Japan’s Defense White Paper: Talking Tough for a Change

July 26, 2021 Updated: July 26, 2021


Japan’s annual Defense White Paper normally gets a few days of attention and then fades away. Any changes from the previous year are usually marginal. And the language is generally veiled and toned down, so as not to offend anyone in Japan or elsewhere—except maybe the North Koreans whose missiles and nukes have been a “grave and imminent threat” for a long while.

This year’s Defense White Paper was different. And, for once, you could tell the book by its cover. Rather than the usual designs that are about as martial as a Hello Kitty doll, the cover image was a samurai warrior on horseback.

The report also had unusually direct language. Even more than the actual text, the introduction—said to have been written (or at least dictated) by Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi himself—is what got one’s attention.

The introduction lays out a detailed bill of particulars on Chinese encroachments and threats to Japanese territory in the southern Ryukyu Islands and the East China Sea. It’s a long paragraph, and ultimately describes Chinese behavior as “completely unacceptable.” Not exactly the usual “diplo-speak.”

Kishi stresses that Japan needs to do more to defend itself on its own, as well as alongside others—including the Americans.

“In order to counter these challenges in the security environment, it is essential to not only strengthen Japan’s own defense capabilities” and “expand the roles we can fulfill,” but also to “closely cooperate with countries that share the same fundamental values.” (Emphasis added.)

Not so long ago, Japanese officials, and the Ministry of Defense in particular, insisted that Japan was doing the absolute maximum and that cooperating with other countries (other than the Americans) was politically impossible.

Kishi’s introduction also refers to the United States as Japan’s “only ally.” This is true but one rarely hears it said like this. It is a lot different than a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politician in his cups calling the Americans “Japan’s guard dogs,” or foreign ministry officials insisting Americans are contractually obligated, if not privileged, to die on Japan’s behalf.

This all suggests a recognition that Japan absolutely must have American support—and do what’s necessary to keep it. This may seem obvious, but one hasn’t heard it often enough over the years.

Epoch Times Photo
A U.S. Navy fighter jet approaches to land on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), a missile cruiser and a nuclear-powered submarine during Exercise Malabar 2015, some 152 miles off eastern coast of Chennai, India, on Oct. 17, 2015. (Arun Sankar K./AP Photo)

As for cooperating with other countries that share Japan’s vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, Kishi lists: “Australia, India, European countries, including the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, as well as Canada and New Zealand.”

Of course, there are limits to what this means in concrete terms, but ten years ago this was “crazy talk.”

And there’s more language in Kishi’s introduction that deserves serious attention:

“As the flag bearer of universal values in the Indo-Pacific region … we must cherish freedom, have faith in democracy, be deeply resentful at the failure to protect human rights, and resolutely oppose to any attempt to change the order by coercion.”

Later, the core White Paper text calls for paying attention to the situation around Taiwan “with a sense of crisis more than ever before.”

Kishi is talking to China. “Deeply resentful” and “resolutely oppose?” “A sense of crisis?” That is almost the Japanese equivalent of being “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”

Of course, Kishi reflects thinking that is just a part of the Japanese political class—and the conservative part at that. But it isn’t a small chunk. And the so-called “center” of the LDP (and even the opposition) has people who think like this too. And a good bit—if not a large majority of the public—just might lean in this direction as well.

Consider the White Paper, and especially Kishi’s introduction, along with other recent statements by Kishi himself—as well as ones by Vice Defense Minister Yasuhide Nakayama and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso—all saying that Japan should or must back up Taiwan and support American efforts to bolster Taipei.

This looks like Japan is climbing down from the fence.

And it is significant that Japan’s normally circumspect (some would say “keen to appease the Chinese regime”) Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) didn’t—or couldn’t—water down the White Paper’s language.

MOFA (or at least some people in it) may in fact have tacitly welcomed it.

Really? Could be. Note that the Japanese ambassador to Australia has recently been talking publicly about deterrence (against China) and expanding defense ties with Australia and others—to include complex exercises and more. He presumably has permission.

This is all refreshingly direct, and indeed tough, language. But here’s the thing: will this translate into concrete improvements in Japan’s defense capabilities?

There’s a big difference between forceful comments and actual warfighting capability. And while the rest of the White Paper checks all the right boxes—cyber, space, hypersonics, multi-domain operations, etc.—one doesn’t quite see the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) doing, or being allowed to do, what’s needed to fight an actual war.

Publicly recognizing that Japan faces serious threats from China is, however, a step in the right direction.

That needs to be acknowledged, and the next steps encouraged and assisted. Now the United States needs to quietly (or at least out of the public eye) tell Japan in detail what it absolutely must have from Japan defense-wise. This includes specific capabilities and operational cooperation.

But the Americans never do. They hem and haw and think of reasons why it’s all too hard for the Japanese—and they fear the Japanese might get mad.

One long-time observer suggested the U.S. military’s motto ought to be: “We can’t tell the Japanese what to do”—translated into Latin, of course. (Ad laponica non possumus dicere quod facere.)

Perhaps the Americans should remember the advice a prominent Japanese politician gave them in 1970 when they were fretting about permanently deploying an aircraft carrier to Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan: “When you really want something important, don’t ask our opinion; tell us what you need very firmly and don’t back down.”

That was sound advice, but it was soon enough forgotten. It must be remembered—for the sake of the United States, Japan itself, and the whole Indo-Pacific. If today’s Chinese threat—and dealing with it—is not “something important,” nothing is.

The JSDF is currently operating at a fraction of what it is capable of. It just needs the opportunity to live up to its potential—and in the process improve the odds of every civilized nation in the region.

With the White Paper and other statements by prominent officials, Japan has said the right things. Now we need something concrete.

Grant Newsham is a retired U.S. Marine officer and a former U.S. diplomat and business executive who lived and worked for many years in the Asia/Pacific region. He served as a reserve head of intelligence for Marine Forces Pacific, and was the U.S. Marine attaché, U.S. Embassy Tokyo on two occasions. He is a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Grant Newsham
Grant Newsham
Grant Newsham is a retired U.S. Marine officer and a former U.S. diplomat and business executive who lived and worked for many years in the Asia/Pacific region. He served as a reserve head of intelligence for Marine Forces Pacific, and was the U.S. Marine attaché, U.S. Embassy Tokyo on two occasions. He is a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy.