Japan on the path to becoming a Military Great(er) Power

Apr 24, 2023
Representatives of the USA and Japan shake hands.

Promising to double its “defence” expenditure over the coming five-year period and placing huge orders for US military equipment to help it to do so, the sometime “peace state” of Japan is moving into high gear on militarisation.

The transformation is plainest in the case of its Southwestern islands that stretch over 1,300 kms from Kagoshima through the East China (or East) Sea to Taiwan. In geographical terms, a line drawn from Kagoshima City to Taiwan passes through these islands and Japan. The US believe that, when or if the need arises, they can “bottle up” and deny China access or egress to or from the Pacific Ocean that lies beyond it. Japan’s Southwest frontier islands are to serve as the key component in the US-Japan “First Island Chain” of China containment.

While the US military presence (approximately 26,000 US personnel, or half the total stationed in Japan, is positioned on Okinawa Island, and most attention is paid to the hugely unpopular and still hotly contested Henoko base being built there by Japan for the US Marine Corps, Japan over the past decade has steadily expanded its own military (Self Defence Force) presence on these less-known islands. Under strong US pressure, it has deployed missile and counter-missile units in a series of new or under construction bases, decisively changing the character of the island chain that stretches from Mage (8.5 kms2, population zero) around 110 kms south from Kagoshima, through Amami (306 kms2, population 73,000), Okinawa Island (the major island of the group, with 1,206 kms2, population 1.4 million), Miyako (204 kms2, population 46,000), Ishigaki (239 kms2, population 48,000), to Yonaguni (28 kms2, population 1,669). And just 110 kms beyond Yonaguni, its mountains visible on a clear day, lies Taiwan.

Mage Island has special significance in transforming the East China Sea. It was initially chosen to house US carrier-based fighter jet take-off and landing exercises but gradually evolved to accommodate all three of Japan’s military (Ground, Sea and Air Self Defence Forces) together with unspecified numbers of their US counterparts, the US sharing arrangement ensuring ultimate Pentagon coordination, control, and command of Japanese military operations throughout the adjacent seas. Construction of this unprecedented facility commenced in January 2023 and is projected to take four years. Mage, once renowned for the richness of its biodiversity, is thus to become a centre for preparation and conduct of war.

Throughout the Cold War decades what distinguished the South-West Islands (other than Okinawa itself, where major units of US Army, Navy, Airforce, and Marine Corps are entrenched) was the absence of US military installations. Undefended, they posed no threat and so were themselves unthreatened. Those who knew the islands in their pre-military base phase remember them as idyllic. But to nation state bureaucrats and Self Defence Force brass in Tokyo, and to the Pentagon, the absence of such military forces was a blank spot that had to be filled. From 2010, the defence of the South-West islands gradually became of paramount importance in national defence doctrine. The key raison d’être for these Okinawa islands had to be as a joint US-Japan bastion projecting force where required for the regional and global hegemonic project, ultimately for “containing” China and addressing any “Taiwan Contingency” or war over Taiwan.

Under the Abe Shinzo (Prime Minister 2005-6, 2012-2020) and subsequent governments, responding to persistent and unequivocal US demands Japan committed substantial resources to upgrading the existing US facilities on Okinawa Island, constructing a major new facility in the north for the US Marine Corps to replace the obsolescent Futenma, while at the same time constructing Self-Defence Force installations (basically missile and anti-missile and intelligence gathering electronics), in Amami, Miyako, Ishigaki, and Yonaguni islands. Mage is to form a key to the overall project.

The nominal reason for the militarisation of the so-called “first island chain” is to defend Taiwan in case of an “eventuality” (war over Taiwan between China and Taiwan). Yet it is clear that the much broader role assigned them is to put down a China whose rise is in itself threatening. The US insists on its own “full-spectrum dominance,” meaning global economic, technological, and military hegemony, and to the extent that it challenges or appears to challenge that prerogative, China “threatens” the US. Over and under the East China Sea, battleships and aircraft carriers, missile and counter-missile systems, fighter jets and submarines – not only Japanese and American but also British, French, Australian, Canadian, German – proliferate and rehearse a possible future war between a US-led coalition of the willing and China. China must be stopped.

A sane defence policy for a country such as Japan – or indeed for any sane country – would be one that attached highest importance to avoiding, rather than striving to “win,” any such war. Two things seem certain. Firstly, any East Asian war today or tomorrow would be a missile war and could, conceivably become a nuclear war. Missile and anti-missile units are now being rushed to the Southwest islands, including 400 “off the shelf” TLAM (Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles) for which Japan suddenly placed an order (at a cost of about 21 billion yen, or $1.6 billion) late in 2022. That such missiles would be capable of attack on forces within 1,500-kilometre radius (including major centres in Russia, China, and North Korea) would be little assurance for the roughly 160,000 people living on those Islands who would surely be targeted in the earliest exchanges of such a war. Secondly, whoever “won” it, damage and devastation on all sides would be assured. Japan’s authorities might issue an “alert” warning in case of conflict breaking out – as was done on the occasion of several recent North Korean missile launches, but in 2023 as in 1945 there would be simply no time for the civil Okinawan population to be withdrawn to safety, and indeed nowhere to go.

The irony is that the Okinawa that is now being militarised and readied for war with China not only has no dispute with today’s China but has a 500 year-long history of friendly interchange with it (in Ming and Qing dynasties) and the Okinawan people (as Okinawa-based scholar Doug Lummis puts it) “do not share the militaristic Japanese Bushido ethic.” There is no evidence of Chinese resort to violence in its relations with the Ryukyu authorities over those multiple centuries, and the exchanges are still remembered and celebrated in Naha today, whereas the experience of Okinawan incorporation in the modern Japanese state has been accompanied by great violence – from the torture-induced assent by Ryukyu kingdom elites to the absorption of the Ryukyu Kingdom and its territories into Japan in 1879 in the first place, through the violent attempts to crush the distinctive Okinawan language and identity since then, followed by the catastrophe of 1945 when Okinawa alone suffered the horror of land war, and continuing with the ongoing assault by the Japanese state to try to break the Okinawan will for a non-military, East China Sea community, identity.

Belatedly, the Okinawan prefectural government today appears to have realised that to overcome the threat of war it must shift its emphasis from preparing for war to creating peace. This author recalls having urged a former (1990-1998) Okinawan governor, Ota Masahide, to combat militarist agendas by taking initiatives to build an East China Sea peace community, hosting leaders of East China Sea states at Naha to figure out an appropriate agenda of peace and cooperation. That suggestion went nowhere because shortly after my conversation with him, Governor Ota was driven from office following an intense national government campaign against him. Reading now of today’s Okinawan Deputy Governor (Teruya Yoshimi)’s visit to the newly appointed Chinese ambassador to Japan, Wu Jing-hao, to press upon him a meeting between today’s Governor, Tamaki Denny, and China’s president Xi Jinping, I could only reflect that the urgency of some such step is so much greater now than then.

If a peaceful East Asian community of nations is to be constructed, certain it is that Okinawa will be its centre, and if it cannot be constructed, Okinawa is doomed.

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