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Japan Reborn: Rearmament for Pacifism

  • Published
  • By Capt Matthew H. Ormsbee, USAF
  • Wild Blue Yonder




Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks a bold and unprecedented constitutional amendment to expressly acknowledge Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and their limits. But why? Abe’s proposal embodies one of the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) central political platforms, yet according to public opinion polling in Japan, such a proposal is very unlikely to pass in a referendum, assuming it first passes in both chambers of the Japanese Diet, as constitutionally required. This article supports a broader SDF mission but proposes an abandonment of Prime Minister Abe’s proposed constitutional amendment in favor of a broadly construed constitutional reading of “self-defense” with support from international legal norms. Such a reading would bolster American military interests in the Indo-Pacific theater, since Japan is one of America’s most formidable allies in the region. The United States can take certain steps to promote a broad constitutional reading, which would serve national defense interests and promote peace in a region featuring emboldened Chinese military forces and an erratic North Korean leader. Doing so would bring Japanese air superiority on par with Japan’s renowned naval forces and reinvigorate the US-Japan alliance.




Occupying American military forces unilaterally drafted the terms of a new Japanese constitution at the conclusion of World War II, penning a foundational document that would govern a recently devastated nation for generations to come.1 The prevailing wartime context is central to understanding how and why Japan’s constitutional pacifism clause came to be in 1946. Based on the Kellogg-Briand Pact, Article Nine of the postwar Japanese Constitution embodies Japan’s pacifist foundation:


Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.2

Japan—under its occupying American victors—henceforth committed itself to diplomacy rather than war to resolve future international disputes. For Japan’s neighbors, this was a very important and uncommon reassurance: Japan’s constitutional promise to renounce war undoubtedly comforted neighboring states that in the event future conflict should arise, Japan would not reactively turn to warring means to resolve a dispute. Instead, Japanese forces would be required to implement a slower, more diplomatic approach to disputes.


However, while never constitutionally amended or otherwise qualified, Article Nine shed much of its significance in the decades following 1946. Most notably, the SDF was founded in 1954 as a quasi-military force with the avowed purpose of defending the Japanese homeland from invasion.3 Year over year, the SDF has filled an increasingly vital role in safeguarding Japanese interests abroad and protecting the Japanese in times of natural disaster. In 2019, the SDF took an important step in broadening its mission by deploying troops abroad in support of a multinational force separate from the United Nations (UN) for the first time ever.4 Despite these gradual developments, by a plain reading of Article Nine, the SDF would appear unconstitutional, since it constitutes “land, sea, and air forces” maintained by the Japanese Government.


Still, under international legal norms, every state enjoys the inalienable right to act in self-defense of its territory and sovereignty. Such a right, even if in contradiction with the plain text of the national constitution, cannot be nullified or waived even by constitutional limitations. Perhaps due to this glaring contradiction in Japan’s founding text and its growing self-defense forces, Japanese politicians have for decades mulled over proposals to amend the constitution to expressly bless the SDF’s existence and delineate its powers. After all, official sanction of the SDF would permit it to boldly fill its role and even expand without concerns about the constitutionality of its very existence.


While seeking consonance between the SDF and the constitution is understandable, efforts to revise Article Nine have nevertheless been dubbed the “third rail” of Japanese politics. Such political efforts have routinely stalled and public opinion has always disfavored constitutionally altering Japan’s longstanding identity as a pacifist island nation. Indeed, the Diet has not put forth an officially sanctioned interpretation of Article Nine’s significance with one definitive voice. There is simply no consensus regarding Article Nine among Japanese legislators.


Japan’s parliamentary debate over Article Nine is likely to remain a significant part of Japanese policy making for years to come. But lawmakers, particularly those supporting a liberal reading of Article Nine, could gain additional credibility if the United States concurred with expanded views of authority under the constitution. After all, American occupying forces originally drafted Article Nine, thus a consistent interpretive stance from the original drafting nation would lend credence to a broad reading by Japanese policy makers. With the inherent right to self-defense as the bedrock of expansionist views of SDF powers, and a complementary stance from the United States, the SDF could find greater legitimacy via international legal norms rather than a constitutional amendment.


