The state of the Japanese military and the Indo-Pacific region

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Originally published by Professional Military Education 

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Editor’s Note: This article is based on an interview with CSP Senior Fellow Grant Newsham


In this PME podcast interview, I spoke with retired Marine Colonel Grant Newsham on the state of the Japanese Military. The Japanese military is called the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF). It is comprised of the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF), which has 150,000 people. The JSDF also has a Navy and Air Force that each have 50,000 personnel. The JSDF is surprisingly formidable. Contrary to popular belief, Japan is not strictly pacifist. In fact, they have all the resources they need to project military power.

So what is the problem? Because of Japan’s World War II experience, there has been an understandable “reticence” to allow the military to train and conduct operations that would make them a strong fighting force. Japan has had the resources, but not always had the will to combine and employ them.

Grant speaks to some of the internal attitudes. He describes a belief in Japan that “we don’t want to do that again” meaning build up strong military capabilities. Thus, the military has been underfunded and underappreciated. However, among the average Japanese citizen, Grant describes that there is a “latent understanding” about the necessity of the JSDF. Furthermore, the rise of China’s military has shifted opinion amongst the Japanese “ruling class” (i.e. politicians).

Shifting attitudes toward the Japanese Military

In 2011, a deadly earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan. The military responded to conduct humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) operations. However, despite the quick response, the Japanese were not trained or ready to do HADR operations. As a result, many people died in the aftermath of the earthquake. This turned into a wake-up call. Japan needed the capability to operate with amphibious capabilities needed to conduct operations such as HADR.

Additionally, the Ryukyu Island chains were undefended. Looking at the map, one can see that the southern chain of islands stretches down to Taiwan. Grant says that China believes this chain of islands belongs to them and that they “intend” to take them. Grant claims that these islands were poorly defended and “if you’re not there, you’re not interested.”

Finally, Japanese military leaders realized that their joint forces were not adequate. They needed the capability to integrate their air, ground, and navy together.

Making Progress

In 2013, Japanese ships floated across the Pacific Ocean to San Clemente Island, which is off the coast of southern California. There were three ships carrying units from the Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces (GSDF). The JSDF conducted two exercises with the United States Marine Corps called Exercise Dawn Blitz 2013 and Exercise Iron Fist 2013. Grant describes these exercises as historic and the culmination of Japan’s push to integrate their forces and build their amphibious capabilities. Furthermore, it was the first time that the Americans began to work with the Japanese as equals. Also, I remember supporting the exercise as part of the opposition forces (OPFOR). The GSDF charged up the high bluff of San Clemente Island while we shot at them with blank rounds!

There were a number of liaison officers (including Grant) that worked to make this progress happen. They learned that the Japanese have their way of doing things and did not try to impose the Marine Corps way on them. Grant explains that the Japanese do not think in the same linear fashion that America’s military thinks. They don’t necessarily apply “crawl, walk, run.” Grant says, “They basically put together a MEU and sent it to southern California.” In doing so, they just started running!

The Japanese apply a Confucian approach to learning in contrast to the more Socratic approach used by the Americans. In some cases, they started training without resources like proper communications. Their goal was to just do it, and learn from mistakes along the way.

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