Japan’s Growing Imports of Weapons:Facing a New Threat Matrix

According to a recent report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Japan’s arms imports surged by 155% in the 2019-2023 period compared to the 2014-2018 timeframe.

According to a recent report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Japan’s arms imports surged by 155% in the 2019-2023 period compared to the 2014-2018 timeframe. This increase elevated Japan to the status of the sixth-largest weapons importer globally, with its arms imports constituting 4.1% of the total. Over the past five years, Japan acquired 29 fighter jets from the United States, along with 400 long-range missiles, enhancing its long-range attack capabilities significantly. These acquisitions mark a notable shift, enabling Japan to target locations deep inside China or North Korea for the first time. The report highlights a broader trend of heightened arms imports among U.S. allies and partners in Asia and Oceania, largely driven by concerns over China’s ambitions. South Korea, for instance, saw a 6.5% increase in arms imports during the same period. Meanwhile, India emerged as the largest arms importer globally, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar following closely behind. The United States maintained its position as the leading arms exporter, while China ranked fourth. Ukraine experienced a surge in arms imports, becoming the fourth-largest importer globally and the largest in Europe. This increase followed the Ukraine war in February 2022, prompting Western countries to supply weapons to support Ukraine’s defense efforts. Russia, on the other hand, saw a decline in its arms exports, falling behind France to become the world’s third-largest exporter. This decline was attributed to a reduction in the number of export destinations for Russian weapons, dropping from 31 in 2019 to 12 in 2023. All this in a nutshell portrays a new threat matrix which will be discussed in the next sections.

In December 2022, Japan approved its first security strategy update in nine years, doubling military spending to counter China’s growing influence, reflecting geopolitical shifts. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida cited a turning point in history, emphasizing measures from military to diplomatic responses. The budget increase, totaling $315 billion over five years, focuses on infrastructure, defense industry development, and counter-strike capabilities. Japan has initiated the reinforcement of islands in its southwestern archipelago amid concerns of potential conflict over Taiwan, aiming to impede Chinese naval access to the Western Pacific. It intends to invest in counter-strike capabilities to deter missile threats from China or North Korea, planning to acquire approximately 1,000 missiles initially from the United States before transitioning to domestically produced systems. Additionally, Japan will collaborate with Italy and Britain to develop a next-generation fighter jet to complement its fleet of F-35s by the 2030s. Washington has endorsed Japan’s new strategy, aligning with its efforts to increase self-defense responsibilities, particularly as Japan hosts the largest contingent of American troops overseas. This move aims to bring Japan’s military spending to 2 percent of GDP, consistent with NATO members’ commitments. The documents released in December 2022 indicate that spending is set to rise significantly over the next five years, with a projected increase of 43 trillion yen, roughly equivalent to $315 billion, by 2027. While this surge in budget could propel Japan to become one of the top military spenders globally, it remains substantially lower than the $801 billion spent by the United States and the $293 billion spent by China in 2021, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In 2021, Japan ranked as the ninth-largest military spender globally, trailing behind Saudi Arabia. And the current scenario is a continuation of that. Moreover, the erosion of Japan’s arms export ban began in 2011 when regulations were eased to allow joint development and export of weapons with partner countries.

Discussing Japan’s rising weapons imports is strategically relevant for a few reasons. From a security standpoint, it raises questions about Japan’s evolving military posture. Is it for defensive purposes due to regional tensions with China or North Korea? Does it signal a shift in their interpretation of their pacifist constitution? Additionally, it could impact the balance of power in Asia, and the US’s role as Japan’s primary defense partner. Understanding these motivations is crucial for regional security.

Drivers of Change

The following table illustrates a continuous growth trajectory in Japan’s arms imports from 2011 to 2022. Over this period, the annual imports of arms have generally increased, indicating a consistent upward trend in Japan’s procurement of military equipment and weaponry from international sources. This ongoing rise in arms imports reflects Japan’s evolving defense priorities and strategic considerations in response to changing geopolitical dynamics and security challenges in the region.

YearJapan’s Arms Imports (Million)

Japan’s growing reliance on imported weaponry is propelled by various factors, with heightened regional tensions at the forefront. The assertive territorial claims of China in the East China Sea and the persistent threat posed by North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs have significantly heightened security concerns in Japan. Moreover, there is a perception of the United States’ waning commitment to regional security, especially following its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the formation of the AUKUS agreement, which seemingly sidelines Japan from key security discussions. NATOss recent actions and US assertions are prompting many to increase defense spending, relying heavily on imports to modernize their military arsenals.

