December 2022 | Japan Media Watch

Japan’s media have failed to scrutinize government plans to increase the defense budget

Artwork by Julio Shiiki

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has tried to distinguish his administration from that of the late Shinzo Abe, but Abe's political will survives in Kishida's aim to boost Japan's defense budget from the current 1.08% of GDP to 2%, thus matching defense budgets of NATO countries. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) says it wants to accomplish this feat within the next five years, in which case they would need an extra ¥5 trillion a year. 

According to a November 15 article in The Tokyo Shimbun, the LDP's preferred means of raising this money would be a 15% increase in corporate and income taxes, which differs from Abe's plan to issue bonds, since he thought future generations should shoulder the burden as they will reap the benefits. However, the finance ministry is against creating any more debt and thinks present taxpayers should bear the cost. Consequently, a tax increase has become the accepted method for funding the higher defense budget. But while various surveys have indicated that the Japanese public sees the necessity of an increase, according to one survey by The Nihon Keizai Shimbun, only 9% of respondents think it should be accomplished with higher taxes, while 15% believe it should be paid for with bonds and 34% would prefer funds be shifted from other budgets.

The gist of the Tokyo Shimbun article is that while the public says it favors a higher defense budget, it may not understand what this increase entails. The ostensible reason is that Japan faces increasing threats from North Korea and China, but at least in the case of China the meaning of those threats hasn't been made clear.

For instance, during a discussion on the web talk show Democracy Times on November 13, veteran journalist Atsushi Yamada expressed frustration over the work being done by an expert panel assembled to advise the cabinet on defense issues, including the increased budget. Yamada found this strange since there has not been any debate over the defense budget in the Diet, where these matters need to be aired for the public’s benefit. The panel's meetings, three of which had been three when Yamada spoke, with each one lasting only an hour, had been closed to the media. To Yamada, decisions on the matters at hand seem to have already been made when the panel was formed.

Former Yomiuri Shimbun reporter Hitoshi Nakamura described the panel during an appearance on September 30 on the news platform Agora. He was immediately struck by its makeup, since most members lack specialized knowledge in defense matters. Of the 10 participants, three represent newspaper companies, two are from the world of finance, and two are scholars whose expertise is in technology. The only participants who could be considered security experts are a former defense ministry bureaucrat who is currently a consultant for insurance companies, a former ambassador to the U.S., and a Kyoto University professor of international relations.

Nakamura thinks that the over-representation of media on the panel indicates that the government hopes to control the public messaging surrounding the defense increase. Apparently, whenever the cabinet forms these kinds of advisory panels, they always include a media figure, but in this case they've included three. And while there are certainly newspaper journalists who have covered defense issues in depth, only one of the media representatives, Yoichi Funabashi, a former Asahi Shimbun editor, could be said to qualify since he presently belongs to a think tank that studies international issues. The other two, former Nihon Keizai Shimbun president Tsuneo Kita and current president of The Yomiuri Shimbun, Toshikazu Yamaguchi, have no such experience. 

The same is true of the remaining members, none of whom has any direct experience in defense matters, except for the former defense ministry bureaucrat. Nakamura believes they were chosen mainly because they will agree to the budget proposals put forth by the cabinet, several of whose members, including Kishida, are participating in the meetings. The purpose seems to be to move quickly and create a budget that will achieve the 2% goal in five years. The finance ministry has already shot down the bond idea, which Kishida initially supported because of Abe, and the consumption tax would have to be increased by at least 2 percentage points to raise enough money – a difficult move in the current economic environment. That's why the government's preferred option was a boost in income and corporate taxes. On November 21, the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) objected to any increase in corporate tax, saying that the Japanese public should shoulder the defense burden since it is for their benefit.

But the question remains: what is all this money going to be spent on? The answer seems to be hardware, specifically the kind of weapons that Japan does not currently possess because, in line with the Cconstitution's ban on war-making activities, Japan's Self-Defense Forces are limited to using equipment designed for self-defense purposes. The new hardware would allow the SDF to fulfill its role in collective defense as put forth in the controversial security law that passed during the Abe administration. This law lets the SDF join with allies in military actions overseas, even if they don't directly affect Japan. In more immediate terms, it allows Japan to assist the U.S. in any actions it takes with regard to Chinese military activities in the Asia-Pacific region, in particular activities that affect Taiwan, which China claims as an integral part of its territory. 

The Japanese media have neglected to explain these matters to the public, which does see China as a threat to Japan. The reality of the situation was outlined by Kyodo News editor Gyo Ishii last December in a series of articles about a possible Taiwan “emergency” and its impact on the Nansei Islands, which extend from Kagoshima and Okinawa prefectures to the southwest. Ishii's articles explained how Japan is being pulled into the conflict between China and the U.S. 

In September, Ishii gave a lecture organized by a group dedicated to ensuring that Okinawa does not turn into a battlefiled in any regional conflict, as it was at the end of World War II. At the start of the lecture, he admitted that he belongs to the “peace” contingent, owing to the influence of his father, a noted peace activist in the 1960s and 70s. As such he has carefully monitored the situation in Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands over the years because of their strategic importance to the U.S., which governed Okinawa after World War II and continues to operate military bases throughout the region. Speaking directly to his hosts, he warned that Japanese residents of the Nansei Islands would be in danger in any ensuing conflict between China and the U.S. over Taiwan, and that Japan has not raised any concern over their safety and well-being. 

