Paper #16. Comparative Threats and Integrated Effects: Japan

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Asia-Pacific, Security, Strategy
  • No Comments

Using complex warfare concepts from Papers #13 (East Asia) and #14 (China), we apply that approach to Japanese security strategy, with comparisons to China and Russia.

We work within Article 9 of Japan’s Peace Constitution (1947) which forever renounces:  war; the use or threat of force to settle disputes; military forces; and war potential. To appreciate Japan’s unique restraints, let’s look at the use of the word, “alliance” (dōmei).

While it’s common today to refer to the US-Japan alliance, the relationship is based on the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security of 1960, a contentious revision of the 1951 Security Treaty. The 1951 treaty permitted the “provisional” stationing of US forces in Japan, at the time necessarily tied to the San Francisco Peace Treaty (1951) that ended the war. Postwar anti-militarism was so strong, however, that in 1981, Foreign Minister Masayoshi Itō was forced to resign after he described Japan’s role with the United States as an alliance. Japan’s security environment continues to change, but its Peace Constitution remains unrevised. Contending interpretations and debates still rage.

To discern how Japan can wage effective complex warfare through cooperation and confrontation today, we will consider Japan’s world view, threat assessment, and combined effects strategy. 

Japan’s World View, Threat Assessment, and Combined Effects Strategy 

World View

Japan’s prevailing world view is one of unique-ism and ambivalent foreign relations. 

Unique-ism is a self-image rooted in a cultivated legend of single-dynasty rule. Threat perceptions portray Japan as distinctly different, reinforced by alternating historical periods of isolation and engagement. Over that time, a national identity of being unique emerged. Two contemporary manifestations are nihonjinron and tokubetsu sochi hō.

Nihonjinron (Japanese-ness theory) began during the rapid modernization of the 19th century. Topics include social roles, culture, identity, group and individual behavior. Tokubetsu sochi hō (special measures laws) justify policies based on distinctive groups or practices such as atomic bomb survivorsanti-terrorismreplenishment support,productivity enforcement, and employment security. The word tokubetsu (“particularly cut” — special) is embedded in Japanese culture. So in the legalistic context of Peace Constitution-bred security discussions, such policies demand due deliberation to achieve consensus. This time-consuming process becomes conflicted by historical narratives about Japan’s foreign relations. 

This second aspect of a Japanese world view, ambivalence in foreign relations, is arguably a product of four historical periods. We briefly describe each in terms of Japan’s relative isolation and engagement.

Isolation and Engagement

1. In the 3d century the Yamato clan, claiming divine rule, expanded into an agricultural and maritime kingdom that raided present-day Korea. Defeats there and rebellions at home forced retreat. While a few ties with Chinese and Koreans enriched Japanese civilization (Chapter 1), Japan’s geographic insularity allowed rulers to colonize Japan and fend off external invasions.

2. In the late 16th century, warlord and “great unifier” Toyotomi Hideyoshi led two massive invasions of the Korean peninsula, ultimately turned back by Korean persistence and Chinese assistance. Over 200 years of controlled access to and from Japan (sakoku — closed country) then enabled Tokugawa warlord rulers to consolidate Japan’s unification. 

3. In 1853, the arrival of US Commodore Matthew Perry‘s mission in Tokyo forced Japan to expand trade beyond China and the Netherlands. This act and follow-on treaties of similarly coerced extra-territoriality moved Japan’s elites toward a consensus for change. The result was the Meiji Restoration (1868), comprehensive reforms and ambitious modernization that fueled Japan’s disastrous imperial expansion.

4. In 1945, Japan’s defeat in the Daitō Sensō (Greater East Asia War) devastated the country until the multilateral peace treaty and bilateral security treaty enabled constructive re-engagement with the outside world. Japan’s isolation and engagement continues in a unique way that we examine in the next section on threat assessment.

Japan’s postwar synthesis of unique-ism and ambivalent foreign relations is one of continuity as well as change. To understand how this dynamic works, consider the prevalence of insider-outsider distinctions in Japan. 

Throughout the Japanese language, there many such contrasts: soto – uchi (outside – inside); honne – tatemae (true sound- constructed face); and ura – omote (hidden side – visible side). These comparisons are more than respectful constructions of distance. They provide a common context for harmonizing different points of view. This context yields extremes too. Foreign policy options framed as reactions to “foreign pressure” (gaiatsu) can produce decisions that isolate or engage Japan too uniquely, in retrospect.

