SAN CLEMENTE ISLAND, Calif. — The Japanese soldiers in camouflage face paint and full combat gear were dropped by U.S. helicopters onto this treeless, hilly island, and moved quickly to recapture it from an imaginary invader. To secure their victory, they called on a nearby U.S. warship to pound the “enemy” with gunfire that exploded in deafening thunderclaps.
Perhaps the most notable feature of the war games in February, called Iron Fist, was the baldness of their unspoken warning. There is only one country that Japan fears would stage an assault on one of its islands: China.
Iron Fist is one of the latest signs that Japan’s anxiety about China’s insistent claims over disputed islands as well as North Korea’s escalating nuclear threats are pushing Japanese leaders to shift further away from the nation’s postwar pacifism.
The new assertiveness has been particularly apparent under the new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, a conservative who has increased military spending for the first time in 11 years. With escalating tensions in East Asia, Abe’s calls for a bolder, stronger military are getting a warmer welcome in Japan than similar efforts in the past.
“This is a very serious rethink of Japan’s security,” said Satoshi Morimoto, defense minister in the last administration who was an architect of changes in Japan’s defense policy.
Until recently, a simulated battle with Chinese forces would have been unthinkably provocative for Japan, which renounced the right to wage war — or even to possess a military — after its march across Asia in World War II resulted in crushing defeat. The purely defensive forces created in 1954 are still constrained from acting in too offensive a manner: Last year, a smaller mock assault by Japanese and U.S. forces on an island near Okinawa was canceled because of local opposition.
The recalculation could have broad implications for the power balance in the region, angering China and likely giving the United States a more involved partner in its pivot to Asia to offset China’s extended reach.
At the same time, the Japanese public has more fully embraced the once-discredited Self-Defense Forces. That is in part because of anxiety over China and North Korea, but also because of the military’s prominent humanitarian presence after the 2011 tsunami.
Although Japanese liberals and critics elsewhere in Asia fear that Abe is using regional tensions as an excuse to ram through a hawkish agenda, opinion polls show he has broad public support for his overall policies.
The reality of the changing geopolitics was not lost on the Japanese officers who watched their soldiers scrambling up San Clemente’s grassy hills. They acknowledged they were learning tactics from the Marines, who developed them during their island-hopping campaign in the Pacific against Imperial Japan.
The mock invasion was part of the joint training exercises with the U.S. Marines that are held annually. But this one broke new ground. Not only were the soldiers calling in U.S. naval fire and airstrikes themselves, the leaders of their elite unit for the first time helped plan the war game, taking on a role closer to equals than to junior partners. And in a reversal of historical roles, wartime aggressor Japan now finds itself on the defensive against a powerful China that feels its moment has arrived.
“China is in their face, giving them the first militarized challenge that Japan has seen since the war,” said Richard Samuels, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has written on Japanese security. “The mood has shifted toward giving more legitimacy to the guys in uniform.”
With small but significant steps, Japan has been moving for several years toward refashioning itself and its 240,000-strong Self-Defense Forces into something closer to a true partner of the U.S. military.
In recent years, the two countries have jointly developed a ship-borne missile system capable of shooting down ballistic missiles. Abe is calling for a broader interpretation of the postwar constitution, which restricts Japan to acting only in “self-defense,” to include acting in defense of allies. Abe says this would allow Japanese forces to shoot down a North Korean missile heading toward the U.S., something they cannot now legally do.
While the military spending increase passed by Abe and his governing party is small (0.8 percent compared with China’s double-digit gains in recent years), it is targeted at bolstering the defense of Japan’s southwestern islands, including the disputed ones, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
The new military budget also adds weapons that just a decade or two ago would have seemed overly offensive for Japan’s defensive forces, including financing for two F-35 stealth fighter-bombers. The larger budget will also add another attack submarine to strengthen the Japanese navy’s ability to hunt the new Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning as well as money to develop a new anti-ship missile.
“This is a signal that we are still a player,” said Narushige Michishita, a specialist in security studies at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
Abe has also called for rewriting the postwar constitution to scrap restrictions on the military altogether, but polls show the idea remains unpopular with the majority of Japanese. Still, in a country that for years would not acknowledge it had armed forces, the changes in budgets and tactics are significant.
The move toward a more normalized military also benefited from misfortune, the triple disaster in 2011, when an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis crippled northeastern Japan. During the grim first days of the crisis, the Self-Defense Forces were the face of the government amid scenes of devastation, and a lifeline for shocked survivors. Now, after years when they were barely seen in public, the troops are spoken of with a new warmth and have even become fixtures on television programs lauding the heroes of the rescue efforts.
The military’s own shift to a somewhat more assertive force was on display last month at Camp Pendleton, a sprawling Marine base near San Diego and San Clemente Island. This year, 280 Japanese soldiers participated in the war games, 100 more than last year’s Iron Fist, which started eight years ago with just a dozen Japanese soldiers.
The soldiers were part of the Western Army Infantry Regiment, a centerpiece of Japan’s efforts to build its own military capabilities. With U.S. help, the 1,000-man unit is being fashioned into a Marine-style force capable of making helicopter and amphibious landings to defend Japan’s southwestern islands. This year’s military budget includes $25 million for four U.S.-made amphibious troop carriers used by the Marines.
When asked the biggest lesson that he learned from the war games, the regiment’s commander, Col. Matsushi Kunii, said he was initially put off by the Marines’ lack of strict scheduling: Japanese military exercises, he said, typically follow a timetable with the same clocklike precision as a Tokyo subway.
“Then I realized the Americans know from real combat experience that things don’t always go as planned,” said Kunii, who was watching Japanese soldiers prepare to fire a mortar during the mock assault on the island. “This flexibility, as an organization, is the type of real know-how that we need to learn.”