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Help Wanted: Japan’s Struggle to Remilitarize

Original Illustration by Alexandra Ziegler

In November 2022, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced that Japan would increase its defense budget to 2 percent of its GDP, making it the world’s third-largest military spender by April 2027. Japan appears to be well on track: From its new aircraft development partnerships with the UK and Italy to its commitment to increasing its defense spending by over 16 percent in 2024, Japan is ramping up military investments rapidly.

To be clear, Japan does not have an official military. After World War II, US-occupied Japan created a new constitution barring any post-war government from maintaining a true military. Article 9 of Japan’s constitution not only prohibits the “maintenance of land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential,” but also specifically prohibits the country from using any force to settle international disputes. With this restrictive constitution, a legacy overshadowed by the collective memory of nuclear attacks, and the Japanese government’s inability to own up to its imperial past, Japanese citizens came to view war with apathy and condemnation. Only after the Korean War did the international community allow for the development of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF), which, as the name implies, must only be maintained and developed for self-defense purposes. In reality, however, the bulk of Japan’s security strategy rests on the United States. Japan sits under the US “nuclear umbrella” and, as of September 2022, is home to the largest installation of US troops and military bases worldwide. But in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and increasing tensions with China and North Korea, Japan is reluctant to place all of its bets on the United States. Surrounded by growing security risks, Japan sees a clear imperative to pursue remilitarization. But with a population divided along political and generational lines, Japan is finding cracks in its new armor—cracks that it must shore up with new approaches to military recruitment. 

Remilitarization is the result of years of debate and slow change. Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the leader of Japan’s effectively one-party system, has long pushed for conservative and nationalistic reforms, with militarization being the most controversial of them. In 2014, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe circumvented constitutional processes to issue an official reinterpretation of Article 9, allowing the SDF to aid allied armies in conflicts abroad. This move was controversial enough to set off a chain of pacifist protests throughout the country and led the LDP to abandon a proposal to remove much of the pacifist language from Article 9. Now, with increased threats from China, Russia, and North Korea, the LDP has the opportunity to allocate 2 percent of the world’s fourth-largest GDP to the purchase and production of naval ships, air-defense systems, cybersecurity capabilities, and fighter jets. But for all the rhetoric and money propping up this new and improved SDF, the Japanese government still has a major deficit in its most important military resource: people. 

Japan’s population has been declining since 2008, and today, the nation claims the title of having the oldest population in the world. Between 1994 and 2021, Japan’s population of 18- to 26-year-olds—the SDF’s primary demographic—dropped by roughly seven million and is expected to drop by another three million by 2040. Japanese youth appear reluctant to join the fight: Although the SDF has a positive reputation among young people, the SDF has not met recruitment targets since 2013, with fewer than 4,000 people signing up in 2022. A recent survey showed that while Japanese Gen Z’ers believe an armed conflict is impending, they would rather protest (36 percent) or flee (21 percent) than fight (5 percent). Those who do not believe a conflict is coming simply believe that Japan is either too committed to pacifism or that the SDF will not have enough troops to get involved in a conflict.

And it turns out that Japanese Gen Z’ers are almost as unwilling to vote as they are to join the military, with only about a third showing up in the 2022 general election. Far better represented in the active electorate is the older population, which is more in favor of revising Article 9 to strengthen the SDF’s defense posture. So, while the LDP and conservative defense buildup programs do not resonate with younger people, these younger people have neither the representative power nor the political will to change much. A “silver democracy” of conservative middle-aged and elderly politicians may want to build a large military, but without an entrenched base of younger supporters that they can recruit, remilitarization efforts may be a non-starter. 

So how is the LDP addressing this issue? One tactic is to look beyond Japan’s youth and engage a more easily persuadable demographic. Advertising campaigns that target middle-aged and elderly service members are becoming increasingly common. Supporting these campaigns are changes to the Reserve Officer Corps System and the SDF active duty criteria that increase eligibility for older citizens and raise the retirement age for officers. The SDF also sees potential in the recruitment of more female officers: In 2018, only about 6.5 percent of uniformed officers were female. Unfortunately, several high-profile sexual harassment and assault cases and widely reported abuses of power reveal a systematically abusive culture that deters female recruitment. As part of the official defense buildup plan, the SDF has restructured living arrangements, reporting guidelines, and other organizational aspects of life in the SDF to encourage more female recruits.

Another option is to recruit immigrants, potentially giving them a path to naturalization by participating in the SDF. This seems unlikely in the near future, however, as the Japanese government has yet to pursue policies that embrace long-term, legitimate immigration. Furthermore, Japan’s famous work culture, which places high value on lifetime employment in prestigious companies, could be upset by a job market made more competitive by immigration. Because of the demographic imbalance, Japan’s current unemployment rate is around 2.5 percent. Immigration could make landing prestigious private-sector careers more difficult and make the SDF an increasingly attractive option.

The SDF’s current recruitment challenge runs deeper than a lack of young people and an imbalanced job market. Taking a step back, one can see a deeper disconnect between an aging, conservative government and a pacifistic youth population that did not ask to build up a military that they are not interested in serving in. As tensions in the Pacific rise, it is likely that Japan will remain what is essentially a US protectorate. Substantial changes in automation, immigration policy, wages, and culture may help revive the SDF as it struggles to expand. Nevertheless, given the LDP’s aging, conservative culture, these major reforms are unlikely to be implemented under the current system. Real change will come when the youth of the country take their future into their own hands. Whether that future will see a resurgence of militarism or steadfast pacifism remains to be seen.