The Rising East


Sunday, May 13, 2001

Will Japan expand its
army? It’s a question that
never goes away

FOR THE HALF-CENTURY starting after World War II, East Asians, Americans, and even some Japanese have repeatedly asked whether there would be a resurgence of the Japanese militarism that caused devastation from China through Southeast Asia to the gates of India from 1931 to 1945.

The question has boiled up again as Japan selected a new prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, who seemed to favor a more aggressive policy in national security. At the same time, debate over the famed "no war clause" of Japan's constitution has rumbled to life again.

In the end, however, the Japanese retreated into the pacifist cocoon in which they have wrapped themselves since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In his first policy address as prime minister, Koizumi skirted the issue and conceded in a press conference that it "would be difficult to put that on the political agenda at this moment."

Moreover, a fresh poll conducted by the Asahi newspaper showed that 74 percent of the Japanese were firmly opposed to revising the no-war clause to give Japan's armed forces more latitude in military operations. In any democracy, that majority is nearly overwhelming.

Thus, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who has long wanted the United States to form a close security alliance with Japan, left Tokyo empty handed last week after urging Japan to pick up more responsibility for security in Asia. "The lack of consensus on collective self-defense is an obstacle," he said.

IN THE modern world are five elements to military power.

The first is money. With the world's second most productive economy, the Japanese have enough money to build a military force commensurate with their economic strength and population. It would take 10 years of budgets that were five to six times larger than current expenditures but without a doubt it could be done despite the doldrums in which the Japanese economy has languished for a decade.

The second is industry. An industrial nation that turns out top-grade steel, electronic equipment, oil tankers, chemicals and nearly every other modern manufacture can -- and does -- make the tanks, aircraft and warships of a first-class force. Industry would experience a severe wrench if Japan were to turn to large scale production of arms but it could be accomplished.

Third is technology. The home of top of the line computers, nuclear power plants, optical equipment and among the world's best vehicles would have little trouble adapting its technical resources to military production. At the extreme, said a Japanese strategic thinker long ago, Japan is "N minus six months," meaning the nation could acquire nuclear warheads within six months of a decision to do so.

Fourth is human resources, or what was once called manpower. The Japanese people are well-educated and have a social order that produces young men and women who could adapt to the rigors of military service if their nation called on them.

FIFTH AND LAST is political will and here Japan scores nearly zero. As the Japanese would say: "Zen zen nai," meaning it's just not there. The void is reflected in the constitution, in law, and in policy decisions by successive cabinets. It can be seen in the size of Japan's military force, which at 240,000, is dwarfed by the armies of its neighbors in China, Russia, North Korea and South Korea. Even if Japan had the capability to project military power, it would have no place to go.

Military spending in Japan has hovered around $50 billion for five years, or about one-sixth that of the United States. Even that figure is misleading because Japan spends half of its defense budget on personnel and support for the U.S. rather than on arms and equipment. Their costs are higher than those in the U.S. because they get few economies of scale. Therefore they buy far less than that sum would suggest.

Finally, many Japanese see no point to taking risks or spending valuable yen so long as the U.S. guarantees their security. Take that away, however, and all bets would be off. In the 1930s, the Japanese felt isolated, which translated into fear and the urge to lash out. A key to preventing that from happening again is held far more in America than in Japan itself.

Richard Halloran is editorial director of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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