Jul 05, 2023

Zeitenwende in Japan: Catalyzing Historic Change

From Tokyo’s point of view, the European and Asian strategic theaters are becoming interlinked. Russia’s war against Ukraine has accelerated Japan’s defense spending and prompted a fundamental change in its strategic culture.

Bild: Der japanische Premierminister Fumio Kishida zu Besuch beim ukrainischen Präsidenten Wolodymyr Selenskyj
All rights reserved


Russia’s war against Ukraine, the largest conflict in Europe since the end of World War II, has transformed Europe’s security landscape. Germany’s dramatic Zeitenwende (“historic turn”) package of sanctions against Russia and sharply higher defense spending, announced by Chancellor Olaf Scholz three days after the Russian invasion, and the rising strategic importance of the countries on NATO’s eastern and northern flanks are two examples of this.

But, as with other major European conflicts, the impact of this war is also being felt well beyond the continent’s borders, widening existing global fault lines and fanning tensions across multiple regions. This is acutely the case in Asia, where a rising China seeking to expand its influence has given rise to fears across the region of destabilizing change to the status quo and even of war, as Beijing presses its territorial claims over Taiwan with increasing belligerence.

Exposed to Geopolitical Turbulence

Japan feels itself particularly exposed to the global geopolitical turbulence from Russia’s attack on Ukraine. To its west lie a trio of countries that either are already or potentially hostile to Japan—from Russia, with which Japan has a territorial dispute, over which bilateral negotiations have been frozen since the start of the Ukraine crisis; to North Korea, which continues to develop weapons of mass destruction and to target missile tests in Japan’s direction; to China, with which Japan also has a territorial dispute, in which Beijing increasingly presses its claims through “lawfare” and other gray-zone activity.

China’s above-noted menacing of Taiwan, which lies just over 100 kilometers from Japanese territory, and Beijing’s rapid military modernization program accentuate the Chinese threat. The evolving strategic “no-limits” relationship between Beijing and Moscow since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also sharpened Tokyo’s strategic anxiety. The two have, for example, for some years been undertaking joint air and naval patrols in Japan’s vicinity and cooperating on nuclear issues. Added to this fissile mix are reports of Russia-North Korea cooperation, including Pyongyang’s supplying of Moscow with weapons for its campaign in Ukraine.

It is therefore with good reason that Tokyo sees the European and Asian strategic theatres as linked: In early June 2022, Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio stated that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow.” Kishida’s attendance at the NATO Madrid summit in late June 2022, the first such by a Japanese prime minister, and his visit to Kyiv in March this year, the first to a war zone by a Japanese prime minister since 1945, both underscored Kishida’s linking of European and Asian security. In part this reflects Tokyo’s concerns about a potential Taiwan contingency. But also important for Japan is the threat to the international order from Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine. Preservation of the rules-based order in the face of China’s “unilateral attempts to change the status quo” was also an early strategic foreign policy focus of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s second administration in 2012-20.

Thus, Tokyo was quick to make concrete its support for Ukraine within its own legal constraints. Japan’s commitment of some €6.2 billion of assistance to Ukraine since the start of the war, mainly in the form of humanitarian assistance, is, for example, only slightly lower than that of Germany (€7.4 billion) and well above that of France (€1.7 billion).

Tokyo also joined the G7-led and broad-based sanctions coalition against Russia that formed immediately after the invasion and has since been broadly in lockstep with the group. The notable exception to this has been the continuation (for now) of Japan’s energy links with Russia through its presence in the Sakhalin-2 liquified natural gas (LNG) project, reflecting Japan’s energy security situation, which is one of the most precarious in the G7.

Accelerating Changes in Japan’s Security Strategy

The depth of Japan’s strategic transformation is evident in its new National Security Strategy (NSS) and the two associated documents, the National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the Defense Buildup Program (DBP), which the Kishida administration published in December 2022.

As in Germany, Japan’s history of producing formal documents specifically articulating its national security strategy is recent—this was only the second Japanese NSS, the first being published in December 2013 early in Abe’s second administration. But the new documents represent a decisive break with the so-called Yoshida Doctrine, which guided Tokyo’s defense policy for much of the post-1945 period and under which Japan remained lightly armed—thus allowing it to focus resources on economic development—and reliant on the military protection of the United States. Although the structural trigger for the shift is Japan’s longer-term concern about the risk to it from China, the space given in the new strategy to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine points to the broadening range of drivers of Tokyo’s strategic evolution.