For instance, consider Japan’s response to South Korea’s recent Supreme Court ruling that Japanese firms pay reparations to victims of their forced labor during the Empire of Japan’s colonization of Korea (1910-1945). The Government of Japan’s response was to retaliate with economic sanctions against South Korean semiconductor firms. This abrupt engagement further isolates Japan from the geo-strategically important South Korean public in the face of rising China and nuclear North Korea.

Japan’s world view helps explain security policies that engage the world with reactive strategies. The predicament becomes acute as the security environment changes. It’s difficult to be proactive in competitive arenas under a national constitution that truncates normal use of force.

Ambivalently put, Japan’s unique dilemmas include: to engage China’s territorial coercion and North Korea’s missile intimidation with reactive self-defense forces; or to revise the Constitution to engage threats proactively in a region with concession-seeking neighbors. 

Imperial Japan’s treatment of its neighbors complicates resolving such dilemmas. Despite efforts to address wartime issues, still simmering are: the previously mentioned compensation for forced laborers (including Korean and Chinese sex slaves); national narratives that ignore or distort historical truth; and territorial disputes with the Koreas, China, and Russia. 

The persistence of these issues reflects lingering distrust and different assessments of threat in the region. In the long shadow of Japan’s world view, a postwar security bargain between Japan and the United States sought to transform threat assessment by building upon Japan’s prewar experience with liberal democratic thought (5-6). We examine this continuity and change next.  

Threat Assessment

Japan’s post-Pacific War threat assessment may be understood in terms of changes made to key institutionalized agreements (56-69), such as these five during the Occupation of Japan: 

1. Constitution of Japan (1947): Article 9 prohibits war, threat or use of force, war potential

2. Ashida Memoranda (1947-1948): Japan assumes internal security; US accepts external security

3. Ikeda Proposal: Japan offers US bases in exchange for US guarantee of Japan’s external security 

4. Dulles-Yoshida Dialogues (1950-1951): US pushes demilitarization; Japan insists on economic recovery

5. Peace Treaty and Security Treaty (1951): readmits Japan into world economy without offensive threat 

Washington’s first priorities were the demilitarization and democratization of Japan, which ran counter to European and Soviet desires to punish Japan economically. Ultimately American leaders decided on rebuilding Japanese trade and industry (5-6). General Douglas MacArthur became Supreme Commander Allied Powers. His staff drafted the Peace Constitution after Prime Minister Kijūrō Shidehara’s committee failed to meet the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. Japan’s leaders had no choice but to accept the bargain: demilitarization, democratization, and economic development of Japan in exchange for a US military guarantee of Japan’s security. The latter invited the basing of US forces in Japan. 

Under these conditions, Japanese leaders resisted persistent US pressure to rearm in the face of communist threats, even before North Korea’s invasion of the South. Economic recovery was paramount. Resisting rearmament enabled protection of Japan’s surviving industries. Actions to counter external military threats took decades longer. 

Under a vaguely consensual theme of comprehensive security, various forms emerged — economic security, food security, human security and a host of public works projects. The broadened concept of security was uneven. Slowly, first-ever adjustments to the security bargain began to admit realistic military (“self-defense”) assessments of threats, too. Each change exacted a domestic political price. 

Changes to the Postwar US-Japan Security Bargain

1. First came a comprehensive adjustment, the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. This replacement of the 1951 Security Treaty clarified US commitment to Japan’s external defense and removed the internal security role of US forces. Prime Minister Nobosuke Kishi problematically forced a snap-vote to pass the treaty, and resigned after massive demonstrations. Demonstrators were largely non-violent idealists who wanted to abolish the security treaty and keep the Peace Constitution.

2. In 1981 the Reagan-Suzuki Communique implemented promises made in the first-ever US-Japan Defense Guidelines (1978) by expanding the Japan Self-Defense Force role to secure maritime energy routes. This shift occurred as the Soviet Union strengthened its Far East forces and as China developed nuclear weapons. As previously mentioned, Foreign Minister Itō resigned after uttering “alliance.” Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki, for his part, denied that US-Japan security relationship had any military meaning

3. In 1988 the first co-development of a major weapon system, the FS-X fighter aircraft, occurred amidst modernizing Soviet and Chinese capabilities, North Korean terrorism, and three decades of dependence on US military technology. Because Japan did not succeed in independently developing an indigenous fighter, a Self-Defense Force officer resigned. Colonel Yoshida’s dutiful action was not in vain. The deal lead-turned an expanded alliance via new defense guidelines in 1997 and 2013. 