The Constitutionality Debate


Putting aside the popularity of a constitutional amendment to maintain war-fighting forces, the more central issue for Japanese lawmakers and diplomats is whether the SDF is constitutional. Some constitutional scholars have argued that the SDF is unconstitutional based on a strict textual interpretation of the constitution. They interpret the text of Article Nine literally and find no grounds for flexibility in the mandate that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained” for any reason. Thus, the SDF per se violates Article Nine because it constitutes land, sea, and air forces.


However, the prevailing constitutional interpretation of Article Nine does not construe the article so strictly and finds constitutional flexibility for the SDF. Even if pro-SDF pundits agree that the text of Article Nine seems to leave little room for interpretation, they would counter that all sovereign states have an inalienable right to self-defense which cannot be renounced, even by national constitution. Ultimately, a right to self-defense cannot be overcome even by constitutional constraints that would otherwise impede a state’s ability to maintain war potential. Ultimately, self-defense cannot be maintained without also maintaining warring potential. And by extension, even future expansions of the SDF may be constitutional, so long as the impetus for such expansions is closely tied to self-defense measures.


Since its founding 65 years ago, the SDF has grown only incrementally, perhaps as a testament to how controversial the SDF remains. On the development of the SDF, Sheila Smith, an expert on Japan’s armed forces at the Council on Foreign Relations states: “This is evolutionary, not revolutionary, change.”5 While the number of SDF personnel and amount of defense funding has risen gradually since the SDF’s founding, the Japanese public is more likely to recognize the SDF’s importance in natural disaster relief than war fighting abroad.6 While war potential is certainly maintained, the SDF has proven itself a critical response agency following tsunamis and the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in 2011. In this way, too, the SDF has filled a vital role in Japanese society that fosters public support and funding while avoiding claims of building up war potential for warring ends.


Assuming that Japanese military forces are maintained not for the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes, but solely for self-defense and humanitarian purposes, Japan’s concept of self-defense should be clearly defined to avoid erroneous claims of military buildup for international aggression. Doing so would telegraph to the world Japan’s military intentions and the left and right boundaries of viable self-defense.


Scoping Self-Defense


Article 51 of the UN Charter permits military action in self-defense and defines such self-defense as using force to repel an attack or imminent threat of attack directed at the self-defending state or a legally protectable interest. Article 51 states in part: “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the UN, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”


In practice, one would expect to find a definitive standard in international law for demonstrating evidence necessary to justify self-defense. Yet, there is no such standard. In the absence of definitive guidance, states must rely on vaguely worded treaties and court opinions that touch on self-defense in nonbinding dicta. One such statement comes from Judge Sergei Borisovitch Krylov in his dissenting opinion in Corfu Channel (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland v. People’s Republic of Albania), decided by the International Court of Justice in 1947. In his dissent, Judge Krylov indicated that self-defense acts must be based on realities rather than possibilities, stating that “one cannot condemn a State on the basis of probabilities. To establish international responsibility, one must have clear and indisputable facts.” While generally informative, such guidance is not concrete enough for states to rely upon it in use of global self-defense.


Yet, the absence of a clear international standard for reasonableness of self-defense has not stopped the United States from adopting an understanding of when self-defense is justified. In 2016, former US State Department Legal Adviser Brian Egan cited a famous work by Sir Daniel Bethlehem in describing the American stance on self-defense.7 Mr. Egan stated, “The absence of a specific evidence of where an attack will take place or of the precise nature of an attack does not preclude a conclusion that an armed attack is imminent for purposes of the exercise of the right of self-defense, provided that there is a reasonable and objective basis for concluding that an armed attack is imminent.”


