Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force: Kata and Katana
Vijay Sakhuja, Research Fellow, IDSA
The conventional view of the Japanese navy is that it is a defensive maritime force for safeguarding territory and securing the safety of sea lines of communications. This perception is based on the post war Japanese constitution which renounces war as a sovereign right and threat or use of force to settle international disputes. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been an internal debate over the role and capabilities of the Japanese Self Defence Force (SDF). The military advocates have argued for an enhanced role for the military beyond the US-Japan Security Alliance and amendment of the constitution.
Several incidents like the 1998 North Korean missile launch, presence of spy ships in home waters, frequent pirate attacks on Japanese flagged merchant ships and the need for emergency evacuation of Japanese nationals in disturbed areas have been the catalyst for the ongoing debate. While public opinion is still strongly divided over the role of the military, the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party had approved a draft revision to the Self Defence Force Law.1 This would permit a greater latitude in the use of force by the SDF.
This paper aims at examining the changing mission and role of the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF). It highlights the threat perceptions and the naval force structure developed to safeguard national interests. The changing roles clearly reflect the creeping assertiveness of JMSDF and a desire to shed the symbolic pacifism attached.
The Kata Factor
Kata can be translated as 'model', 'pattern', 'style' or a 'formula'.2 In simple terms it means 'a fixed pattern'. Kata is exercised in every facet of Japanese activity, be it political, social or military. To be in Kata is something that the Japanese are proud of and to break form i.e. Kata Yaburi is scoffed at. Kata Yaburi would be unconventional, unusual, extraordinary—all qualities problematic in Japan.3
In the past, Japanese Self Defence Forces (SDF) have undertaken new missions by engaging in Kata Yaburi. A sophisticated strategy has been developed by which new roles are incorporated in the military strategy. It has all the elements of patience and detailed planning. It begins by developing new missions, training, perfecting it and presenting it for public acceptance. In the past, the Japanese maritime forces have been engaged in several Katas. These are:
(a) Kata of mine sweeping (Gulf War 1991).
(b) Kata of UN Peace Keeping (Cambodia and Mozambique between 1992 and 1995).
(c) Kata of escorting (MSA vessels escorted Ice Breaker Fuji and freighter Akatsuki carrying processed uranium from Europe to Japan).4
(d) Kata of overseas deployment (In 1958, four vessels including flagship Harukaze were dispatched to Midway Island and Hawaii).5
(e) Kata of SLOC protection (1983 decision of maritime defence out to 1000 nautical miles).
The Japanese government is now contemplating to dispatch Maritime Safety Agency (coast guard) ships to the Malacca Strait for anti piracy operations. The vessels would form part of the multi-national anti piracy patrol comprising of coast guard and naval vessels of China, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Tokyo's formal offer to participate in joint operations is expected very shortly.6
The Japanese concern over piracy has become more serious following the disappearance of 4,200 ton M.V. Tenyu, a Panama registered Japanese vessel owned by Kobe based Masumoto Kisen Shipping Co. The vessel was on its way from Kuala Tanjung, North Sumatra to South Korea with a cargo of aluminum ingots worth US$1.9 million. The ship apparently turned up under a new name and all fifteen crew members were reportedly missing or presumed killed/murdered.7 The recent case of M.V. Alondra Rainbow, another Japanese vessel, is similar to the story of the M.V. Tenyu. The vessel was captured by Indian security forces in the Arabian Sea and subsequently handed over to its owners. Unlike the M.V. Tenyu, the crew was safe but these incidents have only added to Tokyo's concern about the vulnerability of Japanese owned shipping.
More recently, Tokyo and Singapore concluded a bilateral military agreement that permits Japanese patrol ships and aircraft to be stationed in Singapore to evacuate Japanese nationals in disturbed areas as also to assist UN peace keeping operations in Southeast Asia.8 Earlier, during the Indonesian crisis leading to the fall of President Suharto, Tokyo had positioned aircraft and patrol vessels in Singapore on standby for evacuation duties.9 This agreement would certainly increase Japanese naval presence in the Malacca Strait and South China Sea, as far as 2000 miles from home.
