Japan’s Real National Security Challenge — and What It Means For America

on November 11 | in Foreign Policy

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The big news from this year’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing is that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and President Xi Jinping of China finally (and awkwardly) met in person, reversing deteriorating political ties between the two Asian powers.

A Japan-China rapprochement is essential to the U.S.—after all, Japan remains America’s most important ally in the region and the linchpin for our long-term security strategy in the Pacific. Nonetheless, Tokyo is facing a deteriorating security situation in its own backyard. Despite the latest diplomatic breakthrough, China continues its intrusions around the Senkaku Islands, while North Korea continues its erratic, threatening behavior.

All of these issues are indeed troubling, both for Japan and for the U.S. But Tokyo’s greatest national security challenge isn’t actually Beijing or Pyongyang. Rather, it’s the rapidly aging population that seriously undermines Japan’s long-term ability to adequately protect itself.

Consider this: Japan currently has some 127 million citizens, but according to Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, this number will shrink by 2060 to 86 million, and then to 50 million by the year 2100.

Neither war nor famine is halving Japan’s population, but rather hard demographics. Japan’s birth rate is currently 1.4 children per woman, and the total population has already begun to decline as of 2010.

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 10.10.48 PM
Source: Japan Ministry of Internal Affairs & Communications

Economic and social problems further exacerbate these trends. Japan doesn’t have a significant child care industry because of bureaucratic red tape and low wages, and nannies are nonexistent. This means many women leave their jobs once they have their first child—some 70%, according to Goldman Sachs. This in turn means many households become single-wage families, which cause families to have fewer kids because it’s too expensive for a large brood.

Of the children who make it both into existence and into adulthood, it’s unclear whether they would consider joining Japan’s Self Defense Forces (SDF) a worthwhile career choice. Japan’s education and employment systems are such that permanent career trajectories are often made early in life, and if the SDF isn’t getting recruits early from this rapidly shrinking pool of potential applicants, it won’t get them at all.

Competition is fierce for competent young people—between the government, private sector and other job opportunities. Thus, fewer overall high-quality recruits in both enlisted and officer corps eventually squeezes the capacity to achieve national security goals, no matter if Japan purchases the latest AEGIS destroyer or the F-35 fighter.

While the SDF is certainly formidable—almost 250,000 men and women in uniform, 2 aircraft carriers (and two helicopter carriers on the way), 32 destroyers, 500+ combat capable aircraft, according to The International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual assessment of military capabilities—there’s also the larger question of whether Japan will use actually military violence to achieve its security goals. The SDF has not fired a single round in anger since being formed in the years following WWII. (Japan’ coast guard is another story.) Japan’s constitution explicitly forbids using the SDF from offensive use. Further, a significant slice of the Japanese public still abhors military action.

Moreover, since WWII, Japan’s population is generally used to living in peace and under the American security umbrella. If and when a national security situation erupts—will a Japanese soldier, sailor, or airman pull the trigger for the first time in over two generations? If so, Japan will cross a line that will cause great soul-searching, as well as potentially resurrect ghosts of the past.

Given a political recalcitrance to use military force to achieve certain security goals, would Japan risk its dwindling resource—its sons and daughters in uniform—to defend all areas outside of the main cluster of Japanese islands? And would the U.S. Navy then sail to the rescue if shots are fired? Obama recently said America’s “treaty commitment to Japan’s security is absolute, [covering] all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku Islands,” but unless Japan takes on the lion’s share of the battle, American naval commanders might think twice about risking their assets over some uninhabited rocks.

Tokyo is aware that it must stem this long-term demographic challenge. The Abe government wants to stabilize the population decline at 100 million citizens, a wildly optimistic goal. Some advocate for a “French-style” system that provides financial incentives for motherhood. Others call for more radical social engineering, calling for some 200,000 new immigrants to come to Japan annually.

But Japan has neither a French-style working culture nor is particularly hospitable to immigrants—just ask anyone of Korean ancestry living in Japan. Hence, it’s an open question mark whether these economic and social surgeries are indeed feasible. Perhaps the SDF and the Ministry of Defense can lead the way by offering progressive daycare/maternity policies in order to both attract more recruits and increase Japan’s birthrate.

Of course, other American allies in the region face similar threatening demographic problems. South Korea, for example, has a birth rate even lower than Japan’s. But Japan remains the single largest counterweight to China, which continues to challenge the current Pax Americana in the Pacific.

This year, the White House reiterated the U.S.-Japan alliance is “the cornerstone for regional peace and security.” Japan remains critical to preserving American goals in Asia and the Pacific, but there’s really little the U.S. can do to encourage Japanese citizens to have more children. Despite all the provisions of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty that call for mutual cooperation in the face of a mutual threat, this is one national security challenge Japan must grapple with all by itself.

Photo: President Barack Obama holds up a Bo golf club cover, a gift given to him by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Mrs. Akie Abe at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo, Japan, April 24, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Note: I recently returned from a study tour to Japan underwritten by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and arranged by the German Marshall Fund.

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