• World

A Military by Any Other Name

2 minute read
Bryan Walsh

They’re called the Self-Defense Forces, but the moniker can seem deceptively passive when you’re standing next to the big guns of the 5,200-ton Japanese destroyer Kurama, watching sea-to-sea missiles roar off the decks of a pair of passing cruisers. The nautical fireworks were part of an SDF exercise last October involving nearly 50 warships and 8,000 sailors in Sagami Bay, south of Tokyo. The maneuvers, held just a few weeks after North Korea tested a nuclear bomb, provided a forceful reminder that, despite the unassuming name, Japan possesses an advanced military—and knows how to use it.

Another reminder of that fact came on Jan. 9, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe officially elevated the Defense Agency to a cabinet-level ministry. Although the change is mostly symbolic, it gives more prestige to a defense establishment accustomed to keeping a low profile since the disasters of World War II. Abe told reporters that he was “truly proud as the Prime Minister to have produced a Defense Ministry,” and the name change is just a start—Abe has said he intends to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, and may move to do so this year. Normally, such a change would threaten to destabilize a region long wary of any resurgence of Japanese militarism. But Abe has worked hard to improve relations with his neighbors—a fact reflected in their muted reaction. While Pyongyang, predictably, took Tokyo to task for “converting the Japanese islands into a ‘war state,'” the Chinese Foreign Ministry merely expressed hope that the change would not derail Japan’s “peaceful development.” “It’s significant that China didn’t really criticize it,” says Hisahiko Okazaki, a foreign-policy adviser to Abe. It probably doesn’t hurt that Japan’s defense budget, squeezed by government social programs and massive public debt, is still likely to hover around 1% of GDP, or about $41 billion this year. China’s, meanwhile, is increasing at a double-digit rate and will officially hit $36 billion this year—though many analysts believe Beijing’s spending is far higher.

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