Japan has changed its approach to national security and defense

Japanese administration has released three documents that respond to an increasingly tense security environment, describing China as a serious source of concern. It stresses alliance-building with like-minded countries such as the Czech republic, and strengthening Japan’s own defense posture.

On December 16, 2022, the Kishida administration approved three security-related documents: the National Security Strategy (2022 NSS), which defines Japan’s long-term security policy for the next decade following the previous 2013 NSS developed by the Shinzo Abe administration; the National Defense Strategy (2022 NDS), which outlines defense strategy, particularly in regard to the security strategy; and the Defense Buildup Program (DBP), which outlines procedures for purchasing equipment necessary to implement the defense strategy.

The Kishida administration describes the three documents as a “major shift in practice” in Japan’s postwar security policy, while maintaining the “Senshu Boei” (Exclusively Defense-Oriented Policy) that has been the basic principle of postwar Japan’s defense policy since the establishment of the Self-Defense Forces in 1954. Creating “Hangeki Noryoku” (counterstrike capability) has been identified by both Japanese and foreign media as a major change in postwar security policy. However, it is not only having this capability that is noteworthy.

Here, let’s explain explain the latest threat perception described in the documents and the various measures finally introduced (in the interest of Japan becoming a “normal state”), which Tokyo voluntarily withheld in the name of its postwar pacifism, even after Washington pointed out such measures were necessary for strengthening Japan’s defense. It is also important that the Czech Republic is mentioned for the first time in Japan’s security strategy-related documents (p.22, 2022 NDS) as a Doshi-koku, a like-minded country.

1. What are the three documents?

Work on the three documents, which were formulated under the leadership of the Prime Minister’s office and a working team of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and New Komeito Party (NKP), began immediately after Prime Minister Kishida took office in October 2021. He indicated to relevant cabinet ministers that all options, including attack capability against an enemy base, which was previously taboo, would now be considered.

At this point, the three documents also reflect a paradigm shift and war lessons learned from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For example, the documents describe the United Nations as dysfunctional due to intensifying attempts by authoritarian regimes to unilaterally change the status quo and challenge the international order, expanding their own national interests at the expense of other states. Furthermore, the documents acknowledge that globalization and interdependence alone no longer guarantee peace (preventing conflicts) and development in the international community, and conclude that Japan, surrounded by states such as Russia, North Korea, and China, all of which are beefing up their military power, is now in the most difficult security environment it has ever faced. The documents also note the vital importance of maintaining and strengthening U.S. involvement in the Indo-Pacific (reflecting doubts about it). Also noted are new and growing threats in the cyber, space, maritime and electromagnetic spectrum domains, and the fact that boundaries between these and traditional threats are blurring. Overall, the documents call for a comprehensive approach to secure energy, resources and food.

On the basis of this analysis of the current international situation, the three documents represent the Japanese government’s current perception of threats posed by China, North Korea and Russia, and declare that Japan should continue the “proactive contribution to global peace” that is the basic principle of the 2013 National Security Strategy formulated by former Prime Minister Abe, which aims to strengthen the international security environment through proactive contributions by Japan. It also stipulates new efforts to strengthen Japan’s defense system by (1) actively creating an international environment favorable to Japan through the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision; (2) strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance and deepening cooperation with like-minded countries such as the Czech Republic; (3) securing “counterstrike capabilities” and strengthening a seamless defense posture, especially in the Nansei Islands, a chain of islands extending from southwestern Kyushu to northern Taiwan; (4) strengthening the defense industrial base and promoting arms transfers, i.e., government-funded arms exports.

The debate in Japan over these three documents is not so much about the consistency between Japan’s postwar principle of exclusive defense policy and the acquisition of a “counterstrike capability” as it is about how to secure financial resources for the defense budget, which is set to increase by 1.5 times over the next five years to a total of about 43 trillion yen, and then to 2% of GDP in FY2027, the same as NATO countries.

