Japan Defense and Foreign Policy

Foreign policy and defense

According to abbreviationfinder, Japan is a nation in Eastern Asia. Its capital city Tokyo. Ever since Japan regained independence in 1952, cooperation with the United States has been a foreign and security policy cornerstone. At the same time, the country has strived for stable relations with its Asian neighbors, among other things, to secure its supply of raw materials. But in recent years, relations with China have become increasingly conflict-prone. In mid-2015, Parliament approved amendments to the law that reinterpret the Constitution so that armed operations abroad can be made in certain circumstances.

japan military spending and defense budget

No Japanese-Soviet peace was concluded after World War II. Only when Japan joined the UN in 1956 did Tokyo and Moscow establish diplomatic relations. The biggest obstacle to a peace agreement between Japan and today’s Russia is the conflict over four southern islands (Shikotan, Kunashiri, Etorofu and Habomai Group) in the Kurilas chain north of Hokkaido. Soviet troops occupied the strategically important islands during the war. Russia has said that it will be able to release two of the strategically important islands occupied by Soviet troops during the war; Japan demands all four back. A peace treaty would open for extensive investments and assistance from Japan to Russia, but no immediate solution is in sight.

  • Countryaah: Overview of business holidays and various national observances in Japan for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Japan followed the United States in its tracks with close ties to anti-communist countries such as Taiwan, South Korea, and then South Vietnam. After US President Richard Nixon’s Beijing visit in 1972, Japan was also able to normalize its relationship with China, at the expense of Taiwan, and in 1978 entered into a friendship treaty and trade agreement. The countries have a large common cultural heritage, but Japan’s military atrocities during the wars and China’s nuclear weapons and growing military force contribute to mutual vigilance and contradictions. China also looks with distrust at the close cooperation between Tokyo and Washington. At the same time, China’s rapid march towards market economy has facilitated an approach.

But the past is still sensitive. Several Japanese ministers have been resigning since they weakened their country’s war crimes, including the so-called rape of Nanjing (China’s then capital Nanking), where Japanese troops massacred around a quarter of a million Chinese in 1937. In 2005, anti-Japanese violence erupted in many parts of China after Tokyo’s school officials approved a new history book that silenced the Japanese army’s atrocities. Behind it was also Chinese anger that Japan had started drilling for natural gas at the disputed archipelago Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) and over Japan’s desire for a permanent place in the UN Security Council.

Several times Japan has publicly complained about its abuses against neighboring countries, but at the same time annual visits by leading politicians at the Yasukuni Temple in Tokyo have continued to offend (see Modern History). The temple honors millions of war victims, but also military men executed for war crimes.

Since Shinzo Abe visited Beijing in his first term as prime minister in 2006, it was decided that Japanese and Chinese historians would try to reach a consensus on the past – differing interpretations have constantly aroused conflict. When Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Japan in the spring of 2008, he and Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda determined that the countries’ relationship would be characterized by a “constructive and forward-looking” spirit. In June 2008, Japan and China agreed to jointly extract natural gas in the East China Sea from fields claimed by both parties. However, in 2010, tensions between the countries increased after a Chinese fishing boat collided with two Japanese military vessels near the disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Hundreds of incidents involving ships and fighter aircraft, some dangerously close to triggering weapons operations, have since occurred near Senkaku / Diaoyu. At the same time, fierce anti-Japanese demonstrations have erupted in China on several occasions.

But the relationship with China is not only characterized by conflicts. On the one hand, trade and investment continue to be exchanged on a very large scale, and on the other, the leaders of the countries have made some attempts to discuss the problems. In 2012, relations deteriorated again due to the territorial disputes, but towards the end of the 2010s a gradual thaw occurred.

Japan’s relationship with the United States has been divided over the years. The 1951 security pact is no ordinary military alliance; it gives the US the right to have bases on Japanese soil against Japan being granted US protection. But many Japanese have been disturbed by the strong influence of the United States and the presence of American soldiers in the country and on the island of Okinawa is contentious.

