Will Japan’s defense spending be enough to overcome the postwar and allow Tokyo to break free of its reliance on the United States?
On Armistice Day of 2022 I was in the studios of Channel Sakura, an internet broadcasting group that produces panel discussion-style videos about Japanese history and politics. I have had the privilege of appearing on Channel Sakura’s programs many times over the past several years and have always learned a lot from the other panelists: politicians, professors, military men, journalists, historians, policy analysts, novelists, experts in diplomacy and foreign affairs, and other professionals knowledgeable about Japan and its place in the world.
The topic of discussion that November afternoon was the recent midterm elections in the United States, and as I listened to my fellow panelists discuss the election results, I was unable to brush aside growing agitation.
My take on the midterms was not to focus on the results or to lament the failed “red wave,” but to take in the broader picture of Japan and the U.S. The very fact that Japanese people were required to devote so much attention to American politics (while, honestly, how many people in America can name a single politician in Japan?) I found and find troubling—depressing even.
I want Japan to cut the apron strings with Washington. The American military is not coming to rescue Japan when the inevitable war with China breaks out over Taiwan. Strengthen the Japanese armed forces now, I implored. Betray Washington for whatever you can get in return for the meaningless “alliance.” Do what you must to protect Japan, and to hell with the American federal government. It doesn’t matter which party wins what seats anymore, I concluded. Break with the postwar regime and finally, after nearly eighty years, get the American bases out of this archipelago.
My agitation reached its peak when a panelist named Ushio Masato spoke his piece. Ushio is a military journalist and policy analyst, a former officer in the Japan Air Self-Defense Force, and a highly respected commentator on the politics of defense. Ushio is no bleeding-heart liberal, and he’s certainly no fool. He understands that Japan is beholden to the United States militarily and also understands that one day the current alliance arrangement—wherein Tokyo is Washington’s permanent underling—must end. But in his remarks, Ushio glibly argued for making the most out of the Japan-U.S. alliance while it remained the centerpiece of Japan’s defense policy. For now, he said, the alliance should be kept in place for the sake of Japan.
I gently reprimanded Ushio for his position. He reiterated in reply that he wants Japan to be independent, something which he has, in fact, asserted many times before. As I said, Ushio is no liberal. He knows that Japan will have to get stronger and defend herself one day. But, still, his delivery irked me. He doubled down and held to the “let’s partner with Washington” line.
What I didn’t say on-air that day, but what I was thinking as my anger rose, was that, as a point of honor, a man should want his own countrymen to take responsibility for standing guard over his own country. Having Hessians man the garrisons is craven, a source of great shame. If I were Japanese, I would count it a daily humiliation to have Americans do the work that my own people should by rights do. Multiply that shame by a thousand in the case of the Japan-U.S. alliance, because the Hessians never atom-bombed Boston or Philadelphia. Multiply it by a thousand more, because the Hessians didn’t run psy-ops against the colonists, didn’t issue fake-history textbooks in the postwar to make it seem like the Revolution had been all George Washington’s fault.
Japan is the country of Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), of Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), of Kusunoki Masashige (1294-1336), of the Shinsengumi and the Byakkotai. This country fended off Mongolian invasion—twice. That kamikaze spirit of almost unimaginable sacrifice roared back to life in the closing campaigns of the Greater East Asia War in 1944 and 1945. The Japanese have left no doubt, from age to age, that they are tough as nails, honest to a fault, fearless in battle, skilled strategists, and curators of more than two millennia of martial and imperial history. To bow and scrape now at the feet of American presidents is an utter disgrace.
But there you have it, Japan’s national makeup in a nutshell. Bow and scrape, throw some money at the occupiers, and call it a postwar. A once-proud nation has spent the better part of a century as a rather spineless client state of the Washington behemoth.
What really galled me about Ushio’s remarks was that he seemed to accept it as a given that, in the event of a war, my fellow Americans would go out to die for a country that so many people in Japan had long given up defending. Time after time I have heard people here say, when asked about this or that international situation potentially involving Japan, that “the Americans will take care of it for us.” It’s a deeply immoral and corrupt arrangement.
