Japan Studies

Back to Contents of Issue: August 2000


by William Hall

Prime Minister Mori on May 15 referred to Japan as "a divine nation with the Emperor at its center," creating a major controversy. Tokyo Governor Ishihara stated on May 11 that the best way for Japan to ensure its security is "to make high-quality weapons and sell them to other countries," an approach that runs counter to post-war Japanese policy. In early May, Japan's defense forces moved into a new headquarters complex that was built at a reported cost of ¥247 billion (around US$2.3 billion), a not insignificant piece of change for a building even by Tokyo standards.

In January, parliamentary research panels were established to review possible changes/amendments to the Constitution, a development that was inconceivable just a few years ago. On Constitution Day, an annual national holiday on May 3, the conservative political wing as usual demanded that Japan have its "own constitution" and not the Constitution "imposed by the Occupation Forces." A key target of the revisionist camp is Article 9, which states that the Japanese people "forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes."

It is in deference to Article 9 that Japan does not have an Army, a Navy, or an Air Force. Instead, it has the euphemistically named Ground Self -Defense Force, Maritime Self-Defense Force, and Air Self-Defense Force. But with a defense budget of some ¥4.9 trillion in 1999 (a little under US$50 billion), this is no peanut operation.

Externally, geopolitical tension appears to be building in Northeast Asia. Chinese officials made a continuous series of saber-rattling statements regarding Taiwan earlier in the year. In August 1998, North Korea launched a Taepodong missile cone over Japan, and in March 1999 Japan's Maritime Self Defense Forces fired warning shots at two suspected North Korean spy boats that intruded into Japanese territorial waters. In late May, the Washington Post reported that the US Navy has quietly shifted a significant percentage of its attack submarines to the Pacific Fleet, and that more war games and strategic studies are being focused on Asia. In early June, the Commander of the US Forces in Japan in a speech at the Japanese national press club stated that "With the end of the Cold War and the surge in regional conflicts, Japan is more critical than ever to the US military role in Asia." Perhaps as noteworthy as the directness of the message is the point that the last time a US general spoke at the national press club was three decades ago during the Vietnam War.

The twentysomething Netpreneur may ask, "What relevance does all this geopolitical stuff have for me?" The answer is that it could be quite significant, both positively and negatively. On the positive side, a number of companies have been able to initiate discussions about the provision of upgraded products and software services to the Self-Defense Forces where formerly the door was closed.

On the negative side, given the current and projected budget-deficit levels, any increase in defense expenditures will shrink the amount of government money available that can be ploughed into the development of the New Economy. Further, with the recent demise of the back-of-the-envelope dot.com business plan, the medium term 3 to 5 year outlook has become increasingly important. Financial and strategic planners will once again revert to factoring medium term country risk into their thinking, and the green-eye shade people don't like to tie up their money in locations where the headlines scream "Survey: Many Fear War Possible" (Daily Yomiuri, May 14, 2000).

So what does the average Japanese think about all this? Approximately once every three years, the Secretariat of the Prime Minister's Office conducts a nationwide study on defense-related issues. The most recent study (the one referred to above) was entitled "Opinion Poll in Regard to the Self-Defense Forces and Defense Issues," and fieldwork for the study was conducted in January 2000. The study involved completed interviews with 3,461 randomly selected Japanese nationals (1,641 males and 1,820 females) aged 20 years and above.


Perceived Danger That Japan Will Be Drawn into a War

One of the questions asked was the following: "Considering the current state of affairs of the world, do you think there is a danger of Japan being attacked or being drawn into a war?" Respondents were asked to choose from one of three possibilities: 1. There is a danger, 2. It can't be said that there is no danger, and 3. There is no danger. "Don't Know" was also allowed as a response.

This same question has now been asked in 10 surveys over the last 31 years. The figure of 31% in the most recent survey stating that there is a danger of Japan being drawn into a war is the highest score in the history of the survey, and is a 9% increase on the 1997 score (see Table 1). The combined score of 65% for top two categories is also the highest in the history of the survey. Note also the continuing decline in the percentage of "Don't Know" responses, indicating that opinion about this topic is becoming increasingly sharper.

There are also significant differences in the response to this question by age, with the percentage of respondents in their 20's feeling that there is a danger of Japan being drawn into a war being almost double that of their elders. By age group, the percentage considering that Japan is in danger of being drawn into a war is shown in the chart above.


Table 1: Danger That Japan Will Be Drawn into a War
  1969 1975 1978 1981 1984 1988 1991 1994 1997 2000
There Is A Danger 25 15 21 28 30 22 22 19 22 31
Can't Be Said That There Is NoDanger 27 29 23 32 31 32 33 29 34 34
There Is NoDanger 23 34 36 21 24 31 31 35 30 23
Don't Know 25 22 20 19 15 15 13 17 15 12

In a different section of the survey, respondents were shown a card which depicts the relative strengths of the Army, Navy, and Air Force of a number of countries. Respondents were then asked whether, all things considered, they thought that Japan should build up the strength of its self-defense forces, whether they thought the current level is fine, or whether they thought that Japan should shrink its self-defense forces.