While offering to participate in joint anti piracy patrols and forward deployment of patrol vessels and aircraft at bases in Singapore, Japan is redefining its maritime defensive perimeter, currently restricted to 1000 nautical miles from the coast. The proposal comes at a time when there is a growing debate in Japan on revising the Constitution. Joint naval operations and forward deployment, once unthinkable, appear to be increasingly accepted as part of national defence.
As a result, the Japanese maritime forces would now engage in Kata of anti piracy and Kata of forward deployment. Earlier too, Japan had twice been asked to aid in the safe passage of merchant shipping in distant waters and had agreed to police the Malacca Strait.10 Each of these Katas reflect a gradual and a patient incremental activity. These missions and operations are being undertaken in a small but incremental way without inviting a strong international and domestic opposition.
National Defence Policy Outline
The Japanese cabinet approved the first 'Basic National Defence Policy' on May 20, 1957. The document had clearly enunciated the primary purpose of the National Defence Policy. It was formulated as a protective framework to prevent any aggression. The Japanese Self Defence Forces were required to:
(a) Support activities of the UN in its promotion of international cooperation thereby contributing to the cause of world peace.
(b) Promote national welfare and enhance the spirit of patriotism, thus laying a sound basis for national security.
(c) Develop defensive power within the bounds of national capabilities and to the extent necessary for self defence.
(d) Cope with aggression by recourse to a joint security arrangement with the United States, pending effective functioning of the United Nations in preventing and reversing aggression.11
The first ever Japanese defence build up plan was approved in May 1957. It aimed to build a minimum self defence potential based on the Basic National Defence Policy. This was followed by the Second (1962-66), Third (1967-71) and the Fourth Defence build up plan (1972-76). During this period of almost two decades, defence spending grew by ten times. The MSDF gross registered tonnage almost doubled while the number of aircraft hovered around two hundred. The interesting feature of the four defence buildup programmes was that from a state of near total disarmament, the MSDF developed into a potent and a capable force with the sixth largest combatant tonnage in the world behind the US, Soviet Union, Britain, France and Spain.12
In October 1976, Japan put forward its first, post World War II independent military strategy: an exclusively defence oriented strategy. The National Defence Programme Outline 1976 was adopted in 1977. The programme was developed and executed keeping in mind the international situation i.e. the East West relationship and tension on the Korean peninsula. From this point of view, the outline incorporated the concept of a basic defence.13
The main points of the strategy were:
(a) Possess an adequate defence capability to prevent aggression.
(b) Rely on United States' nuclear capability against nuclear threat.
(c) Repel limited and small scale aggression without external assistance. In case where unassisted repelling is not feasible, due to scale, type or other factors, cooperation of the US is to be obtained.
(d) Any indirect aggression or any unlawful military activity that may lead to aggression, Japan will take immediate responsive action in order to settle the situation at an early stage.14
With the end of the Cold War and the demise of the East West confrontation, Japan has re-appraised the international situation. From an inward looking policy of preventing any aggression, the new National Defence Plan Outline (1995) calls for new roles for the Self Defence Forces. It is aimed at building a more stable security environment. The NDPO 1995 envisages Japan's participation in activities under the UN to ensure world peace, engage in security dialogues and military exchanges, and assist various arms control and disarmament activities. It also encourages activities to prevent proliferation of arms.15 The new strategy clearly reflects a more proactive role for the Self Defence Forces.
The Japanese Defence White Paper titled 'Defence of Japan, 1998' has noted that the immediate danger of an armed conflict on a worldwide scale had receded after the end of the Cold War.16 The outlook for the international military situation remains opaque, and it still contains elements of uncertainty because of territorial disputes, ethnic strife and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.17 In the Asia Pacific region, there still remain unsettled issues such as those concerning Japan's Northern Territories, Takashima Island, the Korean peninsula and the Spratly Islands. Under such circumstances and given the principles of the Constitution, Japan will continue to promote security through diplomatic efforts and maintain an exclusively defence oriented policy. The White Paper also stipulates that Japan will remain committed to the basic policy of moderately building up its defence capability and observing the three non nuclear principles.18
Turning to an examination of "unsettled issues in the Asia Pacific", the Korean Peninsula appears to be the most threatening to the Japanese. The Korean Peninsula is closely related to Japan in geographical and historical terms. Maintenance of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula is indispensable to the peace and stability of the whole region of East Asia, including Japan.19 The Japanese believe that the North Korean nuclear weapons programme and the huge military build up of the North and South Korea conventional forces close to the Demilitarised Zone are issues that impinge directly on the regional security and stability and consequently affect Japan. Besides, North Korea is believed to have deployed missiles (Nodong series) and is also considering developing Taepodong series of missiles with an estimated range of 4000 km.