Some of the other panelists on the Channel Sakura show scoffed at my anti-Washington heresy. But others nodded in agreement. One, Yano Yoshiaki—professor, security analyst, and defense official—came up after the show to express his appreciation. When I checked the comments online later on, I found that there was a groundswell of support for my position. The Americans need to get the hell out of Japan, the general commentariat line went. It is time for this fine nation to stand on its own two feet and gird for battle with the godless communists in the People’s Republic of China and North Korea.
A duality had been exposed. The official talking points of “all hail the Japan-U.S. alliance” were ringing hollow among the hoi polloi. The chattering class had lost the people. Maybe the Americans really would be sent packing. I began to dream.
To judge by the latest moves out of Tokyo, it might appear that Japan’s prime minister, Kishida Fumio, and the other political panjandrums here get that the “let Washington do the hard stuff for us” jig is up.
On December 6, 2022, for example, the Asahi newspaper confirmed what had long been expected: that Prime Minister Kishida would be upping the Japanese defense budget by forty-three trillion yen (about $315 billion) over five years, a 56 percent jump over the figure now. As Bloomberg put it, “Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has ordered a sharp defense spending hike that could see his long-pacifist country’s defense budget balloon to near the levels spent by Russia.” Most outlets are confirming that this major budget move will translate into Japan’s spending 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2027, a level not seen in some seventy years.
It is historic. Japan might really be preparing to fight for its survival in this toughest of tough neighborhoods. The shift toward increased testicular fortitude would appear to be across the board. Nikkei Asia reported in early December that “[m]ore than half of Japanese manufacturers plan to reduce dependence on Chinese suppliers as companies seek to build more resilient supply chains amid mounting U.S.-China tensions.” Non-military facilities such as airports and oceangoing shipping ports in Japan are to be opened to Japan Self-Defense Forces by the spring of 2024, which would help Japan respond to an outbreak of hostilities over Taiwan. The private sector is waking up to the dangers posed by the clandestine police outposts that the People’s Republic of China has been proliferating here, as well as in the United States and elsewhere around the world.
But circle back to that bit about “1 percent of GDP” and you’ll see that things are not as simple as they seem. Yes, Japan is sharpening its katana—big time. It is Warring States mode in the home islands. But who, in the final analysis, will command the battalions? The 1 percent figure tells the tale, and it’s not heartening to the Japanese or the American patriot. Washington, it would seem, remains firmly in control of its imperial handmaiden.
The 1 percent number is not arbitrary, But it’s much more of an idée fixe than most other budget items in Japan. One percent is, in fact, an institution in its own right. During the Korean War, when Japan was pressed into service by its new American overlords to act as home base for Washington’s post-WWII adventures, Japan’s defense spending was temporarily above 2 percent of GNP (the calculation by GDP apparently came later). But then, Japan’s spending on defense tapered off: until 1960, when it was just a touch above the 1 percent-of-GDP mark. The next year, 1961, Japan’s defense spending dipped under 1 percent of GDP, and didn’t hit the 1 percent threshold again until 2020. As long as Japan spent under 1 percent of GDP on the military, the almost superstitious calculation went, Japan would not have re-armed, and the specter of a second Guadalcanal, a second Nagasaki, would remain at bay. One percent became a numerological talisman, a way to ward off what the postwar left said, ad infinitum and ad nauseum, was Japan’s tendencies toward fascism.
How did Japan get away with spending so little on defense? The Americans were in control. That’s the business end of the Religion of 1 percent. Japan lost sovereignty when it surrendered unconditionally to the Rooseveltians in 1945, and ever since then has danced to the tune of the keepers of the federal imperium. But Japan was able to extract a concession for its being Washington’s kept woman: rock-bottom defense spending. Over the course of the Vietnam War, for instance, as Washington was sinking deeper into a body-bag-and-money pit in Southeast Asia, Tokyo’s defense spending fell, reaching a nadir of 0.77 percent of GDP in 1969.