The focus on financial resources is partly because the three documents are government actions that do not require deliberation and approval by the Diet (Japanese Parliament), with the only significant opposition coming from the Japan Communist Party (JCP), which explicitly opposes developing a “counterstrike capability.” Nippon Ishin no Kai (JIP) and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) are in favor of it, while the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) does not support such a capability, but due to intra-party disagreements, does not oppose the development of long-range missile technology.

A public survey conducted by Kyodo News (telephone survey held on December 17 and 18, 2022) showed 39% in favor of increasing defense spending and 53.6% against, and 30.0% in favor of raising taxes to support increased defense spending and 64.9% against.

2. A significant change in threat perception

The 2022 National Security Strategy (2022 NSS) has undergone significant changes in its threat perceptions compared to the 2013 National Security Strategy (2013 NSS). For example, while the number of times North Korea is mentioned in the 2013 NSS and 2022 NSS, including the table of contents, remains unchanged at 15, the number of times China is mentioned has increased from 14 to 21, and Russia from 1 to 15. With its active development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems that include long-range missiles, North Korea has been a longstanding regional threat. Now there is growing concern about China’s military expansion and its attempts to unilaterally change the status quo in all domains, including by economic coercion. The new perceptions also represent a significant shift from Abe’s conciliatory policy toward Russia (aimed at helping resolve a territorial dispute between Japan and Russia over the Kuril Islands) to the tough stance on Russia adopted by the Kishida administration after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The description of China as “a source of concern for the international community, including Japan” (2013 NSS, p.11) was replaced by a stronger description of China as “a serious source of concern for Japan and the international community, and the greatest strategic challenge it has ever posed” (2022 NSS, p.9). On the other hand, a specific expression of “threat,” which the LDP initially insisted on, was not included in the 2022 NSS due to opposition from NKP, the ruling coalition party, which seeks to maintain good relations with China. Instead, the expression was reduced to the phrase “launching missiles into Japan’s EEZ was perceived as a threat by local residents.” (2022 NDS, p.4)

The description of North Korea was changed from “North Korea’s missile development, miniaturization of nuclear warheads and attempts to mount them on missiles pose a threat to the security of the region, including Japan” (2013 NSS, p.11) to “North Korea’s rapid development of missile-related technologies poses an even more serious and imminent threat to our nation’s security than before.” (2022 NSS, p.10)

The description of Russia has also changed from a conciliatory stance which stated, “promoting cooperation with Russia in all areas is extremely important for ensuring our country’s security” (2013NSS, p.22) to “Russian aggression against Ukraine is a serious violation of international law prohibiting the use of force and is an act that shakes the very foundations of the international order. Russia’s external actions and military trends, coupled with its strategic alignment with China, are strong security concerns.” (2022 NSS, p. 10).

In response to the three documents, key figures in the Biden administration issued statements of high praise and acceptance, describing it as “a historic step forward” (Jack Sullivan, national security advisor to the President) and “momentous” (Rahm Emanuel, U.S. Ambassador to Japan). However, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is adamantly opposed to what it views as slander against China, calling it “an attempt to create an excuse for [Japan’s] own military buildup and expansion by exaggerating the Chinese threat.” The North Korean Foreign Ministry also criticized Japan for adopting a new defense strategy that allows Japan to launch preemptive strikes against other countries, saying it has created a crisis on the Korean Peninsula and in East Asia, and asserting that North Korea has the right to take strong and decisive measures to protect its fundamental rights. The Russian Foreign Ministry also criticized the three documents, announcing, “Russia responds to Japan’s abandonment of the postwar pacifism.” Here, however, it may be pointed out that Japan is the only country in Northeast Asia that does not possess multiple ballistic and cruise missile systems.

On the other hand, the South Korean Foreign Ministry reacted to the description of the Takeshima (Dokdo in Korean notation) Islands as Japan’s inherent territory in the 2022 NSS by requesting that the description be deleted, but making no mention of the “counterstrike capability.” South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol commented, “Tokyo cannot allow North Korean missiles flying over Japan,” and indicated that his stance on Japan was more restrained than that of the previous Moon Jae-in administration, fostering possible U.S.-South Korea-Japan security cooperation, partly in response to pressure from the Biden administration. Seoul also announced its Indo-Pacific Strategy.

