What the growth and change of Japan’s armed forces means for the world.
There, floating calmly in the still waters of Tokyo Bay, was Japan’s future.
Stretching over 800 feet long, the JS Izumo warship’s size made it stand out even as its dark gray exterior fused with the gloomy December sky. The largest vessel in Japan’s naval fleet, the four-year-old warship is already among the country’s most prized military possessions.
But standing on the dock at the Yokosuka naval base on a cold, drizzly December day, looking up at the Izumo, I have to admit I was a bit underwhelmed by the helicopter carrier I’d flown nearly 7,000 miles to see.
Maybe it was the jet lag after a 14-hour flight. Maybe it was the months I spent mythologizing the ship in advance of my trip. Or maybe it was the USS Ronald Reagan — a massive, 1,000-foot-long, nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier — looming large just across the bay — that made the Izumo seem just a bit unimpressive by comparison.
But when I boarded the Izumo and met Capt. Katsuyoshi Motoyama and his crew, I came to realize why this ship is so important for Japan. That’s because the Izumo represents the bold new military future Japan is embarking on — one that it has eschewed for the last half-century.
Just a few days after I stood on the Izumo’s deck, the Japanese government formally announced it would soon be converting the warship into a full-fledged aircraft carrier. In the coming years, it will haul roughly 12 US-made fighter jets, turning the vessel into a sea-based airport capable of projecting power across the Korean peninsula and onto China’s doorstep.
That announcement, which I’d been expecting, may seem minor, but it was anything but. Rather, it was a major statement about Japan’s military ambition — and the greatest symbol yet that Japan is unshackling itself from the decades of pacifism that have defined its existence since US Gen. Douglas MacArthur accepted the unconditional surrender of the Japanese armed forces on the deck of the USS Missouri in September 1945.
After its disastrous defeat in World War II, Tokyo renounced years of warfare in favor of a pacifist outlook, vowing to only use force to protect the Japanese homeland in the event of an attack — never to wage war on an enemy unprovoked. Which means the Izumo announcement signals quite the sea change. In recent years, Japan’s political leaders have tried to break the country out of its post-war shell. Today, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — a conservative, nationalist hawk — may be on the verge of doing just that.
Altering the Izumo is a case in point. His administration took an already capable ship and approved a subtle yet important tweak that will make the vessel far more formidable militarily. It’s the kind of decision that, had it happened in decades past, would have led most of Japanese society to label Abe a warmonger.
But times have changed. Helped by an aggressive China, a growing North Korean nuclear threat, and his own firm control over the government, Abe has found ways to bolster his nation’s forces with minimal domestic blowback. His administration passed a law allowing Japan to defend allies, approved a new muscular defense plan, and could soon amend its war-renouncing constitution to formalize the nation’s armed forces’ existence.