For years, Japanese voters have resisted calls for stronger defense against the country’s nuclear-armed neighbors. Today, public opinion is changing, although obstacles remain to meaningful action to strengthen the country’s security.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has caused many Japanese to re-examine the risks of armed conflict over unresolved territorial disputes in East Asia. Polls show voters fear a failure to stop Russia could encourage China to take action against Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory, or to seize disputed islands in the South China Sea. East administered by Japan. Tokyo also has a simmering island dispute with Moscow.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents to a survey conducted by the Yomiuri Last weekend, the newspaper said it wanted to see the Japanese defenses strengthened. National security generally ranks far behind the economy in voters’ priorities.
“The Ukrainian shock is starting to change the norms and beliefs of Japan,” said Kyoko Hatakeyama, a professor at Niigata University’s Graduate School of International and Regional Development Studies. “But there is still a long way to go.”
Although Prime Minister Fumio Kishida surprised many observers by swiftly imposing sanctions on Russia and sending non-lethal military aid to Ukraine, bolstering Japan’s own defenses will be more difficult. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has already broadened interpretations of the country’s pacifist post-war constitution, sometimes in the face of massive public protests.
The LDP must also manage a ruling coalition that includes a Buddhist-backed party and local opposition to military deployments, including the American-made Aegis Ashore missile defense system. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces remain dependent on the “nuclear umbrella” of the United States, the country’s only treaty ally.
Kishida – a former dove who came into office to warn of a possible confrontation over Taiwan – will face continued pressure to play a more active advocacy role with US President Joe Biden likely to visit Tokyo in the coming months. It may also require calming Japan’s feud with fellow US ally South Korea, where President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol is urging greater focus on the region’s security network.
The Japanese Prime Minister also has his ex-boss, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, looking over his shoulder. Abe, who has increased defense spending every year during his record tenure, has in recent weeks called for measures that would break taboos on nuclear weapons or obtaining offensive systems such as missiles.
Abe said last weekend that Japan should obtain the capability to strike at the “centre” of an enemy nation and argued that increased defense spending would help avoid a clash with China. “No nation in the world will risk its life to defend a country that does not make efforts for its own defense,” he said, according to NHK television.
Abe previously proposed a debate on “nuclear sharing,” such as the system that allows members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to harbor US nuclear weapons. Kishida, from Hiroshima, one of only two cities to have suffered a nuclear attack, dismissed the idea, saying it would violate Japan’s principles against possessing, producing or introducing atomic weapons.
China’s Foreign Ministry says Abe’s nuclear sharing proposal ‘fully exposes the dangerous trend of persistent militarism’ in Japan, which has invaded the Chinese mainland and ruled Taiwan for half a century as part of its expansion imperial across Asia. Foreign Minister Wang Yi separately reaffirmed China’s commitment to a peaceful resolution on Taiwan, saying last month that the dispute over the democratically-ruled island was “not at all comparable” to Ukraine.
Moscow has retaliated against Tokyo’s sanctions in recent weeks by calling off talks on the Kuril Islands, known in Japan as the Northern Territories, which were seized by Soviet forces at the end of World War II. Russia has also conducted military exercises on the islands.
Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters on Tuesday that his agency wanted funding for a “drastic” increase in the country’s defenses. Kishi, Abe’s brother, called NATO’s goal of spending 2% of gross domestic product, roughly double Japan’s budget, “meaningful.”