In late May 1993, North Korea conducted a ballistic missile test in the direction of the Sea of Japan.20 In August 1998, in an attempt to place a small satellite into orbit, the rocket malfunctioned and flew over the island of Honshu and landed some 300 km from the coast.21 The Japanese remain cautious of North Korean missile capability, as a greater part of Japan would come under it.
The Republic of Korea-Japan relationship, on the other hand remains troubled by a deeply rooted mutual animosity. South Koreans have been victims of Japanese aggression throughout much of their history. The two sides also have disputes over the strategic island of Takashima or Takdo. In the long term, the threat posed by the Korean Peninsula will depend upon the course of the reunification of the two Koreas and the attitude of the resultant government. From the Japanese viewpoint, the intentions of a unified Korea can only be gauged in how quickly it reduces the enormous size of its combined armed forces. While the current situation in the Korean Peninsula has its dangers, a reunified Korea could also present problems for Japan.22
In the beginning of the initial post Cold War period, Japan was less willing to admit that the Russian threat had subsided. This view was reflected in the Japanese Defence Agency's White Papers. Although the US had acknowledged the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Japanese did take some time to support a conciliatory policy towards Russia. There was anticipation in Japan that the Northern territories issue could at last be resolved which would help forge stronger economic ties and a more trusting relationship with Russia. This is yet to happen. However, negotiations between Russia and Japan have continued at a favourable pace. Russia, on its part has been reducing the scale of its troops with a trend towards reduction in numbers, however, military deployments still exist on the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Habomati and Skikotan. The current strength of the Russian troops on these islands is reported to be 3,500. Besides there are about 190,000 personnel, 440 naval ships/submarines and about 900 combat aircraft in the Far East. There are also strategic nuclear forces including ICBMs, strategic bombers and nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines, based in the Far East Fleet.23
Although, at present, Russia is not a major concern to Japan, this does not mean that it can be ignored. It will remain to be seen how the Japanese respond to a re-emergent Russia after it recovers from its collapse.
China is one of the several countries that suffered at the hands of the Japanese during their occupation. Beijing remains sensitive to this issue. While no one doubts that memories of war remain potent, it is also true that Japan is China's chief rival for regional influence. From the Japanese perspective, the trends underway in China will undoubtedly change the economic, political and military complexion of Asia in the Twenty-first Century. These trends include marketisation of the economy and modernisation of the military, turning China into a major regional power to reckon with.
Since 1992, China has asserted its claim over the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands and Senkaku Islands. China's geographical position adjoining the Japanese sea lines of communications (South China Sea), a pending dispute over the Senkaku Islands, its military modernisation and nuclear capability seem ample reasons for the Japanese concern. Japan sees China as a potential threat to regional security in the coming years. Given the mutual suspicion, Japan seeks to dominate the region by virtue of its economic might. In the long term, the possibility of a conflict appear to be real for many Japanese. From a Japanese perspective, the ongoing economic and military modernisation is aimed at enforcing territorial claims over the Spratly Islands. The dispute could easily spill over and threaten the Japanese SLOCs through the South China Sea.
Japanese defence spending has been an issue of great interest among defence planners. It has been responsible for generating discussions both at home in Japan and abroad. The discussions are primarily centered around the actual quantum of defence allocations/percentage of the gross domestic product. There are those who argue that Japan spends too much on its defence that is not commensurate with its threat perception. While others are of the opinion that although Japan spends less than one percent of its GDP, but in real terms it is very high. There are others too who call for an increased Japanese defence allocation and burden sharing for its own defence or increasing its role in national security affairs. There are still others who want Japan to go it alone and provide totally for its defence needs.24 With such varied opinions, the Japanese defence spending has generated a heated debate in the Diet as also in the Asia Pacific region.
