Japan’s biggest defence fair raises questions about military expansion

With $315bn up for grabs and spending priorities still vague, last week’s Defence and Security Equipment International show offered a perfectly timed beauty parade of belligerence as Japan begins its largest military expansion since the second world war.

For three days, the halls of Makuhari Messe convention centre heaved with a fantasy menu of 21st-century military procurement: drone-killers, next-generation smart ammunition, battlefield exoskeletons and, perhaps most critically, a new formulation of made-in-Japan combat ration beef stew.

The juxtaposition of wares underscored the extraordinary challenge that Japan has set itself under prime minister Fumio Kishida: of modernising a military before society has normalised it.

Even with the momentum of a more menacing China and Russia’s shock invasion of Ukraine, this is a big undertaking. Getting the basics of this new vision of the Self-Defence Force (SDF) right, admits one anti-ship missile salesman, could prove far more complex than selecting the right anti-ship missile. With the new military budget settled before Japan has properly fixed the idea of “combat readiness” in the public mind, the defence fair had the feel of a feeding frenzy begun before the chum has hit the water.

The problem with getting the basics right, though, is that the political and practical operations of Japan’s military remain highly unusual. Japanese military vehicles traversing the country must pay highway tolls like anyone else. This is just one of many humbling reminders that the defenders of the realm are not deemed very special.

The electorate — and, crucially, potential recruits to the SDF — are conditioned to think in this way. Japan’s still unamended, war-renouncing 1947 constitution pledges that the country will reject “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential”. The SDF and its current ranks of 230,000 personnel have existed since special legislation in 1954. But even the late Shinzo Abe, who came closer than any postwar leader to changing the constitution, was unable to give it the enshrined legitimacy that would end any debate forever.

But does that debate matter much if the SDF not only patently exists, but has now been entrusted with a bigger role and had its budget doubled?

It probably does. A key reason for Japan’s newly enlarged defence budget is its ambition of creating a more centralised, competitive and effective military industrial complex. The absence of constitutional legitimacy has allowed Japan’s corporate machine to be persistently lacklustre about supplying military personnel.

A second critical element is that, in terms of better equipping the SDF to defend the country in real conflict, the hardest political work is only just beginning. Decades of absolute dependence on the US military have postponed the need for a network of ammunition warehouses built on requisitioned land. A mass of legislation is required — but top government advisers fear this will be anathema to large parts of the electorate. For this too, constitutional endorsement would be helpful.

But the biggest reason by far is the SDF’s chronic recruitment crisis: a problem that has gnawed at government calculations on defence posture for some time, but will get progressively worse as demographics continue to shrink the nation’s 18- to 26-year-old cohort. In an epically tight job market, young Japanese have a long list of more attractive options — plus, for many, their parents would rather they work almost anywhere else.

Applicants for positions across the SDF — which includes military academies, technical schools and various healthcare roles — fell by about 26 per cent between 2012 and 2021. This figure is unlikely to rise if the forces switch their primary purpose from disaster relief to fighting. About 45 per cent of Japanese municipalities, ostensibly acting to preserve privacy, chose not to provide the names and addresses of eligible residents to the defence ministry, which was in turn unable to send those people any recruitment pamphlets.

A new wave of recruitment campaigning by the SDF has focused on the promise of square meals, camaraderie and national service. The beef stew exhibited at the defence show, was, according to a small sample of Canadian, British, US and even French military officers in attendance, better than anything their own countries had ever fed them. Politeness to their host and the next big military spender, perhaps — but also a small, savoury step in the right direction.

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