Okinawa is the largest island in the long Japanese desert chain stretching between Japan and Taiwan. Okinawa was conquered by the United States after bloody battles in 1945 and held under US sovereignty until 1972. The island played an important role as a US military base during the Vietnam War and continues to have strategic significance for the United States.

US-hostile feelings have flared up from time to time, for example, since three American soldiers in 1995 raped a little girl on the island of Okinawa. During President Bill Clinton’s Tokyo visit the following year, the parties agreed on expanded Japanese security responsibilities in the region and that the United States would shrink its bases on Okinawa. In 2005-2006, a major and costly relocation of the US forces was decided, but the process stalled.

In the fall of 2009, the US troop presence caused a new schism. When Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the ruling Democratic Party, failed to fulfill the election promises to remove the US airbase from Okinawa, he chose to resign (see Modern History). In January 2011, the United States and Japan decided that some exercises with the F-15 fighter plane would be moved from Okinawa to Guam, as a way of partially meeting the Okinawas. Furthermore, in the spring of 2012, the countries entered into an agreement which meant that the United States promised to relocate about half of the marines based on Okinawa to areas outside Japan. However, about 10,000 American soldiers would still remain on Okinawa. At the end of 2013, the deadlock in the matter of a relocation of the air base seemed to break. Then Okinawa’s governor approved plans to build a new base on the northern part of the island.

At the same time, the Japanese way of making coins of their progress has annoyed the United States. After helping Japan on its feet after the war, it felt bitter for the Americans that during the 1960s and 1970s they were competing in areas where they used to dominate. The United States also considered that Japan greatly exploited its advantages in the US market without giving anything back.

Following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, Japan joined the US war on terrorism (see below) with support efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Like many other neighboring countries, Korea, the Japanese colony of 1910-1945, bears bitter memories of brutal Japanese rule. However, today’s relations are relatively good, although South Korea disliked Tokyo’s trade surplus between countries and the special treatment of Koreans in Japan. Despite Japanese excuses for war abuse, the wounds are difficult to heal. Nearly 200,000 women from primarily Korea were exploited during the war as sex slaves on Japanese field brothels – something Japan first admitted in 1993. After long silence in shame, elderly South Korean women have begun to demand compensation. The government has said no to formal state compensation but in 1995 set up a state-funded private fund of $ 100 million to help affected women. At the end of 2015, Japan agreed to establish a fully government-funded fund for the women and Prime Minister Abe apologized for what had happened. The South Korean government declared itself satisfied with the settlement. Thus, the countries hoped to put this issue behind them. But at the end of 2017, South Korea’s then-incumbent President Moon Jae-In requested a review of the deal, which South Korean critics do not think takes sufficient account of the victims. Thus, it was clear that the sensitive issue has not been definitively resolved.

As the first South Korean president, Lee Myung-Bak visited the islands of Takeshima (in Korean Dokdo) in 2012, which Japan and South Korea claim. The visit led to a diplomatic protest from Japan as well as tensions between the two countries. However, Japan and South Korea’s economic competitors participate at the same time in several important regional cooperation organizations.

Japan’s relationship with Communist North Korea has long been chilly. The regime in Pyongyang demands Japanese damages for both colonial times and the war abuses and refuses Japan’s diplomatic support for South Korea. Information that North Korean agents abducted Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s has long prevented an approach. Only in 2002, when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi met Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang, Kim admitted that North Korea had kidnapped a number of Japanese to force them to spy on their homeland. Five of them were then allowed to return home, but Japan claims that there are more left in life in North Korea. New negotiations on kidnapped Japanese started in 2014. The issue is well-known in Japan and important for Prime Minister Abe.

