Japan is laying the groundwork for a profound leap in its military capabilities. On Dec. 26, three unnamed government sources told Reuters that Tokyo was considering retrofitting the Izumo helicopter carrier, its largest flat-decked warship, to be able to carry U.S.-made F-35B warplanes. Doing so would effectively give Japan its first fixed-wing aircraft carrier since World War II. This comes a week after Japanese officials confirmed that Tokyo is also planning to equip its own fleet of F-35A warplanes (a variant of the type it would use on the carriers) with long-range cruise missiles capable of striking targets as far as 900 kilometers away – say, ballistic missile launch sites in North Korea – in what would be Tokyo’s first major purchase of offensive weaponry in more than half a century. On Dec. 21, Japan’s Cabinet approved yet another record defense budget, swelling to around $46 billion, or 1.3 percent over 2017’s budget.
The timing of Japan’s apparent move to put the military on offensive footing may seem odd, considering that the Japanese public has yet to give the government the green light to do so.
Japan is a pacifist in name only. Article 9 of its constitution prohibits the use of military force for offensive purposes. Any weapons acquired or developed by the military must be intended for defensive purposes. But this hasn’t stopped Tokyo from building out its military capabilities, of course. In 2014, the government approved a reinterpretation of Article 9 to grant the military powers to exercise the right of collective self-defense — essentially allowing Japanese forces to come to the aid of allies under attack during operations deemed necessary for Japanese security. Two security laws implemented in 2016, moreover, formalized the reinterpretation and expanded the scope of the type of operations that the Japanese military can support.