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In Japan, longtime restrictions are lifted to allow a major defense buildup


Japan's government today announced plans to acquire weapons that can strike other nations. Japan has avoided doing that since the end of World War II. Its post-war constitution forbids the nation from waging war. This is a major shift for Japan, for the region and for Japan's ally, the U.S. Here to discuss it with us is NPR's Anthony Kuhn, who's been in Japan reporting on this issue this week. He joins us now from Seoul. Hey, Anthony.


SCHMITZ: So what does this new policy say?

KUHN: Well, the policy is laid out in three national security documents, which just came out. A key point in them is that Japan plans to have what it calls counterstrike capabilities, by which it means long-range missiles capable of hitting North Korea and parts of China. It plans to get them and deploy U.S.-made Tomahawk cruise missiles in about four years. It also includes roughly doubling Japan's defense budget to about 2% of GDP over five years and building up its defense industry and arms exports. And the government is still debating how to pay for all this, whether it's by issuing bonds or hiking taxes.

SCHMITZ: Wow, counterstrike capabilities. Why is Japan making this shift now?

KUHN: Well, the documents say that Japan is facing the toughest security environment since the end of World War II. It points in particular to China and North Korea's military buildups and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which it says is a blow to the international order. Now, Japan insists that it's going to stick to a strictly defensive security posture, which it's long had. It's going to use the minimum force necessary and only when there are no other options available. What Japan's ruling party would like to do is to scrap restraints on the military by amending the constitution. But it doesn't have the popular support for that. Polls suggest it does have support for counterstrike capabilities. So that's what it's getting.

SCHMITZ: Got it. So I'd imagine not everyone is happy about this. What are critics saying about this?

KUHN: Critics say this goes well beyond self-defense, which Japan says its constitution does permit. They say that there just has not been a proper public discussion of this whole matter. And they also say the military strategy that's behind this is risky because when Japan says counterattack, that could actually include hitting an enemy missile that they think is about to be launched at them before it's actually been launched. So it's a fine line between a counterattack and a preemptive strike. And they could just get it wrong.

SCHMITZ: Well, is there any idea what this could mean for the U.S.-Japan alliance?

KUHN: Well, for a long time, the U.S. has been urging Japan to shoulder more of the responsibility for its own defense. So Washington is happy with this development. China is certainly not. But the U.S. also needs to consider that Japan is getting military capabilities independent of the U.S. in part as a sort of insurance policy...


KUHN: ...In case Japan comes under attack and the U.S. fails to come to its aid. Now, finally, if these missiles are ever used, they're going to have to be done in - with closer cooperation, military coordination, with the U.S., which would include sharing intelligence and probably coordinating which targets to pick.

SCHMITZ: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Thank you so much, Anthony.

KUHN: Thank you, Rob. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.