The early defence budgets of the SDF were primarily influenced by three factors. First, the Japanese economy had been ravaged by the war and the politicians had given economic recovery the highest priority in government spending. Second, general apathy, if not resentment, was prevalent towards the military, which was held responsible by most Japanese for the disaster that had been thrust upon Japan. Third, there was lack of agreement in the political area as to what level of defence was appropriate and lawful under the constitution. These factors were responsible for shaping the current budget allocations and civilian control over the defence budget.25
By the mid-1970s, two important developments took place with regard to the Japanese defence expenditure. The Soviet build up in the Pacific and the adoption of the National Defence Plan Outline. The Soviet threat, though not aimed at Japan, could not be ignored by Japan in the light of the US-Japan Security Arrangement. Besides, there were other developments like the Soviets gaining access to Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam and Vietnam's intervention in Cambodia. The 1976 NDPO called for standard defence forces concept which highlighted the importance of improving the quality of the defence capability.26 In 1982, Japanese defence planning further underwent fundamental directional changes. Nakasone Yasuhero, after heading the Defence Agency became the Prime Minister and came under pressure from the US to qualitatively and quantitatively increase the Japanese role and participation in regional security affairs which meant substantial increase in defence spending.27 During the past decade, the Japanese defence allocation has risen substantially but hovered around the 1.0 per cent mark except in 1992 when it touched 1.6 per cent.28
Today Japan is under pressure as regards funding for the Self Defence Forces. The opponents of defence point out that the Cold War has ended and there is economic recession. They argue that the time is ripe for defence cuts. While there are others who believe that in the emerging regional security environment, notwithstanding the multilateral security dialogues and the US-Japan Security Arrangement, there is no scope for any defence cuts. Currently there are no indications that the defence spending will be reduced. Moreover the JMSDF is not likely to bear the brunt of such cuts.
Missions and Goals
Japan is made up of an arch-shaped archipelago. A foreign invasion is possible only via sea and air. The Japanese defence capability has been built with a view to deter foreign invasion of its territory by maintaining a high level of preparedness. The Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force has been tasked to defend the territory of Japan against sea borne invasion and repelling it. Being a maritime nation and heavily dependent on sea borne trade, protection of maritime traffic on the seas is important for its survival. Besides the JMSDF is also tasked to police the activities on the sea as also provide an early warning and surveillance in peacetime. The Straits of Soya, Tsugaru and Tsushima surround Japan. The Russian threat having reduced considerably, the JMSDF missions concentrate on Japan's southern sea-lanes. The basic mission of the MSDF therefore is to keep open the straits adjoining the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsh and conduct long range surveillance as part of sea lane defence strategy out to 1000 nautical miles.
The capability of the JMSDF has evolved keeping in mind the sea lane defence strategy. In 1981, Hideo Sekino, a much respected defence commentator had argued that the protection of sea lanes be given priority in the national defence of Japan. The prevention of direct invasion be reordered as the secondary function of the Japanese navy. He considered securing the sea lanes north of Indonesia as strategically important. According to Sekino, a guerre de course was the most likely form of conflict.29 In 1977, the Director General, Japanese Defence Agency publicly stated that Japan should defend "key transport lanes within 1000 miles of Japanese coast". In May 1981, following a summit meeting between President Reagan and Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki, Suzuki declared that Japan had agreed to take responsibility for defending sea lanes to 1000 miles.30 In 1983, the Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, while on a visit to the United States said that Japan should become "an unsinkable aircraft carrier" and also be able to control the Sea of Japan straits. He articulated the notion of sea lanes as "between Guam and Tokyo and between the Strait of Taiwan and Osaka."31 The 1983 White Paper on defence included an explanation of this policy and its requirement. The 1000 miles limitation has continued to exist till date and is noted in the white papers. The second likely mission for the JMSDF could be the protection of ocean resources and defence of outlying territories. The disputes with China over the Senkaku Island and with the Republic of Korea over the Takashima Island are of concern to Japanese defence planners.
