The remilitarisation of Japan is a popular theme for the international media. It gives a clear, dramatic narrative to international news coverage that might otherwise bore readers. In this narrative Japan’s leadership seek to cast off the shackles of the post-1945 world order, to rewrite the pacifist constitution, rebuild their military forces, inculcate hatred of their Asian neighbours, and adopt an aggressive, warlike stance towards Asia. Leading the charge is prime minister Shinzo Abe, with fellow members of the shadowy conservative/revisionist Nippon Kaigi organisation being given senior government positions from which to realise their militaristic goals.
Not all journalists or publications buy this narrative in its entirety – but either in full-blown “Abe is a Fascist!” form or in a more diluted manner, it has become the master narrative of Japanese politics in the international press. That narrative frame can be seen in coverage this week of the request by Japan’s Ministry of Defence for a 2.8% budget increase. “Japanese Government Urges Another Increase in Military Spending” reports the New York Times; “Japan Defence Ministry seeks Record Budget to Counter Chinese Threat” says The Guardian. Both stories, in common with most coverage of the budget request, emphasise that this is part of an ongoing process of (re)militarisation.
I don’t wish to single out the NYT or the Guardian, nor the writers of these articles (Mokoto Rich and Justin McCurry respectively) – my intention isn’t to bash their coverage, which is actually more even-handed and well-researched than a lot of other articles on this topic. Rather, I’m linking to those articles to demonstrate that even the better news outlets continue to support a narrative about Japan which deserves to be questioned more closely.
There are lots of questions to be asked about this narrative. We might ask why Nippon Kaigi, for all that some of its policy positions are unpleasant or ill-informed, is considered any more shady than other political lobbying groups. We might ask why an organisation portrayed in the media as a shadowy background powerbroker would have an extensive and informative website setting out its aims and policies, or media briefings with its leaders – including one fairly recently at the FCCJ, Tokyo’s foreign correspondents club. We might also ask why, following the recent House of Councillors’ election, media outlets almost universally reported that Abe’s government now had the votes necessary to reform the constitution, ignoring the fact that many of those who support constitutional reform (including the LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito) support entirely different proposed reforms to the LDP – not to mention that any reform would need to pass a referendum, too.
This week’s conversation is about military budget, though, so let’s look at military budget.
This graph shows the military budget of Japan and some of its neighbours over the past 20 years – from 1995 to 2015 – in millions of US$. For ease of comparison, all figures are normalised to 2014 US Dollars. Two things are immediately apparent.
First, Japan’s expenditure hasn’t changed much in 20 years. There were some large rises towards the end of the 1980s, not least because the United States demanded that Japan should pay more towards the cost of US bases on its soil, but since the mid-nineties Japanese expenditure has stayed fairly solid in US$ terms. In fact, its military budget is almost identical to that of Germany, and significantly lower than the United Kingdom – a smaller island nation in a significantly less turbulent part of the world.
Second, Japan’s neighbours are spending huge amounts on military expansion. China’s budget, three to four times greater than Japan’s and growing at 7 to 8% each year, is now second only to the United States (the US isn’t on this graph because it’s ridiculous – the scale required to show the US’ military spending, more than 10 times that of Japan’s, squashes all other countries into a multicoloured line bouncing along the bottom of the graph). Russia now spends double Japan’s budget. South Korea, with less than half the population but a more precarious defence situation, spends a comparable amount to Japan.
We have no data for North Korea, whose aggressive nuclear weapon and missile programs are one of the main reasons for Japan’s budget increases, much of which will be spent on improving missile defences.
Here’s a second way to look at the data.
This graph shows the military budget of Japan, its neighbours and some other countries as a percentage of their GDP over the past 20 years. In some ways it’s a misleading chart – while China looks fairly flat on this graph, its GDP has boomed so the cash it spends on the military has grown enormously even without using a larger proportion of GDP. Japan, meanwhile, has had mostly stagnant GDP figures for the past couple of decades. With those caveats in mind, though, we can pick out some interesting things from this data.
We can see that Japan spends far, far less on defence as a percentage of GDP than pretty much any other major nation. Russia’s expenditure is off the chart (literally), while the USA, South Korea, the UK and China all spend over 2% of their entire GDP on the military. Japan doesn’t belong to the same category of nation at all; in fact, its GDP percentage spend is lower than Germany. The closest nation in the data set to Japan, by this measure, is the notoriously militaristic, sabre-rattling, neighbour-terrifying, aggressively warlike… Canada.
Incidentally, out of every single country in Asia and Oceania, only three spend less of their GDP on defence than Japan – Indonesia (0.9%), Mongolia (0.8%) and Papua New Guinea (0.6%). (If you’re interested, the lowest military budget as a percentage of GDP of any nation in the world was the 0.4% spent by Ireland, Guatemala and Nigeria. Famously neutral Switzerland spent 0.7%.)
None of this is to say that there aren’t some problematic things about Japan’s political trajectory. Abe and his close associates have troubling views on history, and there are valid fears that those views will drive his government towards policies which promote nationalism and xenophobia and erode international ties in East Asia. Much more worrying than anything about Nippon Kaigi is the extent to which his unprecedented dominance of the LDP has shut down intra-party competition and debate; the LDP used to be its own best opposition thanks to healthy competition between factions, which is now all but moribund. And yes, certainly, criticism is due of politicians (in all countries!) who can’t seem to control their childish urges to provoke their neighbours over historical or territorial disagreements.
The master narrative of Japan’s slide towards remilitarisation, nationalism and even fascism, however, just isn’t supported by the facts. Take constitutional revision; while being more seriously considered than at any point since the 1950s, it still has to clear many tall hurdles. More aggressive ideas for changing the constitution are not even supported unanimously by Abe’s LDP colleagues, let alone by the other parties whose support would be needed or the Japanese public who would vote in an eventual referendum.
The increases in the military budget, meanwhile, are eye-opening not as proof of militarism, but as proof of extraordinary restraint. Faced with enormous military build-ups in neighbouring nations – two of whom, North Korea and China, have carried out minor but overtly hostile actions towards Japan in recent years – Japan’s military spend remains modest. It has the third-largest economy in the world but spends less on its military than France or the UK – neither of whom experience either regular military / paramilitary incursions into their waters, as Japan does from China, or the testing of ballistic missiles aimed across their territory, as Japan does from North Korea. (Neither do the neighbours of France and the UK promote educational policies which distort historical fact to demonise France or the UK, tolerate rioters attacking outlets of French or British businesses, or broadcast endless TV shows dramatising often exaggerated accounts of French or British war crimes.)
In the face of these threats, and against a background of increasing pressure on the Japanese Self-Defence Forces to participate fully in international peacekeeping and reconstruction missions (Japan has been bashed for decades in the international community for sending cheques rather than physical assistance to stricken areas), the modest increases to Japan’s defence budgets suggest caution and restraint. Japan remains Asia’s most successful democracy and it relies for much of its security not on enormous military expenditure but on the strength of its diplomatic and economic ties around the region and the world. In the face of real concerns over regional stability in Asia, it would be helpful if the international press desisted from attempting to undermine that position for the sake of more dramatic headlines.