Japan’s changing security postures

What are the forces behind Japan’s defence behaviour, and why has it been so puzzling?

Nick Anderson wants to solve the mystery of why Japan, a country with tremendous economic power, focuses so little of its resources on its military and domestic defence. This has baffled experts in international relations for years. Anderson believes the answer lies on two fronts: the level of direct security threats to Japan, and the level of American military presence on Japanese soil.

Like a sliding scale, when threats are high and American involvement is low, Japan spends more on defence. But when American assistance is high, regardless of the immediate threat level, the incentive for Japan to expand and deploy its troops is low.

The SSHRC-funded researcher’s findings are in his recently published paper, Anarchic Threats and Hegemonic Assurances: Japan’s Security Production in the Postwar Era. In it, Anderson counters the prevailing thinking of most scholars that Japan doesn’t channel many resources into its military because it is a pacifist nation. By studying Japan’s defence spending and policies since World War II, he feels the evidence shows that a combination of external threats and ally assurances are what drive Japan’s security policy.

“While this sounds pretty intuitive, believe it or not, it is a somewhat radical argument in the context of Japan,” he says.

And, as the Asia-Pacific region becomes an increasingly important economic and political force internationally, Anderson feels it’s necessary for the world to get a clearer understanding of it.

“With Japan as the second-largest economic power in Asia, and with it currently undertaking important reforms in its military policy, I think more research of this sort is badly needed for both the scholarly and policy communities,” Anderson says.

What’s more, Anderson feels this “threats and assurances framework” reaches further than Japan. He sees other countries in East Asia, Europe and beyond using similar approaches in their security policies.

Feedback on his findings has been positive, with scholars in Canada, the United States and Japan all giving him useful suggestions. He, in turn, hopes his research and conclusions help Western governments as they shape their foreign policy.

“With respect to Japan, I’d urge people to resist the temptation to immediately focus on leaders, such as the prime minister, when trying to explain why Japan is making changes in its international security policy. As my research shows, there are usually broader forces at work.”

Nick Anderson is a SSHRC doctoral fellow studying international relations in the Department of Political Science at Yale University. Originally from Montreal, he was raised in Vancouver and has lived in Japan.

See also: A profile of Nick Anderson