A major shock test is North Korea’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons. In 1995, the United States, South Korea and Japan promised the North Koreans modern nuclear technology (light water reactors) if they interrupted their nuclear weapons program. But no disarmament followed, on the contrary, worries increased when the North Koreans in 1998 fired a robot-like object over Japan, claiming it was just a satellite. After North Korea jumped off the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Japan decided in 2003 to procure a so-called robotic shield against possible attacks. Japan participated in the so-called six-party talks in 2003 with China, North and South Korea, the US and Russia on the dismantling of the North Korean nuclear program, but North Korea left these talks in 2009 after the UN Security Council unanimously condemned a satellite launch. Since then, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and missile launches have been a concern for Japan. North Korea’s test firing in the early fall of 2017 of a missile passing over Japan gave new impetus to strengthening the Japanese defense (see below). Many wondered why the missile was not shot down by the missile defense. Some experts explained that the missiles were not considered to be direct threats to Japan, while others believed that the missiles traveled so high over Japan that the existing missile defense system could not reach them. Another view was that the decision makers hesitated to use the missile defense due to the risks associated with this: if an attempt to shoot down a missile was unsuccessful, defense capabilities could be called into question which would create concern in the country and region and favor North Korea. Some experts explained that the missiles were not considered to be direct threats to Japan, while others believed that the missiles traveled so high over Japan that the existing missile defense system could not reach them. Another view was that the decision makers hesitated to use the missile defense due to the risks associated with this: if an attempt to shoot down a missile was unsuccessful, defense capabilities could be called into question which would create concern in the country and region and favor North Korea. Some experts explained that the missiles were not considered to be direct threats to Japan, while others believed that the missiles traveled so high over Japan that the existing missile defense system could not reach them. Another view was that the decision makers hesitated to use the missile defense due to the risks associated with this: if an attempt to shoot down a missile was unsuccessful, defense capabilities could be called into question which would create concern in the country and region and favor North Korea.

The oil crisis of 1973–1974 reminded the Japanese of their lack of their own commodities, and they have tried to secure commodity supplies and export markets through good ties to both the Asian neighborhood and the western world. The country’s low foreign policy profile despite its powerful economy has prompted Japan to take greater responsibility in global issues such as free trade, foreign exchange systems and peace work. This has also happened and Japan now plays a more active role in many international contexts.

Japan has long been one of the world’s largest aid donors with annual billion grants for development assistance. The majority goes to bilateral development cooperation. Technical assistance and loans dominate, only a small portion is given as gifts. Japan is also the second largest contributor to the UN and accounts for one sixth of the UN’s entire budget.

Japan has also become increasingly active in Asia and participates in a number of multilateral organizations, such as Asean + 3, (the ten original member countries of Southeast Asia cooperate with China, Japan and South Korea). This is done for economic reasons but also to try to balance China’s growing influence.


As the only country affected by the horrors of the nuclear war, Japan has refused to manufacture, possess or hold nuclear weapons, and even today there is a deep-rooted pacifist opinion. The defense is defensive and Japan has not even had a defense ministry for a long time. It was not until 2007 that the so-called “Defense Agency” got the rank of department. After the defeat of 1945, the imperial armed forces were discontinued, and in the 9th paragraph of the Constitution, Japan promises never again to try to resolve conflicts with violence or threats of violence. No military can sit in the government. Some have interpreted this as not allowing the country to have any armed forces at all, but the government side has argued that the UN Charter gives all sovereign states the right to self-defense.

With the Korean War close, Japan began to build its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) already in the 1950s. Nowadays Japan has a technologically advanced defense force fully developed with army, navy and air force with an annual budget which is one of the largest in the world. Japan’s defense has a quarter of a million employees, over 100 vessels and more than 750 aircraft (half of which are fighter aircraft). Military service is optional.

At the same time, the Self-Defense Forces have been surrounded by severe restrictions. The Constitution was long read as a total ban on Japanese military overseas. During the Kuwait crisis of 1990-1991, the government decided that SDF personnel could work outside the country in non-military missions, whereupon Japanese minesweepers helped clear up the Persian Gulf. In 1992, Parliament stated that Japanese troops could also participate in UN peacekeeping operations. Since then, the Japanese military has worked under UN flags in both Africa and Asia and the Middle East.

