Japan Rearmed Cover

Japan Rearmed

The Politics of Military Power

Sheila A. Smith

Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2019, 352 pages

Book Review published on: October 9, 2020

In the book Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power, Sheila Smith, a senior fellow in Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, delves into the historical, political, and economical details surrounding the debate over whether Japan should modify the imposed constitution that has, since the end of World War II, effectively neutered inclinations toward remilitarization. These details provide context for that debate, which has been going on inside Japan since at least the end of the Cold War. The debate has certainly become more charged since North Korea obtained nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, and China has become far more aggressive under its current leader Xi Jinping in pressing its territorial claims and designs. Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe has long been a proponent of reforming the constitution to allow Japan to fashion a more conventional military with both defensive and offensive capabilities that would support government policies. For him, however, the process of amending the constitution remains a slow and delicate one, considering Japan’s unique history.

Given that so much has been written about Japan’s emergence from isolation in the nineteenth century and its stunning reformation and surge to global power in the twentieth century, it is probably most appropriate to begin where Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended. The indelible mark left on the collective Japanese psyche in the wake of those bombings continues to define and shape the nation’s approach to military matters seventy-five years later, even though the regional context has undergone tremendous change. A comparison to Germany is sometimes difficult because only Japan has experienced an atomic attack—twice. While it is true that conventional bombs did more damage and killed more people than the atomic bombs, none of the conventional bomb attacks managed to compress so much devastation into mere seconds; further, they lacked the eerie radiation that hung over those cities long after the attacks ceased.

One can argue it was this singular moment in time, the utter devastation it unleashed, and importantly, the anticipation of more destruction to come that compelled Japan’s leaders—most notably the emperor—to capitulate. Standing amid the ruins, the Japanese leaders felt the dual burdens of tremendous shock and shame—for losing (not the egregious treatment of conquered peoples that would come later) and for the deep suffering—having lost virtually everything.

How had it come to this? How would Japan ever recover? Who was to blame? How could war be avoided going forward? The proud Japanese were forced to consent to the decrees of their vanquishers as they wrestled with these wrenching questions and so many others.

But these were questions for the victors as well. Communism was the new, emerging threat, and may have played a significant role in the decision to use nuclear weapons on the island nation. As such, there was no time to waste in resuscitating Japan to become a bulwark against Soviet global designs. A new constitution, drawn up by the Americans, explicitly forbade Japan from ever having offensive forces. This decree was designed to prevent Japan from ever again posing a threat to its traumatized neighbors. The tectonic shift in thinking for a people who had always been understandably proud of their history cannot be overstated. They were ashamed of their recent defeat and—with time, reflection, and the passing of a generation—their military’s savage wartime atrocities directed at victims across much of Asia.

In the four decades that followed, Japan’s resurgence was truly phoenix-like. Enormous economic aid from the United States and other nations coupled with money saved from not having to field and fund a large military greatly helped unlock the entrepreneurial spirit and industrial might of this recently shattered country. But this was also when the alliance began to feel small tremors.

As America’s global commitments grew and its aging industrial base stumbled and rusted, the Japanese were flush with profits. The irony of Germany and Japan winning in the factories instead of on the battlefield created tensions in the bilateral relationship. Many Americans complained that Japan only excelled because it coasted on the protection afforded it by the American mutual defense treaty and the paltry financial drain of a very modest and constitutionally constrained Self-Defense Force (SDF). What some detractors forgot as they raged was an uncomfortable truth: the constraint on the size and capability of the SDF, which detractors argued allowed Japan to coast financially, was imposed by the United States back in the 1940s when Gen. Douglas MacArthur ruled as a de facto emperor. America facilitated this development, if inadvertently, through its early, robust aid to Japan and its authorship of the Japanese constitution. Granted, many other factors were at play and fed into this evolutionary development of an economic colossus graced with a miniscule defense budget relative to its potential. With time, those tremors only grew with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the nearly fifty-year Cold War.

But it was another event that really cast an uncomfortable spotlight on the economic giant with its limited military force, which was incapable of doing much at all. Tokyo’s involvement, or rather its lack of involvement, in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm seemed very strange both abroad, and increasingly at home. In a memorable show of unity, many of the world’s countries came together to help eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. But Japan, then the second-largest economy in the world but constrained by its American-drafted constitution, could only offer big money to support the effort. The situation was a peculiarity, and some Japanese began wondering if the time had come to revisit the constitution. Added pressure from American statesmen who called for Japan to do more, pay more, and develop a more muscular force, particularly after the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center began to raise the level of discourse on the subject.

For Washington, a bigger, better Japanese SDF would free U.S. forces to do other things, even if the SDF could not fight directly alongside U.S. forces. For Tokyo, concern was growing over emerging threats that political leaders wondered might fall outside U.S. treaty obligations. With the Cold War over, and with America’s interests focused on a so-called “New World Order,” some Japanese leaders began contemplating a time when U.S. defense guarantees might not be as solid, leaving Japan to fend for itself in a decidedly dangerous region.

Increasingly, the GWOT, in its many controversial, far-flung, and costly manifestations, drew American attention away from Japan’s neighborhood just as China was beginning to gallop past Japan’s long-stagnant, deflationary economy in terms of size, a factor that could—and ultimately would—translate into much bigger defense outlays by Beijing—outlays Japan could not match, even if it wanted to.

In Japan Rearmed, Smith portrays a country long “reluctant to develop a military capability that matches its economic power.” The question on readers’ minds is whether this tendency will change and by how much. The author contends Japan is not only responding to daunting geopolitical trends in the region, but also to its long dependence on the United States as guarantor of its security.

With the Cold War in the rearview mirror and the GWOT sucking up so much of America’s available attention, and despite more recent attention under the Trump administration, Tokyo is increasingly concerned about America’s commitment to defend Japan. As such, Japanese strategists are slowly energizing their thinking and preparations for the day when the United States might not be there for them.

Smith offers readers a work that sheds light on the inner workings of the Japanese government, its politics and culture, and its perceptions regarding the reliability of U.S. commitments. In short, Tokyo is reevaluating the strategic calculus that for so long guided its decision-making. Will this reevaluation precipitate an arms race in northeast Asia? It looks as though there is already one underway.

The most interesting question, from this writer’s perspective, is what role America will play. Whatever role America plays will drive a lot of Tokyo’s calculations and actions. For the United States, there are multiple dangers to consider. First, the United States wants a more muscular and responsive Japanese military, especially as China’s force projection capabilities mushroom. How can Japan move in that direction without stirring anxiety across the region, not to mention without accelerating the arms race already underway? Second, Washington is wary of shouldering too much of the security burden for Tokyo at a time when its own military is stretched with global commitments. Finding the appropriate balance between doing too much for Japan and doing too little is not easy. Do too little and Japan may embark on a trajectory that massively increases the tensions in the region and the potential for conflict, especially over the disputed islands and North Korean brinksmanship. Do too much and Tokyo could be emboldened to overplay its hand or the United States risks slamming the brakes on the rising momentum for increased burden-sharing. Finally, tied to doing too little, Japan may feel compelled, at some point, to join “the nuclear club.” How will other actors in that region react to that development?

Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power is thoroughly academic in its construction with a great depth of detail and analysis. As such, it is not tailored to the casual reader, but rather the detective intent on finding nuanced insights. Thus, it is a timely and useful resource for those interested in the interplay of regional geopolitical trends, perceptions, and Japanese bureaucracy and policy formation.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. John H. Modinger, PhD, U.S. Air Force, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas