Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has swiftly changed the security landscape of Europe. NATO has stepped up troop deployments to member states in Eastern Europe. Sweden and Finland are poised to apply for NATO membership, a step previously opposed and now embraced by their publics. And in the most dramatic transformation, Germany’s new chancellor Olaf Scholz has announced once-unthinkable investments in German military capabilities and shipments of arms to Ukraine. He had good reason to call Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “Zeitenwende” – a watershed moment, and the end of an era.
However, where the war in Ukraine has led European publics to dramatically revise not just their perceptions but their policies, it’s not clear than the Japanese public is as ready to undertake such wholesale revisions.
To be clear, the war in Ukraine has prompted a much different reaction from Japan than past international crises. In the past, perhaps most famously the 1991 Gulf War, Japan has held back, unsure of its role and hesitant to commit to action even in concert with close allies. This time is different. Since February, Japan has imposed a broad and escalating set of economic sanctions on Russia in coordination with G-7 allies, including freezes of Russian assets and expulsions of Russian diplomats.
The stronger Japanese response to this crisis is not solely driven by policymakers, but also by the public’s reaction to the war in Ukraine. That was clear early on, as the public swung strongly behind imposing economic sanctions against Russia. According to a Nikkei/Tokyo TV survey conducted just after the invasion began, 61 percent of Japanese favored imposing tough sanctions on Russia in step with United States and European partners. This is double the level of support seen among the Japanese public in March 2014, following Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. Then, only 31 percent of Japanese supported getting on board with Western sanctions; instead, a majority (54 percent) favored Japan pursing an independent policy.
What explains the Japanese public’s stronger reaction to this crisis? Certainly the scale of the war is greater than in other recent international conflicts. The determined resistance of the Ukrainian people in face of an invasion by a larger, more powerful neighbor also fits them neatly into an underdog narrative for public consumption. But more than the narrative, the basic rationale of Russia’s invasion– in Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s phrasing, a “unilateral change to the status quo by force” – hits far too close to home for many Japanese.
The prospect that nations would use military force to redraw boundaries raises alarms in Japan. And for good reason: Japan’s ongoing dispute with Beijing over the Senkaku Islands (claimed by China as the Diaoyu) is a longstanding security concern for Tokyo. Incursions into Japanese territorial waters have increased over the past decade, and both Russian and Chinese air forces have flown drill missions around Japan. Though American administrations have repeatedly stated that those Japanese-administered islands are covered by the Japan-U.S. mutual defense guarantees, the Japanese public is nevertheless concerned about the precedent set by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Large majorities in several polls say they are concerned that Russia’s invasion will set a precedent for how China resolves its own territorial disputes, both with Japan over the Senkakus and over Taiwan.
With the Japanese public taking a stronger stance on the economic front than in years past, and with fears of consequences close to home, will the war in Ukraine lead to the transformative policy changes in Japan, similar to the ones that Germany has so swiftly undergone?
There are some signs that the Japanese public is indeed rethinking past policy with a closer eye to security concerns. An April 1-3 Yomiuri poll found that nearly two-thirds of Japanese (64 percent) support strengthening Japan’s defense capabilities. And a narrow majority (55 percent) backs the LDP proposal aiming at a future defense spending level of 2 percent of Japan’s GDP, matching the agreed target for NATO member states. Such an increase would be a dramatic departure from past Japanese spending levels, even as Tokyo has in recent years breached the longstanding soft cap of 1 percent of GDP.
Yet support for stronger defense capabilities is not a full-fledged transformation of Japanese security policy. For one, the public is still split on acquiring enemy base strike capabilities, with 46 percent on each side according to Yomiuri. Nor has the war in Ukraine changed public views on the need to acquire those capabilities; the public was similarly split in early February. Moves for a broader transformation in security policy will also have to overcome a deep public reluctance to commit Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to combat missions, even alongside the United States. And unlike in South Korea, where majorities support both a domestic nuclear program and the deployment of U.S. weapons to the peninsula, the Japanese public remains deeply reluctant to put nuclear weapons on Japanese soil. While a majority support discussing the issue, most (56 percent) also oppose the policy, and three-quarters (77 percent) support maintaining Japan’s three non-nuclear principles.
That debate comes as a critical time for Japan’s security policy, as Kishida’s government is currently in the process of revising Japan’s National Security Strategy (NSS) for the first time since 2013. Also scheduled for updates are the National Defense Program Guidelines and the Medium Term Defense Program – both of which may be kept classified amid rising tensions and security challenges in the region. With so many years between revisions, Japan’s new NSS will need comprehensive updates to tackle the full range of changes in Japan’s security environment since 2013, including the more contentious China-Japan relationship, an expanded North Korean arsenal, and how Japan would react to a crisis over Taiwan.
This confluence of events gives Kishida a challenge – and an opportunity – to connect the public’s concerns about potential conflicts nearby and support for increased spending in the aggregate to more specific policies that would give Japan a broader set of tools to ensure its security in the future. If he succeeds, the Ukraine crisis will truly mark a new era for Japanese defense and security policy.
– Craig Kafura, The Diplomat
Craig Kafura is assistant director for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and a Pacific Forum Young Leader. Follow him on Twitter @ckafura.