Following the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001, Parliament for the first time gave the SDF clear sign to be deployed abroad in war mode. But the efforts did not have to be contending and only concerned the support of the United States and its allies in the fight against terrorism. A Marine SDF force was sent to the Indian Ocean to assist the US troops in Afghanistan with fuel and other support. SDF soldiers in UN service were later given the right to, among other things, monitor ceasefires, disarm local forces and patrol in demilitarized zones. Japanese troops may also use weapons to protect themselves, refugees and personnel from the UN or other international organizations.

In 2003, Parliament agreed to send soldiers to humanitarian work in Iraq. Japan also promised billions to rebuild the country. Despite domestic resistance, in 2004 Japan sent about 550 people to the relatively safe Samawah in southern Iraq. In 2006 the troops were taken home early.

At the same time, more active participation in international peace operations and a lifting of the ban on arms exports were announced, mainly concerning a Japanese-American robotic defense system (MDS). In 2005, the Tokyo government decided to start developing MDS together with the United States. In 2007, the system was activated in response to North Korea’s nuclear test six months earlier.

In 2010, the government presented a new defense policy which meant that greater force would be put on the defense of the country’s southern part with a strengthening of the submarine fleet and the number of fighter aircraft. At the same time, the defense in the north would be reduced. The reason was a concern about China’s expanding war capabilities at sea and the neighboring military’s growing military activity in the South China and East China seas, but also North Korea’s threatening actions.

After LDP’s return to power in 2012, defense appropriations were increased. After a number of years of stagnant defense budgets, an increase in military appropriations began after the LDP’s return to power in 2012. This was in light of China’s strong armament, growing tensions in the region and the more nationalist policies that the Abe government wants to pursue. In the budget year ended March 2014, the defense budget increased by 3 percent to almost 4.9 trillion yen (one percent of GDP), which is a fairly moderate increase. The government also stated that it wants to strengthen Japan’s defense over the next five years, including new fighter planes, hunters, submarines and amphibious vehicles – but at the same time defense appropriations are only expected to increase marginally in the government’s five-year forecast.

The next step was the controversial reinterpretation of the constitutional clause that, throughout the post-war period, prohibited the Japanese military from acting abroad, other than in humanitarian operations and certain peacekeeping operations. In a decision on July 1, 2014, the government stated that its new interpretation is that Japan has the right to exercise “collective self-defense” by assisting allies under certain circumstances, such as whether US vessels would be attacked by hostile forces or a missile passing over Japan with the US goal.

This issue has been debated for many years. A great pacifist opinion has resisted change. Nevertheless, Abe has pushed forward the new interpretation, mainly in light of China’s growing military force challenging the United States and its allies in Asia. However, Abe has emphasized that the change will not lead to Japan going to war. In order for the military to act outside Japan, several conditions must be met, for example that the situation poses a clear threat to Japan and cannot be resolved in any other way. In addition, efforts must be kept to a minimum. In the summer and autumn of 2015, both parliament’s chambers adopted the legislative changes required for the change.

Exactly what the government’s interpretation of the key concept of “collective self-defense” would mean was an open question. When and how the decision was to be rooted in various legislative changes was also unclear. But the reinterpretation has attracted great attention and has been met by harsh criticism from China while welcomed by the United States.

Tensions between China and Japan were also highlighted in August 2014 when an annual white paper on Japanese defense policy characterized China’s actions in much of the East China Sea and the introduction of a military flight zone as risky. The report was immediately met by strong Chinese criticism.

In the state budget for 2018, defense appropriations for the sixth consecutive year increased. The reason was that Japan must strengthen its protection against the threat from North Korea’s nuclear missiles that have been fired on several occasions in recent times.


Army: 150 850 men (2017)

The air Force: 46 950 Men (2017)

The fleet: 45 350 men (2017)

Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 0.9 percent (2017)

Military spending’s share of the state budget: 2.6 percent (2017)