Event Recap: Chat & Chowder with Sheila Smith

Author: Elina Mariutsa, Northeastern Student

Japan’s defense policy post-World War II has been shaped by domestic politics, perceptions of external threats, and most importantly, the reliance on its alliance with the United States. On May 23rd, WorldBoston hosted Dr. Sheila Smith for its monthly Chat & Chowder event, where she shared some insights from her newly released book, Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power, and explained why the American public underestimates its power over the future of Japan, East Asia, and the world’s security as a whole. 

Smith dives into the evolution of Japan’s military policy with exceptional attention, as she meticulously explores the country’s current policy from its origins in the Cold War. Inspired by many engagement trips to the Land of the Rising Sun, the Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations “spent a long time talking to fishermen, consumers and all kinds of stakeholders,” for  over four decades prior to beginning to write this book. Her writing is nested in real stories, historical facts, data analysis, and folklore. Such abundance of precision is rooted in a strong belief that her mission is to tell the story as is, while educating Americans about their responsibilities on the international arena.

This is the Smith’s second book on Japanese thinking. Her first book explored Japan’s response to the rise of China and its military capabilities, while her newest work focuses on Japanese foreign policy and its strategy beyond the region. Japan Rearmed is not just about the threat, but the additional decision-making processes that take place when there is a limited autonomy. Japan having undergone a complete reform and post-war management by a foreign power still abides by the “Peace Constitution” heavily influenced by U.S. General McArthur’s thinking.

The Allied Powers of WWII envisioned a different future for Japan at the end of 1940s -- demilitarized and fully pacified. They believed that Japan, once an imperial power that intimidated its neighbors by colonizing Korea and bringing war to Chinese people, had to become a democracy. Dr. Smith highlights the importance of the Constitution’s Article 9, which reads:

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Article 9 committed Japan to abandon all military force and engagement of war and to instead use diplomacy to combat threats in order to maintain international peace. Some understand this as an experiment in the wake of WWII to see if the Japanese public would alter their understanding of their military and its applications. Thus, the reason behind the title Japan Rearmed is simple: policy makers all over the world have been raising questions on whether Japan’s ‘rearming’ is posing a threat. However, Smith states that the country has been rearmed for decades and has a defense budget in the top 10 of military expenditures in the world (see below).

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Japan’s modern forces include maritime and ground self-defense course, as well as the world’s third most up-to-date air force. It is well-equipped with strong technological weapons, largely provided by the United States as part of the nations’ mutual self-defense treaty. Although Japan has never joined a coalition involving combat and does not indicate that it will initiate conflict anytime soon, it has been comfortable sending its defense forces abroad – a response largely attributed to America’s shifting view of its allies. Japan, often characterized as a pacifist democracy, has been involved in over 30 UN Peacekeeping missions since the end of the Cold War and has also sent its navy in support of an anti-piracy coalition for law-enforcement activities. In 2014, Japan went a step further and allowed its force to be used alongside its allies, and today it performs military exercises with many other nations alongside the United States.

Given Japan’s geographic proximity to external threats, an effective form of defense would be a strong military presence, but even offensive capabilities would breach the terms of Article 9. Smith argues that the Japanese public is not yet willing to make that leap, though opinion is shifting. Smith argues that this shift for a more assertive defense policy is caused by the perceived threats from China and North Korea to its national security, saying that:

“Asia’s military balance is changing rapidly, and Japan is increasingly at a disadvantage. North Korea’s growing arsenal of missiles and weapons of mass destruction as well as China’s expanding maritime capabilities are changing Japan’s defense requirements.”

One could argue that shifting geopolitics in the turbulent present could also change Japan’s perception of its military capabilities. Smith hears this concern from many of her readers and colleagues, and in “Relying on Borrowed Power,” the final chapter of Japan Rearmed, she states that Japanese security professionals are seriously watching and evaluating U.S. actions to inform future security plans. The U.S.’s actions in the region and its commitment to honor its alliance with Japan, will determine whether Japan moves towards a more aggressive strategy and nuclear technology development. Smith left the audience with the powerful message that it is time for the American public to start appreciating the influence it has to encourage or discourage the world to become a more dangerous place.

You may order a book here.