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From the Heisei to the Reiwa era - the Self Defence Force and National Security of a Changing Japan

Updated: Jul 19, 2019


Asahi May 22, 2019

Gen Nakatani, Former Minister of Defence, on the transformation of the JSDF (Japanese Self Defence Force) and national security*, and the current state of Japan.

Gen Nakatani - Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Member of the House of Representatives, Former Minister of Defence



The Reiwa period has begun. With America’s transformation and the rise of China’s military etc, the international environment around Japan is undergoing a transformation. What will become of Japan’s national security? What does Gen Nakatani, an LDP member of the Diet who formerly served in the JSDF, and who during the Heisei era served as the Director General of the Japan Defence Agency and the Minister of Defence, think about Japan’s security in the Reiwa period?

Japan has always been influenced by the situation in North East Asia

The name Reiwa was taken from the Man’yōshū* - [this inspired me to] think again [about parallels between today and] the times of the Man’yōshū. Speaking of Japan’s history, although it was in the period spanning from the Asuka period (550-710CE) through to the Nara period (710-794), the international environment in East Asia was [even then] undergoing a great shift.

[* Man’yōshū - ‘The collection of Ten Thousand Leaves’ - an 8th century anthology of Japanese poetry]

That time coincided with China’s Sui and Tang dynasties. On the Korean Peninsula, it was the era spanning the Three Kingdoms Period - the three being Silla, Baekje and Goguryeo - to the time when Silla, which formed an alliance with the Tang, unified the peninsula. Our nation was influenced by these events on the Chinese mainland and on the Korean peninsula.

For example, in the middle of the 7th century, the Japanese-Baekje allied forces and the Tang-Silla forces fought in the Battle of Baekgang. Our nation, which lost the battle, was preparing for an invasion from the Tang-Silla, and was reexamining its diplomatic and security policy. Concrete measures included building the Mizuki castle as a defensive infrastructure and moving the capital. The political system was also reformed and Japan advanced towards becoming a country governed by Ritsuryō (a criminal and administrative code based on Confucianism and Chinese legalism). I am digressing, but this was around the time when the country’s name ‘Japan’ was settled upon.

Looking back on this history, we know that Japan has always been subject to the dictates of the environment in East Asia. In order to live securely in this region, Japan always needs to pay attention to its relationship with neighbouring countries, and while gaining trust, has no choice but to protect itself.

The Heisei period is no exception to this. Japan’s relationship with China and the Korean Peninsula was unstable. Accordingly, it was a period in which Japan’s national security transformed.

1989 - A Historic Year

1989, the year in which the Heisei period began, was a historic year. In terms of global events, the curtain had come down on the cold war. My shock at seeing the breaking of the Berlin wall remains vivid to this day. I had the feeling that a new era was about to begin.

That year, the ‘Tiananmen incident’ occurred. In its wake there were dark clouds over China’s economy, and sensing danger, Deng XIaoping in 1992 (the 4th year of the Heisei period) gave his [famous rallying] speech during his tour of the south, after which the pace of reform and opening up hastened, and trade and the exchange of goods between China and Japan expanded. On the Korean Peninsula, in 1989 Roh Tae-woo was elected as president of South Korea. After this, Korea made steady advances in democratization, and in 1992, Kim Young-sam, who wasn’t a military person, won the presidential election. Korea was developing economically.

The Hegomonism of an Anxious China

On the other side, there were the problems of North Korea’s nuclear weapons/missiles, and the expansion of China’s military power. It is also true that on the national security side, tensions were high in North East Asia during the Heisei.

In relation to China, I will never forget the welcome we received when the opening ceremony was undertaken for the Sino-Japanese Youth Exchange Centre, which was built, thanks to the assistance of a Japanese grant, on the 3rd year of the Heisei period (1991), a year after I was elected. In the 4th year of the Heisei period (1992), the Emperor also went to China. Basically, I think that in the first half of the Heisei period, the Sino-Japanee relationship was good.

What was peculiar was what happened from the middle of the Heisei period. [Firstly, Japan’s] problematic history was emphasised in a leaders meeting between Chairman Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Obuchi Keizou, and anti-Japanese materials were being included in [Chinese] textbooks. In addition, [the relationship was] strained by Prime Minister Koizumi Junichirou visiting the Yasakuni Shrine, and tensions escalated in relation to oil in the East China Sea and the nationalisation of the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands.

What was worrying was that it could be seen that China was pursuing hegemony [in the region]. No matter how you look at it, China’s conduct in the South China sea, where it reclaimed coral reefs and constructed military bases, did not show humility. The uncompromising position on Taiwan was a cause for concern.

America recognises the new threat that China poses and are firmly confronting it, but wants to act in a way that respects China’s position as a partner. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be able to gain trust in the international community.

In the Korean Peninsula at the beginning of the Heisei period, there were rising concerns regarding the suspicion that North Korea had nuclear weapons. In 1994 it seemed like America would actually attack North Korea, and although many requests were made upon Japan, Japan at that time was basically unable to respond. At that time, even though I had only been elected twice, I joined a committee connected to this issue, and considered to what extent we would be able to collaborate with America. In the event that a conflict broke out in neighbouring North Korea and America intervened, the question regarding how should Japan respond perhaps offered the first opportunity to consider how this was ‘our own problem.’

If a conflict broke out in Japan’s neighbourhood and the America military was to be mobilized, Japan, as an ally, must provide support. What about the constitutional prescription that Japan must not engage in [non defensive] military action? This became one of the biggest issues for Heisei Japan. [End of part 1]