There is also the mission of sea based Theater Missile Defence (TMD). The Japanese believe that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, biological and chemical—is a problem rapidly approaching crisis proportion. The trends are quite alarming with regard to North Korea. There is also the proliferation of delivery systems further contributing to instability. Japan, in response to this threat, is seriously considering the concept of regional protection against attack by ballistic missiles. The joint TMD programme has been under consideration for some time now. Japanese cabinet ministers have agreed that participation would not violate the 1969 resolution barring Japan from launching any object into space for other than peaceful purposes.32 The Japanese may go in for upgrading their Aegis shipboard system and the associated missiles so as to develop TMD. This would result in a bigger role, which may be in contravention to Article 9 of the constitution.
UN Peace Keeping Operations and International Disaster Relief are the other areas where the JMSDF is actively involved. After enactment of the Law Concerning Cooperation for United Nations Peace Keeping Operations and other operations in June 1992, the SDF has dispatched contingents and personnel to take part in UN Peace Keeping Operations, humanitarian aid and international relief operations. The MSDF and the ASDF maintain preparedness so that they can carry out sea lift and air lift of SDF units and supplies to conduct international disaster relief activities. The NPPO further identifies the MSDF role in the growing UN support activity in future. The MSDF participation could take several forms including refugee evacuation and emergency evacuation of Japanese personnel.
The backbone of the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force is the four 'escort flotillas' of surface ships based at Yokosuka, Sasebo, Maizuru and Kure. Each 'escort flotilla' consists of a large helicopter carrying destroyer (DDH) and seven modern surface escorts/anti submarine ships. The DDH have a full-load displacement of 5000 tons and can accommodate three SH60J Seaking helicopters each. The ships are fitted with Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missiles and two MK15 Phalanx close in-weapon systems. The main armament is the 127 mm gun. The other ships are also equipped with modern weapon systems, missiles, electronics, antisubmarine and warfare equipment. The latest series of destroyers are the Kongo class which displace 7250 tons. These are essentially an enlarged and an upgraded version of the US Navy's Arleigh Burke class destroyers. The introduction of these destroyers into the escort flotilla enable the JMSDF to operate outside the range of land-based fighter cover for air defence. These ships have further augmented the Japanese ability to undertake operations far from base ports. Besides, these ships also provide aerial defence of Japan, serving as offshore 'pickets' to detect incoming air and missile attacks.
To complement the escort flotillas, Japan has an impressive inventory of modern subsurface forces. It has six divisions with 17 submarines. The Japanese submarines resemble the US Barbel class in size and external configuration.33 They have double hulls and follow US SSN weapon layout with a large bow sonar complemented by torpedo tubes forward of the conning tower. The submarines are armed with Japanese Type 89 (533 mm) torpedoes and Sub Harpoon anti ship missiles. The newest class in series comprises two Oyshaio class diesel electric SSKs with three more under construction.
Naval aviation is an integral part of the JMSDF. The standard ship borne helicopter is the HSS-2B Seaking. This helicopter is being replaced by the SH-60J Sea Hawk which differs from the HSS-2B in avionics, mission equipment and manufacture. For maritime surveillance, the JMSDF operates the P-3C Orions. Today, Japan is the biggest operator of the P3C Long Range Maritime Patrol (LRMP) aircraft outside the US. The P3C Orions are being built under license and are fitted with SSM-IC missiles of US and Japanese origin. The JMSDF also operates S-80M-1 Sea Dragon mine sweeping helicopters.
It appears that the MSDF pays special attention to mine counter-measures and offensive mine warfare. It operates one flotilla of mine sweepers. The MSDF is one of the few navies in the world to use helicopters for minesweeping.
The Katana Factor
The 'Samurai' of ancient and feudal Japan traditionally carried two blades: the classic long 'Katana' and a shorter, dagger-like weapon called a 'Tanto'. Japan's current naval forces resemble the latter: highly polished and capable.34 The surface forces are modern, fitted with advanced weapon systems, electronics and propulsion systems. Similarly, the submarines are as modern as the surface ships. The Japanese Constitution does not allow the JMSDF to equip itself with SSNs or SSBNs. Naval aviation is capable of providing effective anti-submarine protection, anti-air cover and early warning. The LRMP aircraft are fitted with modern missiles to undertake interdiction at sea as also provide ASW cover to surface forces and counter any incoming air strikes.