Notably, the new NSS seeks to increase Japanese agency within the security alliance with the US to boost the credibility of the alliance’s deterrence capabilities in the Indo-Pacific. Thus, the new strategy calls for Japan “to be able to take primary responsibility to disrupt and defeat an invasion,” committing Japan to acquiring counterstrike missile capabilities, albeit with a no-first-use caveat, and introducing “active cyber defense,” both of which are path-breaking given Japan’s above-noted post-war norms. Relatedly, it seeks to boost Japanese defense-industrial resilience by strengthening vulnerable infrastructure, exploiting tie-ups with foreign defense companies (such as the recently announced Japan-UK-Italy Global Combat Air Program) and, as Germany has already done, loosening restrictions on weapons’ exports.

Again, echoing Scholz’ Zeitenwende promise to lift German defense spending above the NATO benchmark of 2 percent of GDP, the DBP also pledges an increase in Japanese defense spending to 2 percent of GDP up from the previous self-imposed 1-percent cap, spending ¥43 trillion ($321 billion) between Japan’s fiscal year 2023/24 and 2027/28 to achieve this. Based on current trends, this would make Japan’s the third-largest defense budget globally after the US and China, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) “Military Balance 2022.”

“Comprehensive National Power”

As well as enhanced military deterrence, Tokyo’s new security strategy also seeks to draw on Japan’s diplomatic, geo-economic power and even recent economic security policy to deploy what it calls “comprehensive national power.” To a large extent this is defined in response to the “comprehensive” nature of the threat from China, itself a potent geo-economic as well as a military power in the Indo-Pacific. But the unprecedented innovations in Western economic statecraft since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine such as the oil-price cap on Russian oil or controls on exports of strategic technologies to Russia and their impact on the sanctioning countries have also highlighted the importance of developing domestic resilience in areas such as energy, food, and advanced technology.

Tokyo’s recently announced guidelines for official security assistance, which complements its traditional official development assistance and is designed to boost the militaries of like-minded countries, reflects the “comprehensive national power” concept. It is—again—a radical break for Japan, which has hitherto eschewed overseas aid for military purposes.

For Japan, however, Kishida’s reforms are less a Zeitenwende per se than an accelerated building on the changes already under way during the second Abe administration. Abe recognized Japan’s and China’s economic interdependence but also that Japan needed to engage China from a position of strength, boosting its own defense capabilities and thus the effectiveness of the Japan-US alliance. His key institutional and legislative reforms were designed to strengthen Japanese defense readiness.

Among these, two stand out: The first was the creation in December 2013 of a National Security Council chaired by the prime minister, which ranks as one of the most important of Japan’s post-war institutional reforms; and the second was the passage of legislation through the Diet, Japan’s parliament, in September 2015 to expand the range of activities of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF, Japan’s military) and facilitate the implementation of the April 2015 revisions to the US-Japan Guidelines for Defense Cooperation. Abe’s second administration thus did much to boost institutional effectiveness and to prepare the Japanese public for the deeper reforms that Kishida is now pursuing.

Notwithstanding the magnitude of the change in Japan’s strategic posture, as with Scholz’ Zeitenwende, implementation will be challenging. Japan’s fiscal position is by far the weakest in the rich world, with the gross stock of general government debt standing at 255 percent in 2022 and forecast at 264 percent in 2028, according to the IMF. This compares with 67 percent and 60 percent for Germany, respectively. Despite the public’s support for the security reforms in principle, opinion polls suggest that it is less keen on seeing taxes rise to pay for them.

The government, meanwhile, is reluctant to aggravate the weak fiscal position further by issuing more Japanese government bonds. Breaking down the post-war normative barriers that have made some sections of Japan’s scientific community reluctant to work on military research and development will also take time, despite Tokyo’s stated wish to bring this about in the new NSS. Japan also faces acute demographic constraints owing to the rapid ageing of its society and the now falling population, which threaten the SDF’s human capital base.

Japan as a Template?

Germany is in some ways a comparator for Japan, given their parallel history of militarism in the 20th century and their reticent post-war military posture. But there are important differences. Germany is networked into the multi-country NATO alliance, while the US is Japan’s only formal security ally. Japan’s geographic position means that the maritime domain looms large in its strategic thinking on security; Germany’s, meanwhile, has a strong land focus.

Nevertheless, the profound shift in Japanese strategic culture over the past decade, accelerated by Russia’s war against Ukraine, provides an important template for Germany as another large middle power seeking to shape and support the rules-based order in the face of increasingly intense challenges to the status quo from Russia, China, and others.

Robert Ward is Japan Chair at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

The German version of this article appeared in INTERNATIONALE POLITIK SPECIAL Reden mit der Republik.