3. New approaches to ensure national security

In the 2022 NSS, in order to safeguard Japan’s sovereignty, territory and the safety of its people amid the increasingly tense security environment described above, the following four measures are proposed: (i) proactive diplomatic efforts to expand shared universal values (freedom, democracy, fundamental human rights, rule of law and market economy) through FOIP and other means; (ii) strengthening Japan’s defense posture and systems; (iii) strengthening defense cooperation based on the Japan-U.S. alliance and deepening security cooperation with comrade countries; (iv) ensuring Japan’s security through a comprehensive approach that ensures energy, resources and food supplies. Here, let’s focus on some particularly noteworthy points in the three documents.

(A) Proactive creation of an international environment favorable to Japan

The 2022 NSS proposes proactive diplomacy to promote a free and open international order based on the rule of law by strengthening the involvement of like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific including Central and Eastern European countries such as the Czech Republic through the establishment of multilayered networks.

To achieve that goal, Tokyo intends to strengthen the alignment by increasing military cooperation based on the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which enables aligned partners to share sensitive military information, the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), which allows mutual exchange of ammunition and rations during training, the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), which simplifies various procedures to visit each other for mutual training exercises, and the Agreement on the transfer of defense equipment and technology, which allows transfer of defense equipment and technology. Joint development of defense equipment, capacity-building support, strategic communications, and other operations with its partners are also important measures to strengthen the alignment.

Tokyo also aims to encourage China to play a responsible and constructive role befitting its international influence by reinvigorating economic and personnel exchanges between Japan and China in a way that contributes to Japan’s economic security. The establishment of a “Japan-China security dialogue” and a hotline between defense authorities in operation by spring 2023, as basically agreed at the November 2022 Kishida-Xi summit, are also included in this process. In other words, it is important to note that this is not a mere “military buildup” on the pretext of the China threat theory.

(B) Acquisition of “counterstrike capability”

The most notable feature of the 2022 NSS is the acquisition of a “counterstrike capability” using standoff weapons which can be launched at a distance sufficient to allow attacking personnel to evade offensive fire from the target. Tokyo has stated that the indigenous Type 12 Surface-to-Ship Missile (with a range of about 200 km) will be upgraded to extend its range to about 1,200 km, thereby ensuring the means to attack missile facilities of opponents planning to launch attacks against Japan. Until that upgrade is completed (in 2026), Japan will acquire 500 of the newest U.S.-made Tomahawk cruise missiles (likely the Block V model), which have a firing range of approximately 1,600 km, to fill the gap. To enhance survivability and operational flexibility, ground-launch capability will be supplemented with launch capacity from both aircraft and naval vessels, especially submarines.

With possession of this capability, the Self-Defense Forces, which were limited to intercepting ballistic and other type of missiles launched by enemies against Japan, will now be allowed to use it to prevent missiles being launched against Japan, provided that the three requirements for the use of force set by the Abe administration in 2014 are fulfilled. These comprise: (i) clear and imminent danger of an armed attack against Japan, or a country closely related to Japan, that threatens the survival of Japan; (ii) no other appropriate means available to protect the existence of Japan and its people; (iii) limiting the use of force to the minimum level.

The Kishida administration claims there is no change in principle to the “exclusively defense-oriented policy,” because a preemptive attack is not allowed. However, some analysts have pointed out that depending on the interpretation of these requirements, a preemptive attack may be possible if an attack against Japan is deemed imminent, thus deviating from the principle of “exclusive defense.” It should also be noted that the standoff capability, called “enemy base attack capability” at the beginning of the debate, was eventually renamed “counterstrike capability” – a significant rhetorical adjustment, since attacking an enemy base and counterattacking are different things.