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The origins of all this lie in the immediate postwar years. Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru (1878-1967), who had famously been against prolonging the fight against the Americans in the waning months of the war in the Western Pacific, made a conscious decision to rebuild Japan’s economy and infrastructure, most of which lay in ruins due to Allied bombing campaigns. The tradeoff was war-making capability. Yoshida aimed for a low defense budget, diverting funds from the military (which had been disbanded by the American forces anyway) toward Japan’s recovery. While the term “Yoshida Doctrine” to describe this arrangement has a life of its own, the fact remains that, “Yoshida Doctrine” or not, Yoshida Shigeru and his successors continued to push as much defense responsibility onto Washington’s shoulders as they could, freeing up huge chunks of budget for domestic works projects in Japan.
The financial windfall for Tokyo was enormous. When Yoshida’s successor, Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato (1899-1965), announced in 1960 his cabinet’s plan to double Japanese incomes over ten years, this was directly made possible by Yoshida-ism. The Ikeda Plan worked, more than three years ahead of schedule. Not so hard to do, though, when someone else is paying the soldiering costs. President Donald Trump was right on the money when he asked Japan (and other countries) to pay more for the services Uncle Sam provides. The current set-up is a racket. And if you are reading this inside the U.S., then you are probably shelling out money to keep it going.
I agree with researchers who say that there is no such thing, analytically, as the “Yoshida Doctrine.” It deserves a much more accurate name: the Remora Strategy. (“Leechism” might work even better.) American taxpayers, at the Pentagon’s convenience and by Washington’s design, and with the enthusiastic acquiescence of Japan’s postwar political class, footed the bill for Japan’s postwar economic recovery, just as those same taxpayers a generation earlier had footed the bill to bomb Japan to kingdom come.
This is the rotten system that the political class here and in Washington now perpetuates. Many so-called “conservatives,” even some with Japan Self-Defense Force experience, think this is a system from which Japan must be, at best, gradually weaned. Quitting cold turkey would be too much of a shock, would put Japan at too much risk, they say. Others positively embrace the humiliation of being Washington’s plaything. So much for the samurai ethos among the ruling class. Washington’s empire and the cash and in-kind blandishments that come with and sustain it turned even Japan into a fatted lapdog. Banzai.
When Abe Shinzo (1954-2022) was felled by the bullet of a hapless assassin on the streets of Nara in July of 2022, Japan lost the one statesman in the postwar who had the vision and the guts to move Japan away from the postwar arrangement with Washington. Through truly bold maneuvers such as the Quad (the four-cornered link-up of Japan, America, Australia, and India), the Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative, and the years-long push to revise Japan’s Washington-imposed, made-in-America postwar pacifist constitution, Abe was taking sure steps to break with the Yanks when the time was ripe.
Abe was a once-in-a-century leader, a Reagan, a Thatcher, a Bismarck. He didn’t just show up to geopolitics and try his best to keep abreast of developments. He seized geopolitics by the throat and was in the midst of shoving it in an entirely different direction when some local loser with a homemade shotgun laid him low this past summer. The current prime minister, Kishida, was Abe’s rival inside the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Abe had resigned as prime minister in 2020 due to health concerns, but he remained in politics and was very much living rent-free inside of Kishida’s head. Much less charismatic than Abe, and much less loved, Kishida has very little of the panache, wit, or daring that Abe exuded. And Kishida knew it.
And yet, there was Kishida in recent news reports, fulfilling Abe’s long held but ultimately unrealized dream to jack defense spending up to 2 percent of GDP. Kishida also well knew, of course, that 2 percent had “Abe” written all over it. I attended a keynote address by Abe-san early in 2022, a few months before he was killed, in which he spoke passionately about the need to raise defense spending and prepare for “contingencies” (yūji) over Taiwan. The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine had driven home Abe’s talking points for him. Pacifism and defenselessness are not the same things—they are opposites. Japan needs to get ready for the fight that is brewing off her southwest flank and in the South China Sea. Two percent of GDP is a reasonable target for Japan, Abe reiterated; it is the NATO standard.