However, no definition or guidance is given for the term “reasonable and objective basis,” leaving states once again to reach for definitive guidance.8 Ultimately, the reasonableness of use of self-defense—as an international legal standard—should mirror a American common law standard that requires self-defense to be reasonable from both an objective and subjective point of view. Such a standard would mirror the standard from Mr. Egan by requiring both objective justification and reasonableness. From an objective point of view, one asks whether, under the circumstances, any state would feel threatened to the extent that self-defense is necessary. In Japan’s case, military chest-puffing by neighbors—North Korean missile testing and Chinese aggression vis-à-vis Taiwan—could cause any government to fear for future military aggression.9 Thus, it is conceivable that any state, without regard to Japan’s unique concerns, might feel that acts of self-defense are justified to counter a concrete threat.


Assuming that the use of self-defense is objectively reasonable, such use must still be subjectively reasonable under the circumstances. From a subjective point of view, one asks whether the state in question actually feels threatened to the extent that it feels the need to rely on self-defense for self-preservation. Under this line of inquiry, one considers how threatened the Japanese actually feel in their particular situation. Doing so permits one to consider the idiosyncratic history and relationships Japan has with North Korea and China, for example, to decide if use of self-defense is justified. Presumably, the subjectivity prong will almost always be met if one determines that the objectivity prong has been also been met. That is, if any country in Japan’s position would feel that use of self-defense is necessary to counter a threat, then it may be a foregone conclusion that Japan believes in good faith that self-defense is required.


Finally, even if military self-defense is not warranted today, preparation for widescale self-defense may be warranted. After all, self-defense on a state level is not an option without considerable preparation to enable quick and effective reactions. Defense personnel and assets must already be in place at the time of an attack to effectively counter an attack. Under a separate line of reasoning, substantial investment in a self-defense framework even without a concrete threat may be permissible because deterrence of adversary aggression is itself an effective form of self-defense.




Is it possible for the SDF to legitimize a role for itself as a pacifist military force? This question will define Japan’s role in future conflicts as a nonaggressor, reactionary military force with teeth. The SDF is already favorably postured to fill such a role. According to Michael Green, a Japan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “The Japanese military is the most respected institution in Japan.” He added: “Japanese society is not antimilitary anymore, but it is still antiwar.”10


The question of the SDF’s role is important not only for Japan’s defense community, but also for American and ally defense planning. Japan has been called “the bedrock of [America’s] security relationships, not only in northeast Asia but across the whole of the Indo-Pacific.”11 Since the end of World War II, Japanese military, diplomatic, and economic forces have aligned with American interests to foster a longstanding alliance envied by many other states.


In a region currently marked by Chinese economic might and North Korean military chutzpah, Japan is a more important ally to the United States than ever before. Particularly, the partnership between the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) and Fifth Air Force will remain centrally important to the US-Japan alliance. Fifth Air Force maintains fighter wings and an airlift wing at Misawa Air Base (AB), Kadena AB, and Yokota AB, respectively. These bases feature longstanding cooperation with JASDF personnel who achieve objectives for Japanese air superiority while matching American priorities in the region. JASDF cooperation is central to the mission of the Pacific Air Forces and greater Air Force mission.


a 13th Aircraft Maintenance Unit dedicated crew chief, shows Major General Masahito Monma, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force 6th Air Wing commander, a nose wheel steering system on an F-16 Fighting Falcon during an aviation training relocation at Komatsu Air Base, Japan

(US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Collette Brooks)

Figure 1: Partnership. US Air Force Senior Airman Ryan Pancheri, a 13th Aircraft Maintenance Unit dedicated crew chief, shows Major General Masahito Monma, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force 6th Air Wing commander, a nose wheel steering system on an F-16 Fighting Falcon during an aviation training relocation at Komatsu Air Base, Japan, 2 October 2019. Airmen showed leadership of Komatsu AB the inner workings of the F-16 to improve bilateral relations, share knowledge, and foster friendship.