Ishii's articles addressed the intentions of the U.S. command in the Pacific region, which, according to his sources inside the SDF, is preparing for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan within the next six years. China, Ishii contends, has in the past been content to allow the current status quo between the mainland and Taiwan to remain as it is, but pro-independence elements on the island, spurred by U.S. promises of defending Taiwan's independence, has led to belligerent actions on the part of the Chinese military, thus increasing tensions in the region. A top SDF official, speaking anonymously, told Ishii that the U.S. command has asked the SDF directly for assistance to prepare for any escalation, saying that they cannot wait for any “political process” on the part of Japan to approve of such action. The official admitted to Ishii that they found the U.S. side's forcefulness disturbing. It's as if their only solution to the problem is aggression, he said. They don't even consider Japanese law, much less the civilians who would be in harm's way.

Ishii described the plan to set up bases throughout the Nansei Islands to develop the capability to fight air and sea battles. Such preparations would involve the installation of anti-aircraft and anti-ship missile systems. Drills to fight such battles have already been carried out in Hokkaido and northern Honshu. After he covered these drills, Ishii's reporting came to the attention of the Japanese government, which he said has kept this intelligence from the public, and he believes he is being watched by the authorities – he even said hello to any police officials who might be attending his lecture.

The work to prepare the Nansei Islands for military engagement continues, even if the public doesn't know about it. Of the 200 or so islands in the archipelago, Ishii estimates that about 40 are being eyed for U.S. facilities, which means those islands would be subject to attack if a conflict took place. Since they are already inhabited, Ishii didn't identify them, but they have water resources, which are a prerequisite for military bases. There are also the islands that already contain SDF facilities, which will make it easier to deploy U.S. military personnel on them. When he talked to the Japan Coast Guard, the country's map-making agency, and the Okinawa and Kagoshima prefectural governments, none said they had any data on the development of military facilities in the region.

These bases have been made possible by Abe's security law, which allows for collective self-defense. Ishii thinks that Abe misrepresented the law when he sold it to the public, saying that it was necessary in order to protect Japanese citizens in other countries. And while any emergency involving the Korean peninsula could qualify, Taiwan does not, which is why the government had to define “states of emergency” as those that don't necessarily impact Japan directly, meaning that if U.S. forces stationed on Japanese territory are in a fight with China, Japan could join in support. It also allows for the use of offensive capabilities by Japan, which the constitution does not allow. These possibilities were raised in the Diet by opposition MPs who asked if these conditions made it possible for Japan to become involved in American military actions abroad. Abe insisted they did not. However, last December, Abe gave a lecture in which he stated that any Taiwan emergency would be deemed a Japan emergency, meaning an emergency for the Japan-U.S. alliance, at which point Japan would be drawn into war with China. In the same month, Kishida announced the creation of three documents that would bolster Abe's security law. The documents are supposed to be ready by the end of 2022.

Ishii said that the security law's purpose is to set the stage so that Japan would fight alongside the U.S. in any military action the U.S. embarks upon, but that the mainstream media cannot say that. However, these purposes are not secret. Shortly before he died, Abe published an article that explains the matter in much the way that Ishii's articles did. In summary: If a conflict erupts between China and Taiwan, the U.S. will not immediately become involved, but it will make preparations throughout the Nansei Islands. The Japanese government will then invoke a state of emergency, allowing the SDF to assist the U.S. in transporting troops and fuel to the islands. When the U.S. engages in the conflict, Japan will recognize an existential threat to its territory and exercise its right to collective self-defense, which means the SDF can carry out offensive actions, including “counterstrike capability”. As a result, the Nansei Islands and Okinawa could be subject to attack. Moreover, if Chinese command systems were to be attacked in line with the defense guidelines put forth by the government, it could follow that the various Japanese and U.S. command systems, located in Tokyo, Yokota, Yokosuka, and other places, could be attacked by China.

Preparations are under way. A report in The Asahi Shimbun on November 11 described a regular military exercise involving 16,000 SDF troops and 10,000 U.S. troops whose express purpose, according to the U.S. command, was to address a scenario in which the Nansei Islands are in danger of attack. The Sankei Shimbun has published articles using the term “Nansei emergency”, saying that Japan needs much more ammunition than it now has on the islands, thus normalizing for its readers a possible battle situation.

Ishii said that as long as the government equates an emergency situation, such as a conflict over Taiwan, with an existential threat to Japan itself, Japan is in danger of being sucked into war. Japan must not get involved in such a conflict, he said, and must also convince the U.S. not to get involved militarily. As Yamada pointed out, even if Japan remained physically unscathed by a conflict with China, it would still be ruinous because of Japan's economic dependency on China. It is up to the media to inform the Japanese people of the real reasons behind the defense buildup and what it could lead to in the short term, as well as alternatives to war, because the government itself isn't going to do it. 


Philip Brasor is a Tokyo-based writer who covers entertainment, the Japanese media, and money issues. He writes the Japan Media Watch column for The Number 1 Shimbun.