The History Of The Japanese Military — The Past, Present, and Future

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A common myth holds that Japan has no standing army. The reality is Japan has one of the most powerful and advanced militaries in the world—but just doesn’t use it much.

Japan’s military history is one of tradition and power. These days, this history blends with the country’s modern relations to form a complex situation. Even though the country hasn’t been directly involved in any conflicts since World War II, Japan’s military is growing along with its martial responsibilities.  Is there a future where the Japanese army again plays on the world stage?

From its ancient samurai warriors to its modern submarines, Japan’s military is a fun subject to study from historical, technological, and political points of view. Take a look.

The History of the Japanese Military

Origins

Although there were conflicts among tribes and clans in the Japanese archipelago dating back to prehistoric times, the first major military force was born during the Yamato period sometime after 250 AD. Around that time, the Yamato clan established dominance on a large part of the archipelago and began looking outward. They developed complex military and diplomatic relationships with other nation-states in China and the Korean peninsula. They even had foreign military posts and sent forces to assist the Korean kingdom of Baekje against their Silla-Tang enemies.

Samurai and shōguns

With these foreign relations, a lot of influence came to Japan from the outside. This included Buddhism and the Chinese writing system, both of which are still a major part of Japanese culture today. This brought about the Nara period, a time of considerable prosperity, and the Japanese military grew more skilled and sophisticated. At one point, Emperor Monmu even introduced a draft requiring one of every three or four adult men to be in the military.

This is when the traditions of the samurai came about. The samurai were similar to knights in Medieval Europe in that they were a class of military elites who were well paid and had a close relationship with landowners. Like the Medieval Code of Chivalry, samurai had the Bushido code that dictated their behavior and values, including loyalty, courage, and indifference to pain.

It was also during this time that the emperor appointed the first shōgun, Ōtomo no Otomaro. The shōgun was essentially a military dictator who used the army to control the country. 

These strict and highly developed military traditions saw the Japanese through conflicts with outside forces such as the Mongols as well as internal conflicts and civil wars for control of the throne. 

The Edo period and isolation

Eventually, the Edo Bakufu gained control over the shogunate and therefore the empire. Most notably, they closed Japan off to foreign influence and severely limited trade with other countries. This was in response to the increasing influence of European imperial powers like Spain and Portugal and served to strengthen the shogunate’s dominance of Japan. 

Under this isolation called sakoku, Japan spent over two centuries in relative peace. There were no major foreign or domestic conflicts. As a result, even though they retained their military status and training, the samurai became more focused on art, philosophy, and bureaucracy than warfare.

Imperialism—a meteoric rise

In 1853 an American naval convoy forced Japan to open its borders. Once again entering the global community, the Japanese realized they were vastly unprepared to compete militarily. On top of that, they saw how all their neighbors in East Asia had been colonized by European powers and feared to succumb to the same fate.

They got to work. Japan not only industrialized rapidly and devoured new scientific and medical discoveries, but they modernized their military. The government shifted away from feudal forces and unified the country under one military. By 1873 this included a conscription law that drafted all males for a period of three years and established the Japanese Imperial Army. They modeled military training after Western powers like France and Prussia and brought in Western military experts for advice. 

By 1894, barely 40 years after opening, Japan’s military was ready to compete. They fought in the First Sino-Japanese War against the Qing dynasty of China and gained complete control of the Korean peninsula proving their modern army was first class. Several more conflicts put more territory in Japanese hands, and with their defeat of the Russians in 1904, it became clear that Japan was not just the main power in Asia but a threat to European powers as well.

Japan developed a formidable blue-water navy and continued to expand through China and Southeast Asia. In 1941 the Western Allies’ toleration of Japanese expansion ran out, and they imposed an embargo on the country matched with increased support for China. Soon after, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the hostility became official.

Disarmament

Despite an aggressive start and extensive territorial expansion, Japan ultimately lost World War II to the Allied powers. Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu surrendered specifically to the United States in 1945.

After the surrender, Japan disbanded its entire military, and American forces occupied the entire country. Japan remained without any armed forces whatsoever and completely dependent on the US for defense until other engagements like the Korean War began drawing troops away from American bases in Japan.

The Japanese government petitioned the Americans for the ability to form a national defense force. In 1951, The United States agreed on the condition that Japan only uses its forces for defense and never to resolve foreign conflict.

The Japan Self-Defense Forces

The 1951 treaty with the United States is what allows for the military Japan has today. Initially, this force only concentrated on natural-disaster relief and things like that. However, in many international conflicts, the Japanese felt embarrassed that they couldn’t support their main ally, the United States. 

The American-Japanese relationship is one of the longest alliances between two powers in history. Over the last 50 years, the two countries have continuously revised their treaties. Japan can now participate in international peacekeeping missions to provide humanitarian aid and prevent conflict and terrorism. Additionally, if the United States ever goes to war in the region, the Japanese military may provide “rear support.”

With increasing responsibility, the Japanese armed forces have expanded. Currently, they have roughly 250,000 personnel and a budget of $47.3 billion. This is a considerable force, and with the eighth highest expenditure in the world, the Japanese military is once again one of the most technologically advanced and formidable in the international community. In fact, in 2015, it was ranked as the fourth most powerful behind the US, Russia, and China.

In its current form, the Japan Self-Defense Forces consist of a ground force divided into five armies, a maritime force divided into five districts, and an air force divided into four units. Ranks are based on the NATO ranks and share similar insignia.

The 21st Century and Beyond

Although Japan has been a pacifist since the end of World War II, it’s clear to see that their military presence and power have been expanding. Most likely, this will continue into the future.

The United States is Japan’s closest ally, and the relationship is very important to both countries. However, these days, the US military is occupied with operations in other regions, and other powers like China are stretching their legs in the Pacific. This could prompt Japan to expand its forces even more.

Similarly, the United States may call on Japan more and more to assist with international conflicts. Especially after President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia,” these conflicts are more likely to be in Japan’s backyard and more easily justifiable under its current laws.

When it comes to international diplomacy, nothing lasts forever. Japan’s pacifism has already lasted an eternity compared to historical examples. If there’s ever another major global conflict, especially one involving the United States, it’s likely that Japan will throw itself back into the fray. It certainly has the military might these days to do so. 

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