The following proposals focus on expansion of collective self-defense in future SDF operations, future Japanese defense planning, refocused political efforts for Japanese policy makers, and a bold move to alter the makeup of the original F-35 partnership countries. Each proposal is attainable and is linked to the overarching theme of expanded constitutional interpretations rather than legislative amendment to the constitution.


Collective Self-Defense

In 2014, Prime Minister Abe formed a legislative committee to propose laws enabling collective self-defense, so that Japan could claim defense not only of its own territories but also of its allies.12 The public and members of the Diet favored such laws and passed legislation authorizing collective self-defense in March 2016. When asked about the law, a senior Japanese diplomat admitted that the law was passed largely in reaction to North Korea. Pyongyang’s missile capabilities have grown with each passing year. If North Korea were to start a war with the United States, without the collective self-defense law, Japan might be sidelined and unable to help the United States in the midst of armed conflict, absent a direct attack on Japan. The new law is an acknowledgment of the delicate peace in the Indo-Pacific Region and Tokyo’s obligation to support Washington in the event of open hostilities on US Forces.


Yet, if Tokyo has demonstrated openness to broadening the aperture of self-defense by acknowledging collective self-defense, could even broader authority be granted? For instance, if a majority of Japanese lawmakers can support the notion that self-defense includes defense of Japanese and ally territories, would they support efforts to defend not only territorial sovereignty but also Japanese economic interests? And would they find broad support for deterrent forms of self-defense as well? If the best offense is a good defense, then legislators may well support aggressive Japanese military maneuvers in the South China Sea under the theory that military demonstrations act as deterrence and deterrence is a potent form of self-defense.


In any case, the March 2016 collective self-defense legislation is consistent with international law norms proscribing state rights to collective and individual self-defense. Notably, Japan joined the UN in 1956, matching Japan’s pacifist hopes with the UN’s mandate for a peaceful world order. By joining the UN, Japan thereby accepted the terms of the UN Charter. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits the threat or use of force and calls on all members to respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of other states. Yet, as a signatory to the UN Charter, Japan also became bound by Article 51 of the UN Charter, reaffirming “the inherent right of collective or individual self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations.”


The same right to self-defense finds voice in international legal precedent, as affirmed by the International Court of Justice in The Republic of Nicaragua v. The United States of America (1986).13 Article 51 of the UN Charter enshrines the right to self-defense and collective self-defense but does not limit a state’s right to self-defense in the absence of an armed attack. In other words, Article 51’s rights proclamation is confined to a situation when an armed attack has occurred, but does not expand or limit a state’s self-defense rights when an armed attack has not actually occurred.


This is an important distinction, since states may exercise self-defense for actual, perceived threats of force by other states, though an armed attack may not yet transpire. Indeed, the current leadership of North Korea seems to favor routine missile testing and intimidation techniques while taking careful measures to avoid an actual armed attack. There is no question that if a North Korean missile actually landed on Japanese soil, Japanese and ally forces would instantly declare this an act of war and react with proportional measures against North Korea. Fortunately, no such event has occurred. However, this does not preclude Japan from monitoring the North Korean threat and aggressively investing in the SDF to deter North Korean missile testing and to act decisively in the event of hostilities.


Those favoring a lethargic Japanese response to Chinese and Korean acts of aggression may cite the standard for self-defense under international customary law, as delineated in the Caroline case. The resulting test, reaffirmed in the Nuremberg Tribunal, states that the necessity for preemptive self-defense must be “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” Yet, a steady buildup of SDF war potential, which is proportional to perceived threats and necessary to counter a future attack, is not preemptive war. Importantly, Japanese rearmament is not necessarily greater war potential toward warring ends. Rather, rearmament can be viewed as cautious preparatory steps in the name of self-defense and collective defense.


Globalism demands interconnected alliances with a strong backbone. As Japan’s 75-year-old conversation about the role of its military continues, Japan will continue to rely heavily on American military preeminence, but America must be able to rely on Japanese fortification in the face of a threat. Embrace of collective self-defense gives Japan a loud voice in this dialogue and will allow transpacific partners to amplify defense measures for its allies.