4. In 2016 the Shinzō Abe administration re-interpreted the right of collective self defense: “when an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs and as a result threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to fundamentally overturn people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.” (166). The US-Japan alliance had apparently arrived. Defense of Japan 2016 (2-3) described Japan’s security context in terms of: surrounding interstate conflicts; North Korean nuclear capability; strengthened, non-transparent, and illegal Chinese activities; international terrorism; and gray-zone situations.

What was the price this time? The fine dilemma expected in the original 1951 Security Treaty: …that Japan will increasingly assume responsibility for its own defense…while avoiding any armament which could be an offensive threat or serve other than to promote peace and security in accordance with the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter.  

Japan’s generic threat assessment today is that its security environment is increasingly uncertain, and therefore justifies new Self-Defense Force capabilities. They include: air, surface and anti-submarine operations; anti-terrorism activities; logistics support of overseas combat operations, missile defense, integrated command, control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; amphibious rapid deployment; and defense of space, cyberspace and electromagnetic domains. 

Consistent with Japan’s world view, these capabilities have engaged threats such as maritime intrusions, air intrusions, armed agents, cyber attacks, and of course, natural disasters. The only lethal use of force so far has been sinking a North Korean spy boat in December 2001. Since 2009, Japanese destroyers and reconnaissance aircraft have deterred piracy and gathered intelligence in the Gulf of Aden, and perhaps soon in the Gulf of Oman. By reactively engaging known threats in a globalized security environment, Japan operates within its unique Peace Constitution.

In a proactive sense, Japan has managed numerous contributions to international security since 1992. In reaction to not being able to support combat operations following Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the Diet passed the International Peace Cooperation Act. Since then, Japan has participated in thirteen UN peacekeeping operations

A desperately isolated Japan does not appear in sight, except as a desired effect of Chinese strategy designed to counter Japan’s combined effects.      

Combined Effects Strategy 

In reference to the combined effects model of complex warfare introduced in earlier papers, the following diagram depicts the eight basic effects at play in the information environment. These effects are cooperative (dissuadepersuadesecureinduce) and confrontational (deter, compel, defend, coerce). Given Japan’s constitutional and policy restraints, it’s important to note that each desired effect may be brought about using any instrument of power (diplomatic, informational, military, economic, social). 

In contrast to 17 cases of Chinese combined effects since 1954, we identify four Japanese cases of contemporary complex warfare: 

1. Chinese intrusions of the Senkaku islets (Diaoyutai)
2. Russian occupation of Northern Territories (southern Kuriles)
3. North Korean nuclear and conventional threats
4. South Korean occupation of Takeshima (Dokdo)

Of these cases, we will summarize the first two, reserving the last two for an upcoming companion article on the Koreas. 

Few officials in Tokyo will refer to any aspect of its security strategies as “warfare.” Recall that our universal definition of complex warfare includes violent conflict and non-violent competition, both of which involve confrontation and cooperation. This complexity enables us to analyze warfare broadly…the way it is actually being waged. We do simplify each case, however, by confining the analyses to Japan and one other major actor. 

Each example includes historical background, a combined-effects strategy for each actor, and comments about the interacting strategies.

Senkakus (Japan, China; 1971-present)

Historical Background

Japan claims the Senkaku islets as part of the larger Ryukyu island chain recognized by post-Pacific War treaties as Japanese territory. Tokyo’s claims are based on Japanese surveys (1885) and annexation of the Senkakus into Okinawa Prefecture before the end of the Sino-Japanese War (1895). China claims the same islets (Diaoyutai) based on Ming and Qing dynasty records indicating their tributary status before Japan’s forcible annexation. The San Francisco Peace Treaty (1951) that ended the Pacific War transferred the Senkakus to a United Nations trusteeship under US control. When the US reverted Okinawa Prefecture back to Japan in 1972, the Senkakus were included (see a Japanese perspective here). The islets became a prominent issue in 1968, when a UN survey indicated the probability of oil nearby.  