In consequence, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s cabinet relaxed limitations on Japanese arms exports on December 22, 2023, through amendments to the 2014 Three Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology and their implementation guidelines, building upon the incremental adjustments initiated by the Abe administration. Despite maintaining the constraints of Article 9, which prohibits a militaristic approach, the administration approved the export of lethal weapons like Patriot missiles. This marks a historic shift in Japan’s defense policy, enabled by revisions to the Three Principles on Transfer of Defence Equipment and Technology. Initially, weapons exports were banned in 1976.

Japan’s Arms Export Policy: Principles, Practices, and Exceptions

Japan’s approach to arms exports is governed by the Three Principles on Arms Exports, established in 1967, which prohibit exports to communist bloc countries, nations under UN arms embargo, and those involved in or likely to be involved in international conflicts. Additionally, a collateral policy guideline from 1976 restricts exports to other areas, aligning with Japan’s identity as a peace-loving nation. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) oversees arms exports, requiring licenses for listed arms and equipment transactions. The definition of arms includes items directly used by military forces in combat, with judgments made objectively regardless of end-use. Dual-use items are exempt. Japan also tightly regulates direct overseas investment for arms production and participation in military facility construction abroad. Military technology exports follow similar protocols, with exceptions made for transfers to the United States under mutual defense agreements.

Japan’s Military Buildup: Unpacking Risks and Implications

There are several consequences to consider.

Firstly, Japan’s military buildup, particularly with advanced weaponry, could trigger an arms race in East Asia, leading to a more volatile security environment. China, already rapidly modernizing its military, might feel pressure to accelerate its own programs.

Secondly, a stronger Japanese military, coupled with a potentially diminished US role, could lead to a reconfiguration of power dynamics in Asia. This might necessitate a reassessment of existing alliances like the US-Japan alliance and the rise of new regional security frameworks to maintain stability.

Thirdly, the rise in weapon imports will likely intensify the domestic debate in Japan about its security role. It could solidify support for a more assertive defense posture, or it could provoke a backlash from those who value traditional pacifism.

Fourthly, increased Japanese military capabilities could further strain relations with China, particularly if seen as a challenge to China’s regional dominance. This could lead to increased tensions in the East and South China Seas.

Fifthly, the reliance on imported weapons will have a significant economic impact on Japan. It could stimulate domestic defense industries with technology transfer agreements, but it could also create a long-term dependence on foreign suppliers.

Sixthly, the acquisition of advanced weaponry aims to deter potential aggressors like North Korea with its nuclear program. A more capable Japan could create a perception of a higher cost of conflict for adversaries. But, Japan’s heightened military buildup may inadvertently escalate tensions, potentially provoking increased nuclear or arms activities by North Korea. This dynamic underscores the delicate balance between bolstering defense capabilities and avoiding regional instability, emphasizing the need for strategic diplomacy and conflict resolution efforts.

Seventhly,  Japan’s entry as a major weapons importer could reshape the global arms market. This could benefit major arms exporters like the United States and influence the development of new military technologies. As Japan expands its arms imports, potential partnerships with major exporters like France, the world’s second-largest, become plausible. This trend may foster increased competition among exporters seeking to attract Japan’s imports, prompting the emergence of new collaborations. Such developments signal a shifting landscape in defense cooperation, where Japan’s growing demand for military equipment creates opportunities for exporters to deepen their engagement with the Japanese market. Consequently, a more diverse array of defense partnerships could emerge, offering Japan access to a wider range of advanced technologies and contributing to the evolution of its defense capabilities.

Finally, Japan’s growing arsenal could complicate regional arms control efforts.  Transparency about its military goals and capabilities becomes even more crucial to avoid suspicion and mistrust among regional neighbors. This could necessitate new arms control dialogues to promote regional stability.

Japan’s burgeoning arms imports signify a seismic shift in its defense landscape, posing multifaceted security challenges. Amid escalating tensions with China and North Korea, Prime Minister Kishida’s doubled military spending underscores Japan’s commitment to bolstering its defense capabilities. However, this discourse raises concerns about regional power dynamics, economic dependencies, and arms control efforts. Japan’s evolving role as a major weapons importer also reshapes the global arms market, necessitating transparency and dialogue for regional stability. Balancing national security imperatives with peace and stability remains paramount for Japan as it facilitate this complex terrain.

Syed Raiyan Amir
Syed Raiyan Amir
Research Associate The Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA)