At the 2022 Shangri-La Dialogue, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warned defense ministers from across the Indo-Pacific region that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow.” Russia’s war of aggression and China’s tacit support for the invasion have amplified the urgency of the threat posed by China’s economic and military rise and have informed material changes to Japanese defense policy.
Though Japan is acting with new urgency, its actions reflect longstanding—but not uncontested—goals of conservative Japanese politicians, Ministry of Defense (MOD) bureaucrats, and alliance managers.1 Decades before the Ukraine War, Japanese strategists began working to supplant the economics-first “Yoshida Doctrine” (named after Shigeru Yoshida, Japan’s influential early postwar prime minister) with a form of military realism now being called the “Abe Doctrine” (named after Shinzō Abe, Japan’s longest serving prime minister, who left office in 2020). Both doctrines rest upon US security guarantees, but the latter has replaced cheap-riding on US protection with a more muscular approach.2
Notionally, a state’s national security priorities ought to flow from careful threat assessments, available resources, theories of victory, and concepts of operation. Most countries’ decision paths are rarely this straightforward, however, because such calculations are commonly mingled with and shaped by shifting political calculations and bureaucratic competition. Japan’s path to security change remained blocked for so long that its current fervent reaction to external developments—most proximately the Ukraine War but more fundamentally the rise of China—offers a good example of how stockpiled policy preferences can deliver mixed results when finally realized.
Here, policy scholar John Kingdon’s classic model of “windows of opportunity” provides focus. Kingdon suggests that policy advocates often must wait for politics and policies to align with the problem awaiting solution.3 This was certainly the case in Japan, where, despite widespread desire to loosen military restraints, proposals for policy change accumulated unrealized for decades. It was only after reformers consolidated power in the 21st century and after new threats emerged in the post-Cold War order that Japanese policy advocates could abandon strategic “salami-slicing” in favor of a more dramatic implementation of their long-reimagined security strategy.
In December 2022, the Kishida cabinet updated three key strategic documents: the “National Security Strategy” (NSS); the “National Defense Strategy” (NDS); and the “Defense Buildup Plan” (DBP).4 This formal shift in Japan’s national security posture was a less comprehensive change than some analysts had sought. Moreover, it remains unclear whether and how Japan will finance its new initiatives, and whether bureaucratic opposition may constrain change.5 Simultaneously, some of the most dramatic alterations in Japan’s national security posture—the sorts that have engendered screaming headlines—reflect longstanding political and bureaucratic preferences as much as, and arguably more than, changes in the strategic environment.
The point is that whether one assesses strategic decision-making, operational choices, or organizational changes—and here we do all three—one cannot be distracted by formal government documents or by aspirational claims for alliance solidarity. As we will demonstrate, national security outputs evoke the process of sausage-making as well as strategic thinking.
Retired Vice Admiral Yoji Koda, a longtime advocate of Japanese defense reform, invoked a different, but parallel, metaphor when he suggested that the elements of Japan’s recent shift in national security strategy can be compared to “a child [that] just listed all the things that came off the top of their head.”6 Koda’s colorful remark may be hyperbolic, and we will argue that many changes are poised to move Japanese defense in positive directions. But we shall also explain how his observation nevertheless touches on the shortcomings of Japan’s recent security reforms.
In short, we will show how Japan’s responses to changing international circumstances reflect longstanding political and bureaucratic desires as much as objectively framed requirements. By extension, we will show that other important requirements—measures that might greatly improve Japanese security at relatively modest cost—are either not on the agenda or have received only perfunctory attention when they are less congruent with dominant conservative political thinking or run counter to established bureaucratic interests. In each of the policy areas we will examine, a somewhat different mix of opportunism and obstacles applies. We start with change at the broadest strategic level, an inherently political domain, in which Kingdon's window for change has been thrown open to allow some of the most dramatic adjustments.
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