental changes to its security policy since the end of the Cold War. During the Cold War era, due mainly to the existence of legal and normative constraints on its military policy, Japan relied on its economic power as an instrument for contributing to international security — especially in the form of official development assistance. Japan’s non-military contribution helped strengthen both domestic and international recognition of Japan as ‘a peace-loving nation’.

However, with growing pressure on Japan to make a direct contribution to international security, following international criticism for its ‘chequebook diplomacy’ during the 1991 Gulf War, Japanese policymakers have come to recognise the need to utilise the Japan Self Defence Forces (SDF) as an instrument to contribute to the maintenance of international peace. Moreover, the changing security environment in East Asia after the end of the Cold War, represented by North Korea’s nuclear threat and China’s growing military power, have further intensified Tokyo’s focus on the military dimension of its security policy. In short, there has been a growing realisation in Japanese society that a strictly limited military role based on the principles of ‘a peace loving nation’ is no longer legitimate in light of its heightened sense of international responsibility and reputation, not to mention the need for measures to ensure its national security.

The result of these changes has culminated in an incremental expansion in the scope and boundaries of Japan’s military role since the end of the Cold War. This is exemplified by the enactment of the PKO Law in 1992, the revision of Japan–US defence guidelines in 1997, the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law in 2001, and the Iraq Humanitarian and Reconstruction Assistance Special Measures Law in 2003.

Despite the evolution of Japan’s security policy since the end of the Cold War, it is still an open question whether the principle of ‘a proactive contributor to peace’ — now a symbol of Abe’s zeal for collective self-defence — will be embedded in Japanese society and thus become an integral part of Japan’s national identity.

A major impediment to Abe’s policy is a lack of domestic consensus on the exercise of the right to collective self-defence. According to a Kyodo News survey, more than half the Japanese public opposes their nation moving towards collective self-defence. This is partly due to the ambiguity surrounding the extent to which the SDF engages in armed conflicts overseas.

Also, the rising tensions between Japan and concerned countries over historical issues have helped fuel unnecessary suspicions about the direction of its security policy — making it difficult to garner genuine support for the exercise of the right to collective self-defence from the international community. In that sense, the entrenchment of the new principle in Japan’s national identity as well as the successful implementation of the NSS largely depend on the government easing concerns surrounding collective self-defence.

Takeshi Yuzawa is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Global and Interdisciplinary Studies, Hosei University, Japan.