Japan’s Combined Effects Strategy

Persuade Japanese and American public opinion to support Japan’s sovereignty; induce US military activities in support of Japan; and deter and defend against China intrusion and occupation of Senkaku territory.

China’s Combined Effects Strategy

Persuade the American public and decision makers of its claims, and the Japanese public against Japan’s use of force; dissuade and deter US military support of Japan; induce Japan to recognize existence of a dispute; and compel and coerce Japan into humiliating inaction or use of force. 

Interacting Strategies

In the battlespace of public opinion, China attempts to isolate Japan from US influence while Japan seeks to retain a credible US commitment. Beijing’s information campaign is unrelenting and unprecedented, with domestic controls and Party-inspired trolls on a massive scale.

In comparison, Japan and US audiences are porous, and government persuasion and inducement efforts miniscule or ad hoc. A US joint concept for operating in the information environment recognizes physical, informational and cognitive aspects, but cultural dominance of “operations” as (if) distinct from “information” subverts combining diverse effects.

In the vicinity of the Senkakus, China seeks to humiliate Japanese forces via inaction or manipulate Japan into independent use of force that can be further exploited. This strategy is vulnerable to being exposed in international social media and to well-executed, proactive deterrence and defense by the US-Japan alliance.

Northern Territories (Russia, Japan; 1945-present)

Historical Background

 The Treaty of St. Petersburg (1875) resolved conflicting claims by ceding the Kuriles to Japan and Sakhalin to Russia. After Japan’s Russo-Japanese War victory, the Portsmouth Peace Treaty (1905) ceded southern Sakhalin and adjacent islands to Japan. The USSR acceded to Atlantic Charter (1941) and Cairo Declaration (1943) promises of no territorial gains, but at the Yalta Conference (1945) agreed to declare war against Japan if southern Sakhalin, adjacent islands, and the Kuriles were returned. The Potsdam Declaration (1945), a surrender ultimatum, limited Japan to its main islands and unspecified minor islands. Soviet forces seized the Kuriles (Kunashiri, Etorofu, Habomai, Shikotan) after Japan’s surrender. Japan renounced claims to Sakhalin and the Kuriles in Article 2 of the San Francisco Peace Treaty (1951), not signed by the USSR. In 1956, US objection (3-4) prevented a compromise. So a joint declaration ended the war, re-started diplomatic relations, and promised to return Habomai and Shikotan pending a peace treaty. Later meetings (199320012003, and 2019) have produced promises.

Japan’s Combined Effects Strategy

Persuade Russian elites that returning the disputed islands will produce strategic benefits; induce Russian business interests in Japanese investments; secure access to international fishing grounds and defend maritime and air routes to and from Japan.

Russia’s Combined Effects Strategy

Coerce Japanese elites into accepting Russian control and persuade them to view US forces as a liability; deter US-Japan exercises and secure Japanese investment; compel Japanese despair about Etorofu and Kunashiri and induce beliefs that Habomai and Shikotan are negotiable.

Interacting Strategies

Russia’s three-part strategy stirs up mutually reinforcing effects among Japanese policy elites, public, and businesses, which Japan can contest. 

First, Russian military control highlights a feckless US-Japan alliance that is a liability to a negotiated peace treaty. Japan’s defense of far-flung communication routes undermines this message by demonstrating Self-Defense Force relevance to global security in international space. 

Second, Russian deployment of offensive weapons amplifies risks of US-Japan exercises, noticed by investors. Multilateral exercises with Japanese leadership convert this risk into two opportunities: (a) broader commitment to freedom of navigation, trade and commerce; and (b) normalizing Japanese defensive operations to protect business ventures. 

Third, Russian attacks on Japanese hopes and expectations for the disputed islands stoke interest in negotiations and investment. Japanese activities subsume this effect by defending routes and leading exercises that bolster international confidence. Security partnerships de-isolate Japan consistent with global norms, mitigating residual perceptions of Japan as a threat.


There are several combined-effect advantages to apply to the Senkaku and Northern Territories problem sets. Each case shares two goals consistent with Japan’s world view and threat assessments:

Two Common Goals

  1. Prevent being isolated and unsustainably engaged
  2. Cooperate and confront to create synergistic effects


To realize these goals in the Senkakus, we propose five objectives, each supported by a combination of two desired effects.

Five Objectives

Objective 1. Win the information competition with China. China seeks to decouple Japan from US support. Japan’s combined effect would be to out-persuade and out-dissuade Communist Party of China propaganda. The recently established Japan National Security Council (2013) is an appropriate entity, subject to executive and legislative oversight, to integrate the authorities and actors for information-sharing.

Objective 2. Prevent significant political and economic tension with the US. This aim is vulnerable to linkage politics (agriculture, autos, etc.) and changes in foreign relations (breakthrough with Russia?). The combined effect would be to secure and induce priority relationships. Open communication can achieve compromise. When it doesn’t, connections among rule-based democracies can thicken relations and create opportunities to integrate new mechanisms for engagement. 

Objective 3. Exploit Beijing baiting of Japanese forces. Mutually reinforcing effects are: (a) unified command and control  (see Detailed Recommendation #4) to secure timely and accountable decisions; and (b) a whole-of-government complement to the Diplomatic Blue Book to counter Chinese disinformation. Instead of integrating command and control technology into decision processes, the reverse is likely to be more productive.

Objective 4. Strengthen Senkaku sovereignty with domestic, allied, and partnered support of claims. The combined effect would be to persuade with facts in a persistent social media campaign, and induce US and other partner activities that legitimize and could support Senkaku operations. The US regards attacks on Japan-administered territory within the purview of the US-Japan alliance, which enables a de facto integration of “persuade” and “induce.”

Objective 5. Strengthen territorial integrity. Combine credible deterrence with active defense. These effects should be operationally inseparable. Collective self-defense is also collective self-deterrence. However, the reverse is not automatic. Deterrence needs to be integrated into defense operations with timely authorized permissions. This requires superior: command & control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; advanced analysis, precision strike; and anti-ship, anti-submarine and anti-aircraft capabilities.

Northern Territories

The Northern Territories, unlike the Senkakus, are not administered by Japan. To realize Japan’s goals, we present three objectives supported by two combinations of existing desired effects, and a new effect.

Three Objectives

Objective 1. Out-compete Russia with more extensive diplomatic, defense, trade and financial ties. Combine “persuade and induce Russian elites…and Russian business…” by leveraging: (a) a long-term professional view of the US-Japan alliance; and (b) security ties among European Union and Association of Southeast Asian Nations members. Integration is external: subsume Russian activities in the Northern Territories with broader relationships that can create future possibilities.

Objective 2. Assert sovereignty and counter Russian deployments. Combine “secure access to international fishing” and “defend maritime and air routes.” Main-island movements of anti-missile and anti-ship defenses demonstrate capability and can counter Russian military deployments. Patrolling international waters counters crime and increases safety, coupled with multilateral exercises that broaden Japan’s positive impact. Networked assets integrate what otherwise might be separate Coast Guard and Self-Defense Force efforts.

Objective 3. Develop coercive informational resilience. Japan’s need to counter disinformation, neutralize electronic warfare, and defeat cyber attacks requires deterrence and coercion. Use of information can achieve the same effect as use of force. This flexibility can integrate effects where use of force is prohibited. Appropriate contexts include revealing Russian disinformation for diplomatic leverage, gaining intelligence on frequency signatures for self-defense, and finding software flaws for zero-day exploits.

In sum, considerations of world view, threat assessment, and combined-effect strategies in specific cases can reveal and develop superior approaches to complex warfare. Actually deciding and specifying what to prevent and what to cause is the key to combining effects so they can be integrated into holistic strategies.

There are other arenas of cooperation and confrontation that Japanese strategists might consider entering and carefully engaging in order to avoid isolation. Most significant are those driven by demographics, economics and technology. Such as Russia’s chronic need for credit, China’s growing need for energy imports, and Japan’s looming need for labor.

Shaping the information environment and achieving advantages in any domain — land, maritime, air, space and cyberspace — are indivisible strategic imperatives. Doctrinal distinctions between the information environment and the operational environment make little sense in East Asia. Instead, we can observe a holistic environment perceived by world views, filtered by threat assessments, and competed in by actors waging complex warfare with combined-effect strategies.

The next paper focuses on the Korean Peninsula. 

Author: Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.

Leave a Reply