Inside Japan’s invisible army

The country’s constitution bans it from having a traditional standing army. But its so-called Self Defense Force is one of the world’s most sophisticated armed bodies.

FORTUNE — On paper, Japan is a pacifist nation. It ranks 6th on the Global Peace Index, a list tabulated by peace activists at Vision of Humanity. Japan’s constitution makes illegal a traditional standing army. But a recently published defense white paper shows the extent to which the country has one of the most well-equipped “invisible” armies in the world.

Japan’s armed forces are euphemistically dubbed the “Self Defense Force” (SDF) — officially it’s an extension of the police.

But with the world’s 6th best-equipped troops and a nearly $60 billion defense budget last year, the SDF is not composed of your average beat cops. “Japan enjoyed an isolationist status until now,” says Narushige Michishita, a past adviser to Tokyo on defense and now director of the security and international program at Tokyo’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. “It was very convenient; we didn’t have to get involved in conflicts. But now the U.S. wants Japan to be more proactive,” he says.

Japan’s ruling party, the LDP, acknowledge this. “They know we have to be commensurate with our stature as an economic superpower,” he adds. “The U.S. is asking us to be more proactive in, not rearming, but making use of those arms.

Now that the LDP’s conservatives are returned to power, including their hawkish prime minister Shinzo Abe, they are demanding a change in the pacifist constitution which would chime in nicely with the U.S.’s desires in the region. Not that Japan is truly pacifist, or ever has been — not with one of the best-trained forces in the word says Michishita. “We are not passive in that sense. We supported all the U.S. wars, contributing $30 billion to the Gulf war. Japan isn’t remilitarizing — we are already there.”

What the U.S. and the new rulers in Tokyo want is a Japan willing to fight as part of a pivot away from Europe toward Asia, by which they mean China.

The U.S. is content to have Japan, with an active military larger than the U.K.’s, prepared more readily to fight in its corner should Xi not heed the President. “Japan is truly essential, as both a strategic outpost for the U.S. military and customer for the U.S., as well as a strategic actor in its own right,” says Corey Wallace, lecturer at the University of Auckland on Asia-Pacific international relations and a Japanese military technology expert.

A properly remilitarized Japan might also help the nation out of its current economic hole. Japan last year eased its self-imposed ban on arms exports. This end of pacifist foreign policy opens up new markets for its defense contractors — good news for struggling military tech sector giants such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Ishikawajima-Harima. For decades they had allegedly relied on bill‑padding and overcharging. Exports could be a new lifeline.

Full article: Inside Japan’s invisible army (Fortune Tech)

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