The figure of 14% in the current survey stating that Japan should build up the strength of its self-defense forces is 6% higher than the score in 1997, and is the highest score since the question began to be asked in this form in 1991. Sixty-six percent considered that the current level is fine, a figure not that dissimilar to figures in earlier studies. Conversely, only 9% stated that Japan should reduce its self-defense forces, 7% lower than the 16% in the previous study and the lowest score since this question was first asked.

Respondents were next shown a card containing a pie chart of major expenditure items in the 1999 national budget. Defense expenditures were about 6% of the total budget. On the bottom of the same card a comparison of total defense expenditures for the year 1997 (the latest data available) was given for five countries -- Japan, the US, the UK, Germany, and France -- together with an average per capita expenditure on defense for each country.

Having viewed the card, respondents were then asked, "In order to protect the peace and security of Japan, do you think it would be better to increase defense expenditures, keep expenditures about the same level as now, or would it be better to decrease defense expenditures?"

Sixty-two percent of respondents said defense expenditures should remain about the same as now, up from 56% in 1997. The percentage of respondents thinking it would be better to increase defense expenditures was 11%, up from 7% in 1997. Fourteen percent thought that defense expenditures should be reduced, 8% less than the 22% with this opinion in 1997. The "Don't Know" response was around 14% for both years.

Since discussions about the Self-Defense Forces are a sensitive issue in Japan, it is important therefore to clarify the perception held by an average citizen of the raison d'etre for the Self-Defense Forces. Respondents were given a Show Card listing five possible reasons for the existence of the Self-Defense Forces and were asked to choose up to two of these. As can be seen in Table 2, the perceived No. 1 role for the Self-Defense Forces is unrelated to military activity.

Table2: Purpose of Existence of the Self-Defense Forces
Dispatch to Disaster Sites (Relief Activity/Emergency Transportaion of Patients at Times of Disaster, etc.) 67%

Ensuring the Security of the Country (Protection Against Invasion From a Foreign Country) 59%

International Contributions (Cooperation With/Participation in UN Peace-Keeping Operations, International Emergency Relief Missions, etc.) 25%

Maintenance of Public Peace and Order Within Japan 24%

Cooporation on Public Welfare Projects/Issues (Public Engineering Works, Support at National Physical Education Meets, Disposal of Unexploded Bombs, etc.) 8%

Military forces need manpower, especially young manpower. But as we have seen in earlier Japan Studies articles (See "Birthrate Blues" in February 2000), the percentage of young people in the population is declining. The study contains a number of questions on whether or not a respondent would agree/oppose if someone close to him/her (mijika na hito) wanted to join the self-defense forces, awareness/visibility of self-defense forces recruitment advertising, and so on. Space does not permit coverage of the responses, but, overall, it would appear that recruitment will continue to remain difficult even though, in a period of recession, the Self-Defense Forces provide a stable job.

Finally, respondents were shown a card containing five responses related to the depth of feeling about "protecting the country" (kuni o mamoru). The responses ranged from Very Strong to Very Weak, and respondents were asked how they evaluated their own level of feeling about protecting the country compared to others. The percentage of respondents overall giving the top two box rating of Very Strong/ Strong was 46%, the lowest score ever recorded, and down three percentage points from the 1997 study.

There are significant differences in the response to this question by gender and age. Males have a 57% combined top two box score compared to only 36% for females. By age, only 23% of respondents in their 20's and 28% of those in their 30's had a Very Strong/ Strong feeling about protecting the country versus 67% for those aged 60 and above.

So what does it all mean? Overall, we can say that the post-war model for defense that has served Japan well to date is now subject to review and scrutiny, as is the case for many other aspects of the economy and society. Further, while the general population appears to be basically satisfied with the level and nature of current defense activities and expenditures, there is nevertheless a small but perceptible shift in favor of increased expenditures on the armed forces.

Public discussion regarding the revision of the Constitution, particularly in regard to Article 9, will continue, and no doubt the conservative political wing will continue to provide fodder for more alarmist headlines. But as the above data demonstrates, while the headlines may be alarmist, there is little of substance to back up such headlines.

From the perspective of both domestic and foreign business, increased attention to and freedom to discuss defense issues will lead to greater opportunities for sales to the defense sector. At the same time, if overall defense expenditures are increased, government funds available for the New Economy will be squeezed. And as they teach you in the Guns vs. Butter section of Economics 101, live shell firing and using up gasoline in simulation war games has even less multiplier effect on the economy than digging up the same road 20 times and building bridges to nowhere.

William Hall (williamh@isisresearch.com) is president of the ISIS/RBC/CORAL Group, which provides market research and consulting services in Tokyo.

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