Japan Abandons its Three Basic Principles on Arms Exports
Prof Rajaram Panda

In response to the increase in the region’s geopolitical stress, Japan’s vulnerability has increased manifold. This has compelled the administration of Fumio Kishida to make some drastic change in the country’s security posture. The main drivers to this rethink in policy stem mainly from three factors: the volatility in the South China Sea, China’s increasing assertiveness on regional issues, and North Korea’s relentless surge in nuclear weapons advancement. If one may add a fourth to this, the unfolding scenarios is of a possible Chinese adventurism in Taiwan to achieve its objective to annex the island into the mainland. Chinese leaders have often issued statements claiming that Taiwan is one of China’s “core” interests, and wants to integrate the island with the mainland through peaceful means and if necessary by the use of force. If any of these actually happens, the geopolitical matrix of the region shall be dramatically altered.

Japan realises that if any of the above takes an ugly turn, its security would be in peril and therefore needs to be prepared to defend its interests. Japan’s stakes are huge as any of these mentioned above shall impact hugely adversely on its interests. It therefore feels compelled to review its past policies in response to the changed situation. As a first step, Japan felt the need to review its past pacifist policies. This process started when Shinzo Abe was at the helm. But since the process is too complicated because various domestic and constitutional constraints, he did not succeed fully in achieving the objectives. But the process had started. He introduced the concept of collective self-defence.[1]

The Kishida administration resolved to pursue the process more vigorously by enacting some radical changes in the country’s policies. Without altering the Article 9 of the Constitution that puts stringent constraints on Japan to pursue a militaristic approach, some incremental changes first started by Abe is being pursued by the Kishida administration now.

For the first time in post-War history and in a hugely significant policy shift for a pacifist Japan, the Kishida administration approved provisions that will allow for the export of finished lethal weapons like Patriot surface-to-air missiles. This radical change in Japan’s defence policy was made possible by the Three Principles on Transfer of Defence Equipment and Technology. The National Security Council has now approved revisions to the implementation guidelines for those principles.[2] This marks the first domestic arms exports after restrictions are eased.

It may be recalled that weapons exports were banned in principle by the Japanese government in 1976, citing war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution. The first move to change this was made by Abe Shinzo in 2014 when his government scraped the three principles regarding weapons exports and replaced them with the current principles on the transfer of defence equipment and technology. The Kishida government went further and in a bold initiative took advantage of the provisions on 22 December and approved the export of finished Patriot missiles to the US.

How was this dramatic turnaround in policy possible in a country where the peoples are intensely opposed to anything military? The government was aware that the latest revisions did not require changing any laws. This meant that no deliberations were felt needed in the Diet. It transpired subsequently that 12 lawmakers belonging to the ruling LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito had a closed-door meeting and approved the provisions. This meant the public was kept out of what drastic changes were being made by the government swiftly on the country’s defence policy.

Some clarification on this important change is necessary. The three principles were not disturbed but the window for revision was used. This meant that revisions to the implementation guidelines opened the door for the government for exports of not just defence equipments, but finished products, as well as lethal weapons to a range of nations.

In the past, Japan could export defence equipment parts manufactured in Japan under a licensing agreement with a US company only to the US. Now, not only can Japan export finished products, but can also ship defence equipment to any nation that has a licensing agreement with Japan to manufacture domestically.

Japanese companies manufacture 79 products under licensing agreements with companies in eight nations: the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Sweden and Norway. The finished products can now be exported to all eight nations. Prior consent of Japan was required for the export of licensed products to a third nation. Nations involved in military conflict, such as Ukraine and Israel, are barred from receiving such weapons. But it needs to be understood that export of Patriot missiles to the US meant that American inventory can be replenished as US stocks have been depleted as it exported many missiles to Ukraine to support its fight against Russia. Ukraine is mired in an ongoing conflict with Russia after being invaded in February 2022. Though Japan cannot export Japanese-made (US licensed) Patriot missiles to Ukraine directly, the same can be shipped indirectly now to support the country where the war continues in the form of replenishing the US inventory.

Earlier implementation guidelines limited the defence equipment exports to non-lethal ones in the five categories of minesweeping, transportation, surveillance, monitoring and rescue. Under the revisions, lethal equipment for those five categories can now be exported as well as lethal equipment needed for self-protection. Japan can also export non-lethal equipment to all nations facing invasion under international law, not just Ukraine.

In fact a lot of discussions and planning took place internally by the LDP on the move to export lethal tools of war since April 2023.[3] During discussions it transpired that there was no clear wording in the three principles compiled by Abe in 2014 related to the export of defence equipment that prevented the shipment of deadly weapons. This realisation led the LDP and its coalition partner to fast track the change in Japan’s export policy of lethal weapons. The lawmakers realised that the restrictions on exports were limited to nations with which Japan had a cooperative relationship in terms of national security. Reading closely the principles it was realised that there was nothing that clearly ruled out the export of equipment that could be used to kill enemy troops, such as fighter jets, destroyers and tanks, which the Self-Defence Forces already possess. This encouraged Kishida to update the rule to include nations that had been invaded, such as Ukraine.

But without drastic change in weapons exports policy, Japan’s help to Ukraine was limited to sending bulletproof vests and drones to Ukraine despite calls for greater military support. Former Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera, who headed the coalition panel discussing revisions to the export principles and Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada, and other members, claimed that the existing three principles and operating rules say nothing about whether deadly equipment can be exported. The initial reservations of the junior coalition partner Komeito that clings to its image as a pacifist party were overcome when the region’s security environment was stressed upon.

What does the relaxation in lethal weapons exports ban which has remained as one of the main pillars of a pacifist Japan that is endorsed by the majority of the public now mean on Japan’s defence posture in the future? The influential Asahi Shimbun observed in an editorial days before the announcement made on 22 December that Japan was acting too readily to ease self-restraint on arms exports. [4] Traditionally Japan had exercised rigorous self-restraint on arms exports and overseas transfers of defence technology. This has now been changed. It is to be seen if and how the public shall view this decision of the Kishida government.

The disapproval of popularity rating of the Kishida government has already plummeted below 20 per cent over fund-raising scandal leading to resignation of many ministers. If the decision to weapons exports is perceived as violating the spirit of the revered peace clause in the Constitution by the public, Kishida may be heading towards further trouble. The Kishida government has already doubled its defence spending and now moved to eviscerate its long-held principle regarding arms exports.

Writing for the Diplomat, Takahashi Kosuke observes that the Kishida government will likely face three major challenges in realizing such lethal weapons exports.[5] The first challenge is that the government must gain the understanding of the people and build a national consensus. The second challenge is the need to discuss how Japan should stand and behave in the international community as a peaceful nation. The third challenge, or concern, is whether Japan’s export of PACs to the US will leave the JSDF with a shortage of its own interceptor missiles. As per the estimate of October 2022, the country holds around 60 percent of the interceptor missiles needed to defend the country. If demand in the US for the Patriot missiles arise in a given situation and Japan has to transfer those, Japan would be indirectly making countries like China and North Korea happy, both of which are already developing new missiles, including hypersonic missiles.

Successive governments in Japan starting with Abe realised that a rethink in the country’s defence posture was of urgent necessity as the security environment in the region had considerably deteriorated. Though Japan has a security alliance relationship with the US, the lack of a regional security alliance comparable with the NATO did not provide the comfort level as a NATO member country would feel in the event of a crisis affecting the nation’s security. There are more than one fault lines such as the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea and the North Korean missile threats, in any of which an escalation either by miscalculation or design by a particular country could engulf the region with perilous consequences. Though being an alliance partner with the US, Japan has close defence cooperation with many friendly countries in the region; it was felt that Japan also must be prepared to stand on its feet in time of a crisis.

There is no denying of the fact that China’s rapidly expanding military capabilities and assertiveness in a host of regional issues has unnerved Japan. Japan also was pushed to the wall by North Korea’s missile launches on a continuous basis, many of which flew over Japan’s airspace. The Ukraine crisis brought Russia and China closer with their navies conducting joint military activity in waters and skies near Japan. This was another trigger behind Japan’s decision to review weapons exports policy.

Thus by easing rules on lethal weapon exports, Japan decided to take yet another step on the path toward becoming a “normal nation”. This decision is a step further towards maintaining an exclusively defence-oriented policy. It may be recalled that in 2022 Japan had decided to acquire and use “counter-strike capabilities” to strike back against enemy missile bases in the event of an armed attack on Japan. Seen in the regional context, the decision on weapons exports shall not only improve Japan’s own deterrence and of its allies as well as like-minded countries with which Japan has cooperative relationship in the field of security. This is in congruence with Japanese philosophy of mutual support by promoting collective security.


[1]For an exhaustive discussion on this issue, see the author’s article, “Debate on Collective Self-Defence and Constitutional Revision in Japan”, Reitaku Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, vol. 26, 2018, pp. 1-19. https://fjsp.org.br/site/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/FJSP_Brazil-Lecture-Debate-on-Collective-Self-Defense-Short-Version.pdf
[2] Nobuhiko Tajima, “In major shift, Japan gives nod to exports of lethal weapons”, Asahi Shimbun, 23 December 2023, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/15093193
[3]Nobuhiko Tajima, “LDP moves to export lethal tools of war gain momentum”, Asahi Shimbun, 7 June 2023, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14927159
[4] “Japan acting too readily to ease self-restraint on arms exports”, The Asahi Shimbun, editorial, 14 December 2023, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14792170
[5]Takahashi Kosuke, “Japan Eases Rules on Lethal Weapon Exports”, The Diplomat, 29 December 2023, https://thediplomat.com/2023/12/japan-eases-rules-on-lethal-weapon-exports/

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

Image Source: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/uploads/imported_images/uploads/2023/04/np_file_222995.jpeg

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
2 + 4 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us