In an interview, Rear Admiral Chiaki Hayashizaki, Director of Operation and Planning of the MSDF stated that Japan's defence policy does not exclude the possibility of building small aircraft carriers.35 This acquisition further boosts the JMSDF capacity to undertake distant missions of SLOC protection and defence of outlying territories. At the same time the Agies-class destroyers provide Japan at least some capability to counter any TMD threat. But Japan would have to be very careful at taking a decision in this regard in order to avoid regional criticism and fuelling an arms race. The JMSDF will certainly undergo a significant change since the US sponsored TMD is likely to become a reality. This would probably necessitate a significant increase in the number of Agies class destroyers. The JMSDF recently acquired the 8,900 ton landing ship capable of operating air-cushion landing craft. It has a large flight deck and the stern dock is designed to operate landing craft. The Japanese describe Osumi's role as "only as a platform and refueling facility for helicopters".36 The acquisition of this ship has immensely improved the JMSDF capability to undertake amphibious operations to defend its offshore territories.
The JMSDF is a well trained and technologically sophisticated maritime force. Over the years it has expanded its role as also its area of operations. Much of these have gone unnoticed by the maritime community. In fact the JMSDF is the most powerful navy in the Asia Pacific region. The JMSDF ships now undertake long voyages including training cruises. The new missions like the UN peace keeping, mine sweeping, escorting merchant vessels and anti piracy operations clearly indicate the changing mission responsibilities of the Japanese maritime forces.
This strategy of a gradual and patient incremental role expansion is a true reflection of kata yaburi. From a Self Defence Force, the JMSDF has developed into a powerful navy capable of distant operations. This has implications for the Asia Pacific security environment. It would not be long when the Japanese maritime forces would start operating in the Indian Ocean in support of SLOC protection, search and rescue, and addressing problems related to maritime order. These would also culminate in a general acceptance by the regional maritime states as has been the trend in the past.
1. <http://www.stratfor.com>Weekly Global Intelligence Update, May 3, 2000.
2. Peter J. Woolley and Commander Mark S. Woolley, "The Kata of Japan's Naval Forces", Naval War College Review, Spring 1996, p. 60.
4. Ibid., p. 67.
5. "A Japanese Navy In All But Name", Jane's Navy International, April 1999, p. 34; n. 2, p. 67.
6. <http://www.stratfor.com>Weekly Global Intelligence Update, February 22, 2000.
7. ICC International Maritime Bureau,"Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships Report for the period January 1 to December 31, 1998", p. 10.
8. <http://www.stratfor.com>Weekly Global Intelligence Update, May 3, 2000.
10. Peter Woolley and Mark Woolley, n. 2, p. 67.
11. Edward L. Martin, "Evolving Missions and Forces of JMSDF", Naval War College Review, Spring 1995, p. 47.
13. Japanese Defence Agency, Defence of Japan 1996, p. 271.
15. Ibid., pp. 73-80.
16. Japanese Defence Agency, Defence of Japan 1998, p. 2.
17. n. 9, p. xix.
18. Ibid., p. 70.
19. Ibid., pp. 30-31.
20. Japanese Defence Agency, Defence of Japan 1997, pp. 38-39.
22. n. 7, p. 61.
23. Japanese Defence Agency, Defence of Japan 1998, pp. 41-45.
24. n. 7, pp. 47-49.
28. Jasjit Singh, "Trends in Defence Expenditure", Asian Strategic Review 1998-99, p. 97.
29. n. 1, p. 63.
31. Michael Ganley, "Japanese Goal to Protect Sea Lanes: More Rhetoric Than Reality", Armed Forces Journal International, September 1985, p. 104.
33. John Jordan, "The Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force", Jane's Intelligence Review, February 1992, p. 62.
34. Commander Ralph Dean, US Naval Reserve, "Japan: The Nature of Sword", Proceedings, March 1993, p. 73.
35. Vincent P. Grimes, "Japanese Maritime Self Defence Forces", Navy International, April 1991, p. 103.
36. n. 5, p. 35.