Magazine article The Nation

Dual-Use Technology: Japan's New Military Edge

Magazine article The Nation

Dual-Use Technology: Japan's New Military Edge

Article excerpt


Until recently, it has been commonplace to see Japan's emergence as a great power almost exclusively in economic terms. When talk of U.S.-Japanese "joint hegemony" became fashionable only a few years ago, for example, cynics envisioned Japan as the banker of the new capitalist world order, while the United States remained its policeman. Armchair historians, for their part, solemnly observed that Japan had achieved superpower status at half the cost that prewar leaders thought necessary -- that is, by building a rich nation (fukoku) without a strong military (kyohei).

Such thinking is already out of date, however, for a new Japan has just appeared on the stage. It may be helpful to think of this as the third incarnation of superpower Japan. The country made its debut as a great economic power in the mid- and late 1970s, when it burst on the scene as a dominant exporter. It moved toward center stage in the mid-1980s, when it assumed an international financial role and almost immediately became capitalism's leading creditor nation. And now, in its third incarnation, Japan is suddenly demanding attention as a major military actor. "Actor" is the operative word here -- not yet military "power" -- but this latest role is a commanding one nonetheless.

For the United States in particular, this may be the most shocking manifestation of Japan's new status as a global player. Americans have found it humiliating and alarming to fall behind in trade and become a debtor nation, but little short of terrifying to wake up and find that the United States is also losing its superiority in critical military-related technologies. The subtext of many contentious issues in U.S.-Japanese relations over the past few years is this realization that the high-tech mastery and organizational structures that lie behind Japan's commercial and financial success also have profound strategic implications.

This situation has developed so rapidly that it is not surprising to find confusion on all sides concerning where Japan is headed militarily -- and, indeed, where it should be headed. The media now routinely observe that Japan is (or is about to become) the third largest military spender in the world, with a defense budget that exceeds that of any of the United States' NATO allies and is bigger than the combined defense outlays of the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean). There are, to be sure, Americans who applaud this and even ask for more.

John Tower expressed the "Go, Japan, go" position in its crudest form earlier this year. In February, while defending his nomination as Secretary of Defense, he attacked Japan's postwar "Peace Constitution," which still places certain vague limits on the size and mission of the country's Self-Defense Forces, as a "lousy idea" imposed by impractical Americans after the war. Tower was, in fact, venting a sentiment first expressed publicly by a U.S. official when Vice President Richard Nixon visited Japan in 1954.

The latest, and more polite, U.S. catchphrase calling for a greater military role for Japan is "burden sharing," which has the political virtue of meaning different things to different people. Burden sharing includes nonmilitary projects such as Japanese debt relief and aid to developing countries. Its prospective military implications range from greater Japanese financial support for U.S. forces in Japan to more expansive activities: extending Japan's territorial defense perimeter; enhancing the offensive capabilities of the Self-Defense Forces; participating in collective regional security in Asia (or elsewhere, such as the Middle East); assuming specific tasks such as providing military assistance to South Korea; and contributing directly to U.S. high-tech military programs such as the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Even establishment advocates of greater Japanese burden sharing have begun to strike a note of caution, however. …

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