To allay the concerns of neighboring countries about a possible preemptive attack, Tokyo has stated that the “counterstrike capability” will be operated and exercised jointly with the United States (in the future, the format could be Japan-U.S.-Australia or Japan-U.S.-South Korea) rather than independently. It suggests that Tokyo’s effort to achieve standoff capability is a part of America’s strategy of “integrated deterrence” with long range offensive capabilities on small platforms deployed dispersedly.

(C) Strengthening integrated operational capabilities and reinforcing a seamless defense posture

Responding to threats that utilize not only traditional land, sea, and air domains, but also new and diverse domains such as cyber, space, maritime and electromagnetic spectrums in a combined manner, it is necessary to collect information on all domains, analyze and coordinate that information and then operate in an integrated manner, instead of collecting information for operations run separately by the Ground, Air and Maritime Self-Defense Forces. In this context, it was decided to form a joint command of SDFs by FY2027, and to carry out joint missile defense operations with assets of Maritime SDF (SM-3 Block IA/IB, IIA) for the upper layer and Ground/Air SDF (Patriot PAC-3) for the lower one.

Furthermore, in conjunction with this, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command is reportedly considering giving integrated operational control authority of the U.S. Forces in Japan (USFJ) to the headquarters of USFJ at Yokota Air Base in Japan, which is currently held by the Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii (USINDOPACOM). This is because integrated and unified operations between the SDF and the USFJ are necessary for quick decision-making. An integration of operational commands similar to the one that exists between the U.S. and South Korea is difficult for Japan, due to a constitutional interpretation that restricts integration with the use of force by other countries. An updated Japan-U.S. Joint Response Plan and strengthening of the Alliance Coordination Mechanism (ACM) are expected instead of full “integration”.

Furthermore, in the cyber domain, where Japan officially joined the activities of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallin in November 2022, it was decided to increase the total number of SDF personnel to engage cyber warfare to 20,000 including 4,000 specialized personnel (currently 890) by 2027 and to introduce an “active cyber defense posture.” In addition, in response to threats in the space domain, Japan also decided to build a satellite for Space Domain Awareness (SDA) for the first time. The Air Self-Defense Force will be renamed to include the word “space,” reflecting the increasing importance of security in that domain. Because an attack in space poses a clear challenge to the security of the alliance, discussions were held at the “Japan-U.S. 2+2” security talks about possibly invoking Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which stipulates U.S. defense obligations. And in response to increasing maritime hybrid threats, it was decided to improve the assets of the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) and strengthen cooperation between the SDFs and JCG (Article 80 of the Self Defense Forces Law stipulates that the Japan Coast Guard shall be under the control of the Minister of Defense in the event of an emergency).

In addition, it was also decided to strengthen stockpiles of ammunition and spare parts, reflecting lessons learned from the war in Ukraine. In particular, since the ammunition depot closest to the Nansei Islands (including the Senkaku Islands near Taiwan) is currently the Kyushu Logistics Depot in Saga Prefecture, located 1,000 km away from the islands, it was decided to construct a new ammunition depot in Okinawa. In addition, the headquarters of the 15th Brigade (stationed in Naha City, Okinawa) will be moved underground to enhance survivability. Furthermore, enhanced transportation capabilities are planned to improve rapid deployment of Ground SDF units from eight locations across Japan to the Nansei area, a process that currently takes about one month, and to facilitate evacuation of residents from the Nansei Islands. Thus, preparations for a Taiwan contingency are underway.

(D) Supporting the defense industry and equipment transfers

The Kishida administration, which recognizes defense equipment transfers with its partners as an “important policy tool,” also included in the three documents a proposal to review operational guidelines for the three principles of defense equipment transfers formulated by Abe administration in 2014. The goal is to allow Japan to transfer equipment to countries that have been illegally invaded while maintaining the three principles. Tokyo also decided to support Japanese defense-related industries by creating a fund of 40 billion yen ($306 million USD) for defense equipment transfers to like-minded countries through public-private partnerships. Tokyo also decided to support the research and development of 10 types of standoff weapons and a high-powered railgun program to improve deterrence.