Defense Planning

In December 2018, Japan published its defense plan for the next decade. Under the plan, Japan will create its first aircraft carrier since World War II, spend roughly $240 billion on the SDF through 2024, increase its defense expenditures, and purchase new fighter jets, including the F-35. These allocations are a direct result of relations with the United States and key Asian neighbors. As for the United States, over Memorial Day weekend in 2019, President Trump was the first foreign dignitary to visit Emperor Naruhito, who had recently ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne. As a cordial diplomatic gesture, the visit belied concerns that the United States is less engaged in the Indo-Pacific Region of late and that the US-Japan alliance, in particular, has been a secondary concern in the White House. If Japan’s faith in its alliance with United States is shaken, then it is natural for Japan to invest in its own defense infrastructure should the United States waver in its support of Japan.


The allocations also squarely address Tokyo’s concern over Pyongyang’s ability to strike Japan with conventional and nuclear weapons. Kim Jong-un has proven himself unpredictable and dangerous. The proximity to an unstable head of state should understandably lead Japan to take precautionary steps to defend itself if necessary. North Korea is viewed by much of the world as a rogue state and Japan, if sufficiently provoked by North Korea, must have the option to strike back proportionally.


Finally, China’s shadow extends far beyond Japan to the US mainland. Its undeniable economic clout and global ambition make it a long-term threat to neighboring countries and leading democracies. Microaggressions in disputed international waters have created territorial disputes with the threat of armed conflict.14 Leaders in China and Japan have embraced a “warming period” in the Chinese-Japanese relationship beginning in 2018.15 Importantly, President Xi plans a diplomatic visit to Japan later in 2019. Yet, Japan is right to strengthen its military capabilities and break from its postwar hangover. However, in doing so it faces an unenviable dilemma: do so too quickly and Japan risks appearing like it is stockpiling for war, which may provoke China; on the other hand, do so too slowly and Japan will fall further behind Beijing in military capabilities.


While Japan’s increased defense spending is a reaction to regrettable provocations by neighboring states, its fiscal maneuvering strengthens the US-Japan alliance and should spur the United States to match investment in US-Japan joint exercises and the long-term viability of the partnership. Particularly, if Japan is signaling a willingness to loosen its purse strings in the name of international stability, the United States should show receptiveness to a rearmed Japan. Ensuring maximum self-sufficiency between Japan and the United States is a catch-22: a reassurance of quick defensive measures from the United States would allow Japan to breathe easy knowing a powerful ally is ever-present, while a cool and distant approach from the United States, while diplomatically unpalatable, may incentivize Japan to reinvigorate its military for self-serving purposes. Ultimately, as Japan continues to commit to a policy of defense reinvigoration, a future reverse-course from the United States would ensure the strongest possible linkage between Japan and the United States, ensuring that Japan can stand strong by itself, but together with the United States, it would be an unquestioned military power.


F-35 Partnership

On June 18, 2019, Japan formally requested information on the process for joining the F-35 program as a full partner country.16 The Pentagon has signaled that it is unlikely to grant Japan’s request and would prefer for Japan to remain merely a customer of the program. Two issues supporting this stance are the changes that would be required for the international production base, which would be politically fraught yet required if Japan joined as a partner state, and the slippery slope argument that granting Japan partner status would open the flood gates to other customer countries demanding partner status. Included in its initial inquiry about partner status, Japan sought information about cost sharing among the industrial consortium states, clearly indicating a willingness to adopt costs of partnership as well as the benefits of partnership.


Ellen Lord, the Pentagon acquisition head, will communicate with Japan’s defense ministry, but the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) has already indicated that partnership is limited to the initial F-35 investor countries, and that there are no plans to expand partnership to other countries. Indeed, the window for F-35 partnership closed on July 15, 2002.16 A 2007 memo reiterates this interpretation, stating that only initial partners would enjoy partnership privileges during the production, sustainment, and modernization stages of the F-35 program.


