Why Does Japan Have a Limited Military?

Japan Self Defense Forces base. Image credit: akiyoko/Shutterstock
Japan Self Defense Forces base. Image credit: akiyoko/Shutterstock
  • The Japanese Constitution's Article 9 legally prevents Japan from waging war.
  • Japanese Self-Defense Forces serve only to defend and possess no offense-oriented weaponry.
  • Japan depends on the US to protect the nation from greater enemy forces and nuclear attacks.

In the past, Japan's Imperial forces managed to defeat Russia in 1905, and at its peak during World War II it was composed of more than five million soldiers. Nowadays, Japan's military, limited in size and responsibilities, does not pose a threat toward countries abroad. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Japan holds the world's sixth-best army in terms of funding, despite initially disbanding its military and renouncing war following World War II.

The country stands as a "peaceful rise" postwar model. Japan supports developing countries and does not serve to intimidate or terrorize them. With Tokyo's democratic maturity and economic growth, international society expects the capital city to partake more in international affairs.

Japan's World War II Aftermath

Japan's 1941 Pearl Harbor attack pushed the US to participate in World War II in retaliation. The 1946 Constitution of Japan, written by the US after Japan was defeated, includes Article 9 that legally prohibits Japan from possessing combat potential and waging war. After World War II, the US brought Japan under its nuclear protection because Japan found itself bombed-out and poverty-stricken. Then Japan's old regime was replaced with a democratic government and its Imperial Army and Navy were dissolved. Although Japan is not allowed to have a military, Japan does invest in Self-Defense Forces (SDF).

Mushroom cloud from the atom bomb that exploded over Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945, during World War II. Image credit: Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Article 9

Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan forbids settling international disputes through means of war and bans military maintenance. Article 9 is often referred as the peace clause and details that "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained." In wake of the Cold War and the Korean War, however, Japan was pressured to reinforce defensive capabilities. A closer inspection of Article 9 grants Japan the right to defend itself and obtain minimum armed strength needed to exercise that right.


The Self-Defense Forces of Japan went on to be established in 1954 despite Article 9. Japanese governments argue that the sole purpose of the SDF is defensive and they possess no offense-driven weaponry, such as bombers, long-range ballistic missiles, and aircraft carriers. Though they are well-trained for defensive missions, they are also small-sized, under-equipped, and understaffed when it comes to more advanced military operations.

Disaster relief and some UN peacekeeping efforts are part of the SDF's few allowable activities. Namely, some disaster relief efforts like the devastating Hanshin earthquake in 1995 and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 restored civilian faith in the SDF, as the pacifist public viewed the SDF with hostility and suspicion. To accomplish their missions, the SDF maintains surveillance and offers communication, command, training support, and logistics while tending to disaster relief. As observed, their primary focus concerns preservation of Japanese independence and peace by conducting operations through armed forces like the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF), the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF), and the Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) to protect Japan from direct and indirect aggression.

If attacked by greater enemy forces, the SDF must have the US coming to their aid. Similarly, if under nuclear threat, the SDF must depend on the US's nuclear deterrance. Essentially, the SDF's military power is merely defensive and bilateral with the US. Another interesting aspect of the SDF is that they hold no military secrets law, and offenses committed by military personnel are handled by civil courts in appropriate jurisdictions.

To further dissuade any appearance of a militarism revival, Japanese leaders conistently emphasize constitutional guarantees of civilian control of the armed forces and government. 

Prime Minister Abe Discusses Constitutional Amendments

The constitution has never been revised, which frustrates conservative Japanese citizens who feel disgusted over foreigners being responsible for writing their nation's basic law. Throughout the years, the constitution has faced numerous proposals for revision, yet the proposals on Article 9 cannot evade the most heated debates.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tried to explicitly allow the SDF to arm themselves with offensive weapons. The election of Donald Trump inspired fears of Japan and the US's alliance weakening as Trump threatened to withdraw US troops from Japan. Because of increasing fears surrounding North Korean missile testing and the sarin gas attacks, and aiming to avoid accusations of "freeloading" from the US, Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) pushed the amendment of Article 9 to be a prominent policy issue. The LDP and its allies, however, failed to achieve a two-thirds majority in the Upper House, which means Abe cannot produce a referendum to revise the constitution. Despite this political outcome, the military capacity continues to grow for matters of peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction operations, and greater missile defense.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on April 6 2016. Image credit: Drop of Light/Shutterstock

Japan's Reiwa Era

In April 2019, Emperor Akihito abdicated due to his old age. In turn, the throne has been passed on to his son Prince Naruhito, who invites a new era to begin. In Japan, each emperor would have his own era with its own unique name. For Naruhito, the new era "Reiwa" roughly means "beautiful harmony" and commands order to be restored in the nation. The name "Reiwa" derives from ancient Japanese poetry, not from the usual Chinese literature where the majority of Japan's era names were found. 

The Reiwa era represents a breaking of tradition and even holds a strong bearing on the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. With Prime Minister Abe determined to amend Article 9, he marks the beginning of change closely approaching, as Japan seeks to lead international security with a military presence shaped by its history.


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