The Second Rise of the Samurai?

There has been much coverage in world media recently concerning Japan’s supposed “rearmament”, alongside and somewhat in reaction to the killing of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto by ISIS. But is this actually anything to be concerned about? 

Where In The World?
By Jack Mountford
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The slumbering Samurai rises again, but who cares?
(Photo: Koiohi Kamoshida/Getty Images)

On 10 January, the Government of Japan approved an annual defence budget of ¥4.98 trillion, or £28 billion. This record allocation, reported widely in western media, comes amid an ongoing marine dispute with the People’s Republic of China. For at least two years, news organisations in both Asia and the West have been worked up by the notion that Japan is in the midst of some sort of major defence build-up. Many reports cite long–exhausted clichés about Japan. If you’re really lucky, they might even mention a Samurai, as was the case with the Russian newspaper, Pravda. Indeed, Japan has been acquiring new weapons, warships and aircraft, but this ‘remilitarisation’ is tame compared to other nations. And it certainly doesn’t indicate a return to the aggressive expansionism of the 1930s, as some would try to have you believe.

The Armed Forces are a very sensitive issue in Japan. Since the election of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe in 2012, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has attempted to ‘reinterpret’ the nation’s Constitution. In July 2014, the Government announced that certain articles of the constitution, which severely restrict Japan’s use of force in resolving international disputes, had been altered. This change essentially meant that Japan could now engage in ‘collective self–defence’, or defending an ally under attack. This is legal in international law but had previously been forbidden by the Japanese constitution.

The change was highly controversial in Japan, seen by many as an attempt to remilitarise after seventy years of peace. On the day of the announcement, ten thousand people gathered outside government offices in Tokyo to protest. And a few days before the announcement on June 29, an elderly man in a suit climbed atop an elevated walkway at Shinjuku station, the world’s busiest rail terminal, with a megaphone. He criticised the Government’s impending changes for an hour. Then he doused himself in petrol and immolated himself. The man was taken to hospital in a critical condition, and social media coverage of the event shocked the nation. In November, a similar incident occurred in a park in Tokyo. This time, the protestor died of his wounds. Notes found nearby criticised the Government for its overturn of the ban on collective self–defence.

All this goes to show the level of hypersensitivity in Japan regarding any change to its military forces. After its defeat in the Second World War, the humbled nation adopted a constitution which banned war and war–making abilities. However, Japan affirmed its right to self–defence, hence the name of its current armed forces: the Japan Self–Defence Forces, or JSDF. Offensive weapons are strictly prohibited – cruise missiles, bombers and aircraft carriers are not allowed. And don’t even mention nuclear weapons. Japan has also capped defence spending at around one percent of Gross National Product, less than spent by most countries in the G-20. But when you have a seventy–year–old reputation as a peaceful, anti–militaristic nation, any change is big news.

But Japan is facing certain challenges in the region. Newly appointed Defence Minister Gen Nakatani (the thirteenth Defence Minister in seven years) addressed Japanese media soon after the announcement, saying that “the situation around Japan is changing”. But who or what is responsible for these changes?

Why, it’s China of course! China has a defence budget equivalent to 166.1 billion US dollars, more than two and a half times the size of Japan’s. Propelled by immense economic growth, China has embarked on an enormous defence spending spree. Aircraft carriers? Check! Stealth fighters? Check! And let’s not forget the nuclear weapons. So you can see why those in the Japanese Government have cause for concern. Japan is engaged in a maritime dispute concerning the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands if you’re in China). Ever since Tokyo purchased three of the disputed islands from a private owner in 2012, tensions have increased alarmingly. Chinese Air Force drones make regular incursions into Japanese airspace near the islands, and Chinese fishing boats and coast guard vessels also make regular ‘visits’ to the area. Despite the fact that maritime incursions have decreased since October of 2013, Japan regularly scrambles aircraft against Chinese planes approaching the Islands. As a direct result of the rise of China, officials in the Japanese Government have been forced to reassess their priorities. Manpower and resources are being shifted from the northern island of Hokkaidō (where the JSDF was concentrated during the Cold War to repel Soviet invasion) to the southern island of Kyūshū. Japan is investing in new military equipment.

But rather than a sweeping rearmaments program, like that portrayed in the media, Japan is in fact undergoing a very focused and very small military buildup. The Government plans to purchase amphibious armoured vehicles and new ships to ferry troops to the distant islands in the event of conflict. New ‘tiltrotor’ helicopters are also being purchased for this reason. Plus, if personnel increases are a good indicator of a buildup, then an increase of just 190 people for 2014 will disappoint the newspapers. Rather than indicating a broad remilitarisation, this could just be seen as Japan improving its abilities to defend itself and its territory. An increase in defence spending would also aid with Japan’s international security commitments, and the need to shoulder a greater burden in its alliance with the United States. Japan has also recently reassessed a ban on exports of military equipment, and if this new market opens up fully it could create a huge industry in Japan, potentially employing many thousands of workers. But the Government’s inability to express these things to the people has frustrated many, including proponents of collective self–defence.

Contrary to opposition claims, Abe’s path has been democratic. And it has precedent. But Japan hasn’t yet learnt to trust itself again after the trauma of the Second World War. The nation is in fear of itself. Its neighbours fear it as well. So Japan needs to take a middle way. Securing itself whilst maintaining responsibility for and awareness of its actions.

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Jack Mountford
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Jack Mountford

Political Correspondent at Filibuster
Jack Mountford is an 18-year-old writer for Filibuster, currently studying History and Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is interested primarily in issues of international relations and security, focusing particularly on China and the geopolitical situation in the Asia-Pacific region. In his limited spare time, he enjoys reading, BBC documentaries and good quality Cheddar cheese.
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