Yet, Japan’s interest in partnership comes at a critical moment in which the Pentagon should not reflexively dismiss Japan’s interest without serious consideration. In a time of leadership turnover in the JPO (as Vice Admiral Mat Winter retires) and Turkey’s involuntary exit from the F-35 consortium, Japan’s entreaty should be more warmly received than ever.17 Moreover, aside from the United States, Japan will be the state with the most F-35’s in the near future. While the Pentagon must take steps to enforce the original partnership agreement (and not aggravate initial partners), the Department of Defense and Department of State originally drafted the agreement and can create a process to allow states to become partner countries.


Permitting Japan to become a partner makes sense on many levels. Doing so would grant Japan direct involvement in the JPO. This would also allow Japan to station national representatives in the JPO, who would have a say in important decision making on future F-35 capabilities and industrial participation. While the former authority would allow Japan to steer research and development for the F-35 ahead of its Block 4 upgrade, the latter authority could potentially allow Japan to net billions in revenue by permitting Japan to manufacture jet parts that flow into a greater global supply chain. Moreover, Japan would fit in nicely with the other partner states: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.


Japan’s future stake in the F-35 program is undeniable: in December 2018, the nation proclaimed it planned to expand procurement of F-35’s from 42 to 147 jets, instantly making it the operator of the most F-35’s, aside from the United States, along with one of just three states to operate the F-35B model. Japan’s letter of interest in becoming a partner state acknowledges that “partner countries share significant costs,” thus intimating that Japan is willing to accept an important quid pro quo: substantial and timely investment in the program in exchange for greater control of the program.


Lastly, making Japan a partner state need not open the door to every customer state demanding partnership. As noted above, Japan’s purchase history and enthusiasm in the program is already exceptional and unmatched. This sets the nation apart from South Korea, for example, which was the first state in line to become a customer. Future partner hopefuls could match Japan’s investment and make their case for partnership as well, thus growing the program and ensuring all partners benefit. Further setting Japan apart from other countries is its longstanding relationship of trust and support from the United States, Japan occupies a singular place in this regard. While the history of this alliance is remarkable, the future of the relationship will ultimately dictate the partnership’s influence and longevity.


Abandon Efforts to Amend the Constitution

Prime Minister Abe seeks his place in history. Perhaps he already realizes that his proposed constitutional amendment is a moon shot, yet not seeking major legislative change would cause him to appear weak or unambitious. Abe’s potential constitutional amendment would likely still renounce war or any open hostilities, but it would state that Japan can maintain a “National Defense Force” (NDF). The prime minister would lead uniformed NDF personnel — just like the US President commands US military personnel as commander in chief — and such personnel could work toward “peace and [the] security of international society.”18 Again, to pass such a constitutional amendment, two-thirds of the lawmakers in the upper and lower houses must approve it. After that, a majority of the Japanese public must vote in favor of such an amendment in a referendum.


As stated earlier, such a constitutional amendment is unlikely to gain public support according to the latest public opinion polls.19 It is equally unlikely that such an amendment would find two-thirds approval in both houses of the Diet. While the LDP’s stance on a constitutional amendment may serve political purposes, true change is likely to come through incremental reinterpretation of state self-defense rather than top-down constitutional change.


Prime Minister Abe’s coalition would be wise to continue the incremental approach to broadening SDF powers under Article Nine. The last significant reinterpretation took place in 2014, permitting the SDF to operate alongside other nations’ forces (though still in a self-defense role). Posturing to give the SDF greater war-fighting capabilities in the name of self-defense will soothe public concern over war, while reassuring the public that the nation’s military is more than capable of defending against an armed attack.


Importantly, a colorable argument could be made that almost any military strategy or investment constitutes or supports self-defense. This interpretation would only be strengthened by US concurrence that Japan’s constitutionally mandated pacifism does not preclude the state from amassing substantial war-fighting capability if articulable facts suggest that an armed attack is imminent or could be devastating if it occurred. To this point, cooperation with the US State Department would help Japanese and American defense forces speak with one voice, giving greater credibility to constitutional interpretations that require consensus building and ally coalitions.


