Asked about the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Japanese thinking, a former senior Foreign Ministry official compared it to the 1853 arrival in Tokyo Bay of Commodore’s Matthew Perry’s “Black Ships”—the enduring symbol of wrenching change imposed on a reluctant nation by outside forces. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida explained why Russian aggression had such an impact in a speech during his visit last month to Washington. Russia’s invasion, he said, is “a historic turning point” that signals “the complete end of the post-Cold War world.” The threat to “the free, open, and stable international order” is “a moment for truth for Japan. . . . Japan must rise to this challenge and take action to defend our freedom and democracy.”
That’s strong stuff for a government typically depicted as a free rider when it comes to security concerns, one that is said to be constrained by its “pacifist” constitution and to shelter under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. While this assessment of Japanese security policy is exaggerated, the Ukraine invasion is nevertheless a milestone for the country and its view of the world.
Russia’s war has shattered the illusion that interstate conflict is no longer a feature of international relations and has driven home the message that countries must be ready to defend themselves if they expect the world to rally behind them. It has obliged Tokyo to go on the diplomatic offensive and remind its allies and partners that security is not divisible, that developments in a distant theater can ripple across the planet and upend lives far away.
The Japanese fear that Russia’s attempt to redraw international borders could inspire other governments—most notably that of China—to do the same. In his Washington speech, Kishida echoed the language of Japan’s new national security strategy, published the month before, which warned, “The possibility cannot be precluded that a similar serious situation may arise in the future in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in East Asia.” That has been Kishida’s constant refrain, a message delivered to last summer’s NATO summit (he was the first Japanese prime minister to attend one) and throughout his whirlwind diplomatic tour in January, when he visited five transatlantic capitals—Paris, Rome, London, Ottawa, and Washington—in one week.)
Politicians and strategists in Tokyo know, too, that getting and keeping international support requires that Japan do the utmost it can for its own defense. Masafumi Ishii, who served both as Japan’s ambassador to Indonesia and as its ambassador to NATO, explained that “achieving a stronger Japan and preparing better planning for a contingency are crucial so that the United States will feel more obliged to get involved” in a crisis. The implied kernel of doubt about that involvement was sewn during the Trump presidency, and it persists despite the Biden administration’s unwavering support for U.S. alliances in general and the security partnership with Japan in particular.
For much of Japan’s postwar history, a cadre of conservatives has outpaced the “reluctant realists” that are at the center of public opinion and define their country’s foreign and security policies. The invasion of Ukraine has helped closed the gap between them, but the overwhelming majority of Japanese continue to resist foreign entanglements even as concerns about national defense grow. Yet sympathy for Ukraine and recognition of the impact of that crisis on Japan’s own security is moving the dial.
A public that historically lagged behind a more internationally-minded leadership is ready to do more to defend itself. In a poll taken shortly after the war began, 80 percent of respondents said that they were more anxious than before about a war between Japan and a neighboring country. And even before the invasion,more than two-thirds of Japanese said they sensed a military threat emanating from China.
Fear is forcing action. A recent opinion survey shows that for the first time, more Japanese support their nation taking a larger role in the security alliance with the United States than oppose such a change—49 percent for versus 46 percent against, a virtual reversal since the question was first asked in 2020, when 41 percent were in favor of a bigger role and 53 percent were opposed.)
This is music to the ears of the country’s conservative politicians, who have long sought to increase national defense capabilities to allow Japan to contribute more to regional peace and stability and shed what is, for them, an embarrassing legacy of Japan’s defeat in World War II. To realize that ambition and meet international expectations, Kishida has pledged to double defense spending to reach 2 percent of GDP, in line with NATO benchmarks.
Just as important are Tokyo’s efforts to expand security ties. Japan has signed military partnership agreements with Australia and the United Kingdom and is participating in bilateral and multilateral military training exercises. It is providing defense equipment to Southeast Asian nations and strengthening security cooperation with them more generally. Michito Tsuruoka, an associate professor at Keio University, explainsthat these efforts aim not to displace the alliance with the United States but to instead demonstrate a greater commitment to regional security, to thicken the weave of security relations in the region, and ultimately to make it harder for the United States to disengage.
There is both more and less than meets the eye to the defense budgets. Defense spending has been inching up in recent years and the 1 percent ceiling that is often mentioned is a guideline, not a barrier, which has been regularly breached. While there have been some genuine increases and high-profile procurements, a fair portion of the new items are those that have been excluded from defense budgets—such as pensions for soldiers, infrastructure development for military facilities, and peacekeeping operations, to name but three—to honor the 1 percent limit.
The claim that the war has put a stake through the heart of Japan’s “pacifism” better reflects the poor understanding of the country’s security policy than the policy itself. Yes, Japan’s three new national security documents reflect the new consensus, but even a 1 percent ceiling can go a long way when the country has the world’s third-largest economy. Japan’s 2020 defense budget was $49 billion, ranking ninth globally.
More to the point, Japan has never turned its back on defense (as a real pacifist would). Rather, it limited its capabilities, foreswearing power projection to avoid threatening its neighbors. Constraints on defense spending liberated funds to invest in more productive parts of the economy. If anything, Japan possesses a deep strain of anti-militarism, born of historical experience and the hijacking of democracy during the 1930s.
If Japanese public opinion toward China has tended to defy simple characterization, the invasion of Ukraine has calcified feelings and yielded a reversal in policy when it comes to Russia. Moscow was described as a partner in Japan’s first National Security Strategy in 2013; in the version released this past December, Russia is identified throughout as a threat.
The previous formulation reflected Japan’s concern to keep its strategic options open and to avoid driving Moscow into Beijing’s arms, thereby consolidating a partnership of revisionist powers. Also weighing on Japanese thinking is energy security. While oil and coal imports from Russia fell in 2022, Japan continues to rely on that country for liquified natural gas, with imports increasing 4 percent during 2022. Even as Europe and the United States end their investments, Japan has maintained its stake in the Sakhalin oil and gas project, a reflection of deeply ingrained fears of energy insecurity.
Third, and perhaps most significantly, conservatives have sought good relations with Russia as a way of reaching an agreement that would secure the return of territory—four islands north of Hokkaido—seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.
This is hope masquerading as strategy. Russian President Vladimir Putin is more comfortable taking territory than giving it away, and the Russian constitution was amended in 2020 to ban the ceding of territory to another country. The invasion of Ukraine should have been the death knell to that illusion, as it has rightly been to so many other illusions.
Image: Close-up of Utagawa Kuniyoshi's Triptych of Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre, c. 1844 (V&A Museum, London)
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