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Tokyo Letter: ‘Pacifist’ Japan is tooling up for war

Country will soon have the third-largest defence budget in the world after the US and China

This month, Japan launched its upgraded warship, the Kaga, from the port city of Kure in Hiroshima prefecture. The repurposed vessel is now a de facto aircraft carrier, capable of hosting up to a dozen American-built F-35 fighter jets.

The symbolism, for those alive to it, was rich. The original Kaga led the Imperial Japanese Navy fleet that attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, drawing the United States into the second World War. The conflict in the Pacific theatre climaxed with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki four years later.

Kure was also where Japan’s naval ambitions ended in a watery graveyard, with the sinking of the Amagi warship in a US air raid in 1945. Kaga’s sister ship, the Izumo, is also being upgraded to become the first Japanese naval vessel to operate fixed-wing aircraft since the war.

Japan’s “pacifist” constitution, written by occupying US forces amid the ruins of that conflict, still nominally bans it from settling disputes by war, but last week prime minister Fumio Kishida gave his clearest signal yet that the postwar era is over.


In a speech to US legislators, Kishida said Japan was ready to help America shoulder the burden of protecting the “free world”. Japan, he said, stood with its ally on a ship called “Freedom and Democracy” and was “proud to be your shipmate”.

“I detect an undercurrent of self-doubt among some Americans about what your role in the world should be,” Kishida told a joint session of Congress.

“This self-doubt is arising at a time when our world is at history’s turning point. The post-cold war era is already behind us, and we are now at an inflection point that will define the next stage of human history,” he said.

“We are on deck, we are on task. And we are ready to do what is necessary. I am here to say that Japan is already standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States. You are not alone. We are with you.”

Kishida’s speech capped what US ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel recently called an era of “profound transition and transformation” in Japan’s military posture.

“Driven by a proliferation of existential threats,” Emanuel said, in a reference to China and Russia, Tokyo had committed to doubling its defence budget to 2 per cent of GDP in 2027.

That not only put it ahead of many Nato countries, he pointed out; it would give Japan the “third-largest defence budget in the world after the US and China”.

This year, the joint command of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces and the US military for the first time named China as a hypothetical enemy.

In another first, Japan sent military equipment to a nation in conflict: Ukraine. And it has eased its principles on defence equipment transfer by selling back American-designed Patriot missiles to the US.

“Nobody ever imagined” such profound changes were possible, said Emanuel. “In fact, everyone predicted the opposite.”

Not everyone welcomes these changes. Driven by mutual distrust, Japan, China and the United States are driving an arms race in Asia that risks spinning out of control, warns CNN.

“Three major nuclear powers and one fast-developing one, the world’s three biggest economies and decades-old alliances all vying for an edge in some of the world’s most contested land and sea areas,” wrote analyst Brad Lendon.

Yet, the chorus of voices pushing Japan to scrap what the nation’s most-read newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, called its “entirely impractical, utopian pacifism” is growing.

In this context, the significance of the retooled Kaga and Izumo is important. Aircraft carriers, unlike helicopter carriers (their previous incarnation), imply force projection beyond Japan’s shores.

The “game-changer” has been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, said the Yomiuri opinion piece.

“Japan has thus far handled its security and defence policies as if fighting with one hand tied behind its back. This approach would have been acceptable if the Japanese economy continued its high growth and the United States was overwhelmingly powerful.”

“That time is behind us.”