This approach, featuring greater than before input from the United States in the Japanese internal constitutional debate, may catalyze LDP efforts to strengthen the SDF. The United States has rightly kept in its own lane on the subject of Article Nine, the so-called third rail of Japanese politics. However, necessity requires a bolder approach within the US-Japan alliance. Never before have Chinese, Russian, and North Korean adversaries tested boundaries more aggressively to erode the military and strategic advantages enjoyed by US Forces. A hands-off approach to Japanese pacifism by US military forces hurts not only Japan, but also the United States.




Japan finds itself in a unique paradox. On the one hand, it is a pacifist nation per the terms of its own constitution. On the other hand, despite legislative gridlock and public opposition, the SDF continues to grow and establish itself as a political and military fixture. In 2019, the first year of the Chrysanthemum Throne, Japan is in perhaps the most auspicious period in which to invest in self-defense measures, particularly as North Korea continues to test missile launches into the Sea of Japan and over the Japanese mainland. Such provocations add to the perception that North Korea’s leader is unpredictable and desperate in his search for power and legitimacy.


Yet, Japan may find hidden strength in its neighbors’ perception of it as a peaceful state, even while it incrementally grows its military forces. Even while rearming, Japan’s military capabilities may remain vastly underestimated. Indeed, as Prime Minister Abe has repeatedly stated, the Japanese people are committed to peace, though the state’s actions reflect preparation for a war scenario.


Japan has historically invoked its “shima-guni konjo,” or island fighting spirit. Separated from mainland China and Korea, the Japanese have developed a singular culture and proudly defended their liberties at all costs. This fighting spirit will continue in the future as Japan sheds its strict pacifist cloak in favor of a realist approach to maintaining international peace. A reborn Japan finds strength not in the apparent limitations of its constitution but rather in the possibilities that arise from a broad understanding of self-defense.



1 Theodore McNelly, “American Influence and Japan’s No-War Constitution,” Political Science Quarterly 67, no. 4 (December 1952): 589–98.

2 Article 9, Constitution of Japan, 3 November 1946.

3 Lee Teslik, “Japan and its Military,”, 13 April 2006,

4 Jeffrey Hornung, “With Little Fanfare, Japan Just Changed the Way It Uses Its Military,”, 3 May 2019,

5 Sheila Smith, Interview,, April 2019,

6 Japanese Ministry of Defense, “Response to Various Disasters,”

7 Daniel Bethlehem, “Principles Relevant to the Scope of a State’s Right of Self-Defense Against an Imminent or Actual Armed Attack by Nonstate Actors,” American Journal of International Law, April 2013.

8 Jasmin Johurun, “Self-Defense in International Law: What Level of Evidence?,”, 8 July 2019,

9 Mike Yeo, “China is Laying the Groundwork for War with Taiwan,” Defense News, 3 May 2019,

10 Alex Ward, “The Rise of Japanese Militarism,” Vox, 30 April 2019,

11 Ibid. (quoting Admiral Philip Davidson, Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command).

12 Press Conference by Prime Minister Abe, 15 May 2014,

13 The Republic of Nicaragua v. the United States of America, International Court of Justice, June 27, 1986.

14 Annabelle Liang, “China Vows Military Action if Taiwan, Sea Claims Opposed,” Military Times, 2 June 2019,

16 Aaron Mehta, “Japan Wants to Be an Official F-35 Partner. The Pentagon Plans to Say No,” Defense News, 29 July 2019,

17 Ibid. “Turkey’s pursuit of a Russian air defense system has resulted in them being booted from the F-35 consortium, with all work being done by its companies to end early next year.”

18 Ibid., footnote 9.

19 “Poll Shows 54% Oppose Revision of Japan’s Pacifist Constitution under Abe’s Watch,” Japan Times, 11 April 2019,

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