Beyond Militarisation: Japan’s Path to Civilian Power

Published date01 June 2024
AuthorAnnika Clasen
Date01 June 2024
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Research Article
Beyond Militarisation:
Japan’s Path to
Civilian Power
Annika Clasen1
This article examines Japan’s evolution as a civilian power from 2012 to 2023,
highlighting continuities and changes. In a nutshell, a civilian power prioritises
cooperative international relations over unilateral action and military force.
Using a qualitative content analysis of Japanese Ministry of Defence white papers,
we base our analysis on three key categories to examine civilian power attrib-
utes: ‘Enforcement of morals’, ‘multilateralism’ and ‘will to promote and initiate’.
Over 11 years, Japan has updated its Indo-Pacific partnerships, strengthened mul-
tilateral cooperation and pursued a proactive regional role. Contrary to views
that Prime Minister Abe’s policies favour remilitarisation, we show continuity in
Japan’s civilian power posture. While core values shifted from 2013 to 2020, the
overall categories increased, particularly under Suga and Kishida. Our findings do
not suggest a broad erosion of civilian power principles and show Japan’s gradual
progression towards greater civilian power.
Civilian power, international relations, security, Indo-Pacific, Japan, multilateralism
Shortly after China’s President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow in March 2023,
Japanese Prime Minister (PM) Kishida Fumio made a surprise visit to Kyiv to
meet with Ukrainian PM Volodymyr Zelenskyy. While this move was mainly
interpreted as the visible increased ideological rift between the two East Asian
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
11(2) 254–283, 2024
© The Author(s) 2024
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970241250098
1 Department of Modern Japanese Studies, Heinrich-Heine-University, Düsseldorf, North
Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
Corresponding author:
Annika Clasen, Department of Modern Japanese Studies, Heinrich-Heine-University,
Universitätsstraße 1, 40225 Düsseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.
Clasen 255
giants (Yeung, 2023), it also demonstrated Japan’s newfound confidence to
assume a more active role in international politics. By aligning Japan more
closely with partners in Europe and Southeast Asia, the Kishida administration
has demonstrated its awareness of the changing geopolitical environment in
recent years. The era of checkbook diplomacy and reactive foreign and security
policy behaviour seems to be in the past. Despite Japan’s continuing constitu-
tional constraints, the Japanese government under then PM Abe Shinzō had taken
various steps under the banner of ‘Proactive Contribution to Peace’ to build a
foundation for his successors to become more active contributors to international
peace (Government of Japan, 2014).
However, with the implementation of a new security directive in 2012 and
2013 and reform plans for Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, the Abe admin-
istration faced major criticism. A proactive Japanese foreign and security policy
was seen as remilitarisation efforts, motivated by Abe’s nationalist ideologies, as
the proposed expansion of the self-defence forces (SDF) was interpreted as a shift
from Japanese pacifism to a more pronounced military role. Although there has
been no formal revision of the constitution since 1947, any changes to Article 9
have often been framed as either nationalistically driven by the ruling Liberal
Democratic Party (LDP) and its hardliners and revisionists, who want Japan to
become a military power, or as the result of a more natural evolution due to
growing security threats in the Indo-Pacific (Hook & Son, 2013; Hughes, 2018;
Oros, 2017; Yamamoto, 2017). Hence, any altering in Japan’s foreign and security
policy is often scrutinised against this dichotomous lens of remilitarisation versus
legitimate change of policy directives.
This article departs from the extant narrative and employs the role concept
of a civilian power to examine the foreign and security landscape of Japan since
the beginning of Abe’s second term as PM in 2012. In doing so, it provides
new insights into security transformations, arguing that the Abe administration
(2012–2020) had maintained and contributed to civilian rather than military
power attributes. We underscore that the ‘Proactive Contribution to Peace’ strat-
egy, often framed as Japan’s way to militarisation (Gustaffson et al., 2018;
Hagström, 2015), had supported the pillars of civilian power.
Maull (1990) introduced the concept of civilian power, which describes an
archetype of a state based on constructivist role theory. While the concept consists
of a detailed framework, three aspects appear to be of special significance: First,
a civilian power steadfastly sees military force as an instrument of last resort and
rather enforces cooperation, integration and collective efforts with partners and
institutions. Second, a civilian power is a state that is driven by a liberal canon of
norms and values that it seeks to realise within the international relations, and
third, a civilian power shapes and designs actively international relations without
assuming leadership. While civilian powers are often characterised as pacifist,
this is actually not the case; civilian power states are rather diplomatic driven and
have a pragmatic stance on military force.
For our assessment of Japan, we use a set of three categories based on these
characterisations, namely ‘enforcement of morals’, ‘multilateralism’ and the ‘will
to promote and initiate’. We apply them to the Japanese Ministry of Defence

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