In addition, the joint development of a next-generation fighter aircraft by Japan, the U.K. and Italy was proposed. Even with prior encouragement from U.S. authorities, this is the first time that Japan has jointly developed the fifth-generation jet fighter with countries other than the U.S. (U.S. industries are reportedly busy with the development of a sixth-generation fighter jet, precluding involvement in Japan’s fighter jet development).

(E) Strategic management of government financial assistance

It should also be noted that the 2022 NSS lays out a new concept for strategic use of Official Development Assistance (ODA) and the establishment of new government financial assistance for military aid. In addition to existing ODA support for improving connectivity through education and high-quality infrastructure, capacity-building to ensure maritime security, the rule of law, economic security and so on, a new financial aid framework for each country’s military will be established. This aid scheme will provide for the provision of equipment and supplies and the development of military infrastructure for each country’s armed forces. This is an important shift from past principles of ODA, which was limited to use only for nonmilitary purposes.

(F) Economic security

The Kishida administration has so far emphasized economic security, in which Japan, as an economic power, can actively participate in rule formation, rather than military contribution that are restricted by the provisions of the postwar Peace Constitution and other self-imposed rules. As a result, in May 2022, Tokyo enacted the “Economic Security Promotion Act,” which bundles into a single bill legislation: with the stabilization of the supply of certain critical products; the strengthening of critical infrastructure protection; the promotion and protection of the development of critical advanced technologies; and the protection of information through measures to keep patent information.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, the Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry, announced at CSIS in January 2023 that Tokyo would work with the U.S. and other countries to promote economic security and deterrence in order to counter the intimidation and threats of authoritarian states. He pointed out that China is using Western-made advanced Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) technology and high-performance Logic ICs to develop AI and other advanced weapons, threatening U.S. military superiority. He also announced Tokyo’s intention to cooperate with the U.S. and partners in supporting the development of “dual use technologies” for cyber, space, and AI development. The cooperation is vital to counter China’s “Military-Civil Fusion,” or MCF strategy.


In summary, the three new documents follow the Abe administration’s basic policy of (i) expanding cooperation with like-minded countries and partners through FOIP; (ii) deepening cooperation of the Japan-U.S. alliance; (iii) strengthening Japan’s own defense posture.

At the core of the documents, it can be seen how they maintain the fundamental position of Japan’s postwar security policy – specifically, “how to maintain and strengthen the U.S. commitment.” In other words, how to alleviate Snyder’s “fear of abandonment,” a security dilemma of alliance politics, although Tokyo prefers to keep “exclusively defense oriented policy” as well. In this respect, the 2022 documents do not represent a “historic shift” in security policy, as Tokyo does not seek an independent path for Japan and depend on Washington. However, there is a significant difference in the statements of intent to implement various measures that Japan has avoided in the past, such as building counterattack capabilities, creating an active cyber defense posture, promoting equipment transfers, and establishing a military assistance scheme. All these measures, deemed necessary in terms of consistency with U.S. defense policy, were finally adopted due to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine with changing status quo by force (and concerns about it spreading to Asia), as well as the strengthening of China’s and North Korea’s military capabilities.

Going forward, the measures stipulated by the three documents must be put into practice and implemented to strengthen cooperative relations with European countries, such as the Czech Republic, which share universal values, and to make positive contributions to the international community. Already, a draft amendment to Paragraph 3, Article 116 of the Self-Defense Forces Law is scheduled to be submitted and discussed during the January 2023 session of the Diet. Furthermore, the Kishida administration also announced plans to revise after the April 2023 local elections the operational guidelines of the Three Principles on Defense Equipment Transfer to allow for the provision of arms to “countries that have suffered aggression in violation of international law” (the principles currently prohibit the transfer of defense equipment to parties to a conflict). If the amendment and review are approved, it would allow Japan to provide arms and ammunition to other countries facing invasion.

At the G7 summit scheduled for May 2023 in Hiroshima, Prime Minister Kishida aims to advocate a more in-depth contribution to Ukraine to express Japan’s firm opposition to “changing the status quo by force.” This step will represent a major practical shift in Japan’s postwar security policy.