So, Kishida is carrying on his old rival’s legacy, right?
Well, in a December 17th editorial, the Sankei Shimbun newspaper, a highly-respected economics and politics daily, noted the following:
On Friday, December 16, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced that the Japanese government had approved three key security documents: the National Security Strategy (NSS), the National Defense Strategy, and the Defense Force Development Plan. The plans are designed to strengthen Japan's defense capabilities amidst an increasingly challenging security environment. Among other things, they call for Japan to acquire a counterstrike capability and spend around ¥43 trillion JPY ($315 billion U.S.D) over the next five years on defense.
That would mean that by FY2027, the final year of that period, Japan's defense spending and related supplementary budget combined will reach approximately 2% of the nation's current GDP.
The government has clearly signaled its intent to shift to a realistic course for developing defense capabilities that correspond to the military capabilities of potential aggressors. We welcome this historical commitment to drastically upgrading our deterrence capability to preserve the peace. After all, the government's greatest responsibility is to protect the independence of the nation and the lives of its citizens.
We applaud Prime Minister Kishida's decision and his cooperation with the ruling coalition in deciding on measures to fundamentally strengthen defense capabilities. That was something that even administrations led by the late Shinzo Abe proved unable to do.
All true, all well put. (Surely Kishida liked that last sentence best of all.)
But the Sankei also said that “[Japan] must […] speed up coordination between Japan and the United States in order to strengthen joint operations between reinforced Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military.” Then came the final sigh as the Sankei editorialized: “the importance attached to the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty has not changed in the least.”
The ostrich heads stay in the sand.
The Sankei Shimbun is the flagship of mainstream conservative opinion in Japan. It is pro-defense, pro-market, pro-alliance with the United States. But if my anecdotal evidence and personal conversations are any indication, the public mood has shifted dramatically away from the old-line “conservative” consensus of the postwar.
People here see what has happened to Ukraine, what happened already to Tibet, East Turkestan, and Hong Kong, and what keeps happening around the Senkaku Islands day after day after day. They know in their bones that Taiwan is next, and that when Taiwan is hit, Japan will be caught up in the vortex of regional, even world, war. Japan is not really a pacifist country anymore. That delusion melted away over the past couple of years.
Two summers ago, we in Japan watched in horror as the United States retreated in ignominy from Afghanistan. Now we watch America’s “friend,” Ukraine, get sacrificed in Washington’s imperial power game. Washington did zero to help Hong Kong. It will cut Taiwan loose, too. The postwar “security guarantees” that Washington keeps mouthing Tokyo’s way will also end up being empty promises, the same as those which Washington made to the Afghans. Anyone with eyes in his head can see that we here in Japan will have to fight the Chinese alone.
Even so, mainstream conservatives tie Japan’s increased defense spending to even tighter cooperation with the United States. The advisory committee that recommended the spending surge to Kishida was chaired by Sasae Ken’ichirō, former ambassador to Washington. I tangled with Sasae on a television program once, too. Another lapdog angling for another bone from the master. What did Sasae think the Americans meant when they called their alliance with his country “unbreakable”? Japan serves at the pleasure of the American empire. Japan’s leaders understand this, and none but the slain Abe-san have evinced the slightest desire to man up and kick the occupiers out.
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Meanwhile, Washington’s plenipotentiary in Tokyo is Rahm Emanuel.
The Japanese people are increasingly fed up with the charade, are increasingly able to see through the dog-and-pony show known as the “Japan-U.S. alliance.” Prime Minister Kishida is opening the money spigots—money Japan doesn’t have—to prop up that farce. It is a rising sum.
But I think it will prove useless in the end. Either the people here will break the spell of the postwar, demand real security, and decide to defend their country by themselves, or the CCP will hit us first and all hell will break loose. One way or the other, a reckoning comes in post-postwar Japan. No budget in the world can prepare this country for that.