For years, Japan has been seen to be a great power in international relations. Indeed, it has the demographic, economic, and technological potential to be a regional hegemon, and it has a prominent role in global governance and many other aspects of international politics, just not militarily. Tokyo has been traditionally huddled itself under its self-defense constitution after WWII, and has limited its defense spending to only one percent GDP. But for the rising threats in the region, Japan has stunningly changed itself.

At the end of 2022, Tokyo cast off its self-restraint and decided to raise its defense spending to 2 percent of its GDP and build its counterstrike capability. Since WWll, although Japan has occasionally revised its security strategy subsequent to threats. For example, after North Korea fired a missile in 1998, Japan decided to acquire military satellites. Still, its national defense strategy, which is called defensive defense, has been broadly fixed. However,  The government enacted these policies to react the gradual growing belligerence of its neighbors.

The forboding challenges in the Indo-Pacific mark Japan’s historic shift. First, China has engaged in a major buildup in conventional and nuclear weapons, which also aggressively conducted sabre-rattling exercises into Japanese waters. Otherwise, Beijing has menaced Taiwan continuously, which acted to warn Japan to it should acquire better defensive capacity. Second, North Korea reached the peak of missile testing time at 86 in 2022, only 29 in 2019. In addition, North Korea has made a real progress in developing long-range nuclear weapons and strike capability, as well recently announcing its allowance preemptive strikes and using tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield. Third, the invasion in Ukraine, mirrors to the invasion in Indo-Pacific region, also pushed Japan to make this unprecedented change and abandon its old perception.

Internally, over the past decades, Japanese leaders has been debating such capabilities. Its former nationalist prime minister, Abe, has advocated amending the constitution, while the domestic opposition overpowered the change. But now the situation is different, even some pacifist partners are supporting the move to acquire the counterstrike capacity. Internationally, such challenges can trigger bilateral cooperation within South Korea, even though Japanese-Korean relations have been strained since the dispute in 2018 due to the verdict of South Korean Supreme Court regarding Japan’s use of forced labor within WWII era. Yet the dispute still exists naming the body water they shared, they still agreed to send their navies this October to conduct trilateral missile defense exercises with the US.

Admittedly, critics may charge that Japan is returning back to its militarism, which remains part of the dark past of Japanese history. Yet we need to remember Japanese security policy is anchored within the US-Japanese alliance, and its announcement responds solely the growing challenges in Asia. 

The remarkable developments of Tokyo’s embrace of counterstrike capability and doubling its defense budget have elicit edsome criticism in terms of the destabilizing effects of Japan’s action. The challenges may spur South Korea and Japan to fix their strained relations, and display the upcoming danger facing the region.             

Written by Eddie C.

Edited by Ari B.