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ISSN 2816-1971

  • Tomohiko Satake

Japan's New Security Strategy: The End of the “Yoshida Doctrine”

The changing geopolitics of East Asia has seen Japan shift away from the Yoshida Doctrine that has defined its post-war security policies.

Photo credits: Bloomberg

Japan’s new National Security Strategy (NSS), which was released in December 2022, is a remarkable document that could completely bring an end to the basic orientation of Japan's security policies during the post-war era. After the defeat of the World War II, Shigeru Yoshida, Japan's first postwar prime minister, laid out the foundation of what later generations called the “Yoshida Doctrine”. The essence of the Yoshida Doctrine was to maintain Article 9 of the Constitution, which includes the “war renunciation act”, while at the same time relying on the security umbrella of the United States through the US-Japan Security Treaty. Yoshida also laid out a policy of focusing on economic activities while keeping Japan's own defense efforts to the minimum necessary.


Despite Japan’s economic miracle, the Yoshida Doctrine had continued during and even after the Cold War. This was mostly because of the continuation of the US primacy, as well as Japanese people’s strong anti-militaristic sentiment that stems from the defeat of the World War II. So long as the US possesses outstanding military and economic capabilities, Japan did not need to increase its defense spending without so much caring about an external invasion against Japan. Despite the growing voice for “autonomous defense posture” amid the economic recovery from the 1970s, such a move was overtaken by a more utilitarian voice that prioritizes economic development. Although Japan had been increasingly aware of its international role and responsibilities from the late 1970s, Japan’s contributions to international community mostly focused on economic and diplomatic activities, rather than military activities.


After the Cold War, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces began to engage with international security activities such as peacekeeping operations and counter-terrorism in Asia-Pacific and beyond. Yet these activities were mainly conducted to maintain and strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance, rather than strengthening Japan's own defense capabilities. In fact, Japan's defense-related expenditures, excluding U.S. military base-related costs, declined for the 10th consecutive year between 2002 and 2012. As long as Japan continued to maintain a strong alliance with the overwhelmingly powerful U.S. through the maintenance of U.S. military bases and global contributions, it was believed that Japan could adequately respond to the looming pressure from China and threats from North Korea without a large-scale expansion of its military power.


Such strategy, which was to many extents the continuation of the Yoshida Doctrine, began to change gradually as the US-Sino “power shift” became more prominent since the late 2000s. Japan increasingly became cautious about China’s “grey-zone” tactics, which fall short of a full-scale invasion but gradually expanding its influence over Japanese territories. Given increasingly harsh security environments, Shinzo Abe’s new government that started in 2012 implemented a flurry of security reforms, including defense budget increase, partial acceptance of the right of collective self-defense, and adopting new principles for arms export. Abe also revived the once-failed "Quad" security cooperation between Japan, the U.S., Australia, and India, and worked to build a multilayered security cooperation system to counter the rise of China.


Both Suga and Kishida administrations basically succeeded and even strengthened policy laid out by Abe. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Kishida administration joined with Western countries in supporting Ukraine and participating in strong sanctions against Russia. Kishida also ordered the publication of new NSS, as well as calling for a "fundamental reinforcement of defense capabilities". The new NSS recognizes that Japan's security environment has become the most severe and complex in the postwar era. Recognizing that globalization and interdependence alone do not guarantee peace and development in the international community, the strategy also emphasizes Japan's pursuit of security by strengthening its comprehensive national power, including diplomacy, defense, economy, technology, and intelligence. It also emphasizes Japan's pursuit of "strategic autonomy" and "strategic indispensability," particularly in the area of economic security.


The new NSS permitted the acquisition of a counterattack capability which enables Japan to mount effective counterstrikes against the opponent to prevent further attacks while defending against incoming missiles by means of the missile defense network. Given lessons learnt from the war in Ukraine, moreover, it sets the goal of promptly possessing sufficient ammunition by improving ammunition production capacity and securing powder magazines, as well as promptly establishing a system in which all equipment is operational except for fuel requirements and planning and maintenance. As the threats shift from the traditional "gray zone" to actual contingency, the need to prepare the SDF's "combat readiness" that does not necessarily rely on the US protection is rapidly increasing. The NSS also states that it is vital for Japan's security to work with allies and like-minded countries to “achieve a new balance in international relations”, especially in Indo-Pacific, in line with the vision of a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)".


The new NSS thus represent a major update of the innovations in Japan's security policy that have been underway since 2010 in particular, in light of the increasingly severe security environment. In this sense, it has epoch-making significance in the history of Japan's postwar security policy. In particular, the increase in defense spending, the strengthening of Japan's independent defense capability, and the pursuit of security policy through economic means suggest that the Yoshida Doctrine, which relied on the U.S. alliance and prioritized economic activities over security policy, is finally ending its role.


Of course, there are many challenges involved. The progress of inflation and low price of yen have already decreased the impact of Japan’s defense budget increase. Even if Japan were to achieve a defense-related expenditure of 2% of GDP, it is unclear whether it will be able to maintain this level in the future. Furthermore, it will take some time to build a system, as well as public consensus, to strengthen and utilize comprehensive national power. The government also needs to review and, if necessary, eliminate a number of regulations or restrictions that prevent Japan from exercising such power, including national defense forces. Whether or not Japan's security can truly break free from its postwar legacy will depend on how the Japanese government can overcome these problems.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.


Tomohiko Satake is an Associate Professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, and was previously a Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS) located in Tokyo.



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