The Self Defense Forces (“Jieitai”) are the Japanese military. The name emphasizes self defense of the Japanese islands rather than any capability to project force outside of Japan because Article 9 of the postwar constitution prohibits the state from possessing military potential or force. The name is only in part a euphemistic device: the regulations governing the Self Defense Forces (SDF) specifically restrict it to defending Japan.
When the Japanese lost World War II, the Occupation forces, predominantly American, quickly disarmed and demobilized the Imperial Army and Imperial Navy. Article 9 was inserted into the constitution in accord with policies which were dedicated to the complete disarming of the country. Only when the Cold War began to develop did the Occupation under American influence begin to change direction. Soon, they were pressing Japan to establish a National Police Reserve of 75,000 men whose role was primarily to help preserve internal order and deal with national disasters. In 1954, the name was changed to the SDF and at that time there were 164,500 men and officers in the Ground Self Defense Force, the Maritime Self Defense Force and the Air Self Defense Force. By 1980, these forces had grown to an authorized level of 295,500 men and women and with a very high level of technology, the SDF has become one of the stronger military forces in the world.
The defensive nature of the SDF is quite strong. Not only do the regulations governing the force so stipulate, but the equipment is largely defensive. The Maritime SDF, for example, has nothing larger than a destroyer and the Air SDF, although it has some of the most modern airplanes available, does not have offensive capacity such as mid-air refueling. Thus, projecting military power beyond Japan’s territory and territorial waters is difficult.
Other factors also limit the SDF. In 1976, an outline of SDF policies committed the government to a spending limit of 1% of Gross National Product for the SDF. With rapid economic growth, total defense spending increased quickly. At the same time, Japan was pressed, especially by the US, to increased its military capacity even faster. Much of the increase was directed against the USSR although national policy never identified that country as the primary enemy (a politically distasteful step). In the mid-1980s, the 1% GNP spending limit came to be a serious problem for the SDF and the conservative political leaders who would have preferred to have pushed spending higher.
With the US playing a reduced role, especially in defense matters in the Far East, Japan was also pressured to undertake extended responsibility for the sea lanes approaching Japan. Eventually, Japan declared a responsibility up to 1,000 miles from Japan’s shores. The additional cost implied, together with Asian voices which raised some concern based on the World War II experience, limited what many leaders would have preferred to do.
In the end, the 1% spending limit was exceeded not as the result of a political battle, but because inflation, salaries, and pensions pushed expenses over the 1% limit; the government might have faced a grand battle with the opposition parties had it tried to accomplish the same result by increased purchases of military equipment.
The military role of Japan continues to be a matter of uncertainty and debate. In 1992, the government pushed through a law which authorized the dispatch of Japanese troops abroad for the first time since World War II, but it was a law which provoked prolonged struggle in the Diet. The law was amended to limit the numbers that could be sent to several thousand and stipulated that the troops were not to be placed in a situation where they would have to fight. Accordingly, engineering troops have been sent to the UN peace keeping operation in Cambodia (and several have been killed) but the government refused to send troops to Somalia.
The US and some other nations criticize Japan for not taking its share of international responsibility in, for example, the Gulf War in 1991 or Somalia in 1992-3. Many nations, especially those that suffered at the hands of the Japanese in World War II, are very suspicious of a Japanese military role in the world. Many Japanese are vehemently opposed to a larger strategic role for their country while others feel that an economic superpower should have diplomatic and military power equal to its economic power. The domestic and international debates are unlikely to be resolved for some time.