Japan’s U.S.–imposed postwar constitution renounced the use of offensive military force, but a nuclear North Korea and an increasingly assertive China have the Japanese rethinking that commitment, and their reliance on United States security.
Japan has one of Asia’s most technologically advanced militaries and yet struggles to use its hard power as an instrument of national policy. The horrors of World War II continue to haunt policymakers in Tokyo, while China and South Korea remain wary of any military ambitions Japan may entertain. Yet a fundamental shift in East Asian geopolitics has forced Japan to rethink the commitment to pacifism it made during the U.S. occupation. It has increasingly flexed its muscles—deploying troops under UN auspices, participating in coercive sanctions, augmenting surveillance capabilities, and raising defense budgets. No longer convinced that they can rely on Americans to defend Japan, Tokyo’s political leaders are now confronting the possibility that they may need to prepare the nation’s military for war.
Sheila A. Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), is an expert on Japanese politics and foreign policy. She is the author of Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power (Harvard University Press, 2019). A senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), she is also an adjunct professor at the Asian Studies Department of Georgetown University and serves on the board of its Journal of Asian Affairs.
She joined CFR from the East-West Center in 2007, where she directed a multinational research team in a cross-national study of the domestic politics of the U.S. military presence in Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. She is vice chair of the U.S. advisors to the U.S.-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange (CULCON), a bi-national advisory panel of government officials and private sector members. She also serves on the advisory committee for the U.S.-Japan Network for the Future program of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation.
She earned her MA and PhD degrees from the department of political science at Columbia University.
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