Weeks after becoming Japan’s prime minister last year, Fumio Kishida donned a dark green bomber jacket, the Hinomaru flag emblazoned on his sleeve, and climbed into a tank.
Official photos show him awkwardly smiling for his audience at Camp Asaka – the men and women of the country’s Self-Defense Forces – perhaps an indication that post-war Japanese leaders and military hardware weren’t always easy bedfellows.
The image belied Kishida’s political roots in a moderate wing of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and his background as an MP representing a Hiroshima constituency who avoided more aggressive language about the safety of others in his party.
But under Kishida, and not his hawkish predecessor Shinzo Abe, Japan is undergoing a dramatic shift from its strictly defensive post-war stance, in which the country could double spending on its military and come closer to acquiring a “first strike” capability.
Eight months into his tenure, Kishida faces unprecedented foreign policy challenges. Russia’s war in Ukraine has set alarm bells ringing in the Asia-Pacific region over the possibility of a copycat Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that Beijing sees as a breakaway province that will one day be reunited with the motherland.
Article Nine of Japans Constitution, written by US occupying forces after World War II, renounces war and forbids the country from using force to settle international disputes. Your military is limited to a purely defensive role.
Any attempt to gain the ability to attack enemy bases before Japan itself is attacked would be a clear violation of the constitution, said Akira Kawasaki, an executive committee member of Peace Boat, a Japanese NGO.
Even before the first shot was fired in Ukraine, the LDP had transitioned to more robust defense policies, culminating in a party commission proposal last month to increase military spending from 1% to 2% or more of the country over the next five years GDP increase years.
Japan, according to Kawasaki, has the third largest GDP in the world. “If Japan spent 2% of its GDP on the military, it would become the third largest military power in the world. This would be a great threat to the whole world and totally inconsistent with the peace-loving nation that the Japanese people have been trying to become under the post-war constitution.”
Japan is the world’s ninth-biggest defense spender, but the $54.1 billion (£42.8 billion) it spent in 2021 comes second to the US and China’s estimated $801 billion Eclipsed $293 billion, up 4.7% from 2020.
According to Michito Tsuruoka, associate professor of policy management at Keio University in Tokyo, the move away from his unofficial post-war commitment to keep defense spending at around 1% of GDP is a reflection of growing concerns about the regional security environment and Russia’s war in Ukraine .
“More people in Japan, including Kishida, argue that the Russian invasion should not be a precedent to be repeated by China in Asia. We think of China when we think of the war in Ukraine,” Tsuruoka said.
“Whether Japanese politicians or the public like it or not, Tokyo will need to assume more security responsibilities in the region given the rise of China, North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, and the relative decline of US supremacy in the region.”
Advocates of a more robust stance point out that the LDP proposals do nothing more than reflect NATO members’ defense spending targets and accommodate growing US demands for its allies in the region to shoulder a larger share of the security burden.
Kishida said it was time to ditch the post-war dove-versus-hawk rhetoric and acknowledge today’s realities of a nuclear-armed North Korea and a China that has increased military activities in the South and East China Seas.
“We are seriously concerned about the rapid growth in Chinese military activities,” Kishida said in an interview with Nikkei Asia this week. “I want to have calm and realistic discussions about what we need to do to protect the public.”
Concerns are growing in Japan over Chinese air and sea activities near Senkakus, a chain of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea administered by Japan but claimed by China, where they are known as Diaoyu.
“Japan’s defense capabilities need to be fundamentally upgraded given the current changes in the international situation,” Kishida told Nikkei Asia. He said he was determined to “radically strengthen our defense capabilities” in a revised national security strategy to be released by the end of the year.
This could involve breaking down another post-war taboo, acquiring the ability to “counter” an enemy base where preparations for an attack on Japan have begun.
“If Japan decides to launch ground attacks against North Korea or China, it could deviate from the traditional interpretation of its constitution, at least in the short term,” said Narushige Michishita, vice president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
Though Japan has already deployed missile defense systems, it risks falling behind its rivals in what some analysts are calling a new Northeast Asian arms race.
“The problem is that North Korea and China are developing advanced weapon systems that could penetrate Japan’s missile defense shields,” Michishita said. “Therefore, it actually makes sense that Japan should start the necessary preparations today.”
None of the proposals will go far without the support of the public and the LDP’s junior coalition partner Komeito, a Buddhist-affiliated party with a pacifist tradition, which insisted on changing the wording from “first strike” to “counter-strike” to make it more palatable to make public.
A recent opinion poll conducted by Asahi Shimbun and the University of Tokyo reflects unease in Japan following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The poll found a record 64% in favor of strengthening Japan’s defenses and just 10% against. However, a poll by Yomiuri Shimbun found that respondents were split down the middle, at 46% each, on the merits of acquiring the ability to attack enemy bases.
Some government officials say acquiring counter-strike capability is permitted under an interpretation of the 1956 constitution, which cites Japan’s right to self-defense, but opponents say the proposed changes would put the country at risk.
“No matter what the LDP calls it, such an offensive stance would risk a pre-emptive attack, either intentional or accidental,” Kawasaki said. “The countries around Japan would also react in the same way. This move would encourage an arms race and increase the likelihood of an attack on Japan.”