Asia

Toothless tiger: Japan Self-Defence Forces

Japanese Self-Defence Forces in Kuwait, November 2004 file picture Image copyright AP

Asia military analyst Franz-Stefan Gady asks just how fighting fit are Japan's so-called Self-Defence Forces?

Japan's relationship with its armed forces was once a defining characteristic of the nation. Indeed, "Fukoku kyohei [Enrich the state, strengthen the military]" was the battle cry of the reformers who founded modern Japan during the so-called Meiji Restoration beginning in the 1860s.

In the first decades of the 20th Century, Japan, rather than a state with a military, the island nation slowly transformed into a military with a state - "one hundred million hearts beating as one", as a wartime propaganda slogan boasted.

That all changed after the World War Two.

From offence to defence

The country's complete defeat, not to forget the deaths of 2.7 million Japanese men and women, ended Japan's love affair with its military.

A new constitution, written by the victorious occupying Americans, outlawed the creation of any regular armed forces. Japan was to be a "heiwakokka [peace nation]".

However, after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the United States, fearing Communist expansion in Asia, pushed Tokyo to rearm.

To fight off "Red China", the US established the Japan Self-Defence Forces, a military that to this day has not fired a single shot in anger.

Unable to prove their worth in battle and confronted by an almost cult-like anti-militarism, throughout the Cold War, the JSDF suffered from public ridicule and disdain.

Image copyright Rex Features
Image caption Japan's military was no match for Godzilla

Just watch any of the early Godzilla movies showing the JSDF as an unimaginative and - more importantly - ineffective group of men incapable of defending Tokyo from the monster's wrath, and you can capture some of the public sentiments during that time.

Service members walking city streets in uniform in the early days of the JSDF were even pelted with stones.

Accidental heroes

At the end of the Cold War, in the 1990s, Japan's armed forces were finally able to polish up their image - not on the battlefield of course, but as an international peacekeeping force.

The JSDF deployed briefly in southern Iraq as part of the US "coalition of the willing", although they had to rely on others, including the Iraqis, for protection. Indeed, the JSDF are so adverse to violence that when a machine gun went off by accident, it made national headlines.

They also won plaudits for their role in rescue and relief missions after, for example, the Kobe-Awaji earthquake in 1995 and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Local residents are rescued from their flooded home by a helicopter of the Ground Self-Defence Force

To this day, this is how the majority of Japanese see the JSDF - a disaster relief force.

Fast forward to 2015, where things appear to be changing under the leadership of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party.

Two controversial security bills that passed the upper house of the Japanese Diet - Japan's parliament - this September, will allow the JSDF to come to the defence of its allies even when Japan itself is not under attack.

Formidable fighting force

Despite much domestic and international hysteria that Japan could now be drawn into foreign conflicts, and potentially even launch a war, closer scrutiny reveals it still has a long way to go to cast off its pacific post-War legacy.

For one thing, under the new legislation, the JSDF can only come to the aid of an ally under three conditions:

  • Japan's survival is at stake
  • all other non-military options have been exhausted
  • the use of force is limited to the minimum necessary to deter aggression

In addition, the JSDF can come to the rescue of other UN peacekeeping troops and Japanese civilians in danger and would be allowed to use their weapons first, not just strictly for self-defence.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Japanese Self-Defence Force tanks on an exercise

Notwithstanding the narrow circumstances of action, the JSDF at least have the potential to become a formidable fighting force.

For one thing, the Japanese culture with its traditional emphasis on group cohesion, careful planning, and attention to detail - particularly important in today's hi-tech military environment- is an ideal for modern soldiering.

Indeed, American sailors, soldiers and marines who train with the JSDF and participate in various joint military exercises every year to increase operability are generally impressed by the competence of their Japanese counterparts.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force submarine surfaces during a naval fleet review

The JSDF also sport some of the most modern military equipment in all of Asia, including modern fourth-generation main battle tanks, licence-built Apache attack helicopters, modern reconnaissance drones, and will soon receive new fifth-generation fighter jets.

Japan's navy, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF), is considered to be technologically more advanced, more experienced, and more highly trained than its likely adversary - China's the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). It also has its own highly trained special forces outfit - the Special Boarding Unit.

However, major, cultural, legal and budgetary restrictions remain.

For example, Japan continues to ban "offensive" weapons such as bombers, aircraft carriers, and long-range ballistic missiles and has no plans to acquire them in the foreseeable future, since they remain unconstitutional.

In addition, despite some improvements, the JSDF continue to enjoy a somewhat dubious reputation as a pool for "ochikobore [drop-outs from the regular school system]" and "inakamono [country bumpkins with strong regional dialects from Kyushu in the south and northern Honshu]".

How would the JSDF do in a military conflict with China over let's say the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands - a scenario that the US and Japan are practising every other year?

The JSDF would probably suffer initial setbacks under the chaotic conditions of the battlefield like any other force with no experience in combat, but - given their penchant for constant drill and exercises for such a contingency as well as their excellent planning ability - would do very well on the defence.

Godzilla can rest easy

However, the truth is that Japan's military would not be able to defend Japan alone in the long-run nor go on the offensive, primarily because of its lack of offensive weapons, limited manpower and equipment pool.

Behind the JSDF stands the US, and therein lies any strength it might wield.

Japan still has no obligation to support the United States in a conflict - the two countries, despite public impressions to the contrary, still have no mutual defence pact.

Japan can pick and choose whether it would like to support the United States in a conflict or not. In reality, this means that Japanese support for the United States in any future conflict is not a foregone conclusion.

This undermines their bilateral defence cooperation.

So what are the chances that the JSDF will fire a shot in anger anytime soon? Unless, China attempts an invasion of the Land of the Rising Sun, or North Korea launches one of its missiles against Tokyo, I'd say chances are as high as Godzilla re-emerging in the Sea of Japan.

Franz-Stefan Gady is a senior fellow at the EastWest Institute and associate editor at The Diplomat magazine.

Related Topics

More on this story