Japanese Security Strategy: Decreasing Not Demise of the Yoshida Doctrine

By Joyce Kang

The ‘Peace Constitution’ following the end of World War II forced Japan to commit to remain as a country without combat forces stripped from the ability to declare war. However, in the advent of the Cold War in East Asia, the Peace Constitution and Article IX was reexamined and reinterpreted to allow Japan to rearm for self-defense purposes. To avoid entrapment and abandonment from the US, Japan agreed to limited rearmament but set self-imposed restraints. Since the Cold War has ended, the Yoshida Doctrine has become seemingly less relevant as Japan’s security strategy. At the same time, it is too simplistic to claim that the Yoshida Doctrine is no longer relevant at all. In this article, I will focus on the key aspects of the how the Yoshida Doctrine is becoming less relevant for Japan, including the rise and threat of China, Japanese public opinion and anti-base sentiment, and integrated military defense with the US. Despite all these changes, the Yoshida Doctrine will not disappear quickly in its relevance, given the implications for the US-Japan alliance and neighboring countries. 

The Yoshida Doctrine was Japan’s guiding self-imposed security strategy for future relations with the US in the post-war era (Hughes, 2015: 21). The strict ‘Peace Constitution’ given to Japan eliminated Japan’s armed forces, and prevented Japan from waging war or getting involved in US military ventures. Following WWII, the American occupation of Japan focused on democratization and demilitarization of Japan. However, as the Cold War heated up, the US strategy towards Japan changed from democratization to stability of the region. The US realized the need for an ally, making Japan strategically important to the US (Pyle, 2007: 23). The Cold War led to a formal US-Japan alliance due to overlapping strategic interests (Hughes: 27). Under pressure, Yoshida bargained with the US in the 1951 Security Treaty: light rearmament to pacify the US and freedom of many US bases in Japan in exchange for military protection under the US nuclear umbrella (Hughes: 22; Pyle: 26). Concurrently, Japan restricted itself to a bilateral security treaty, not technically as a formal alliance with the US though it was in all but name.

After the Cold War the Pentagon replaced the USSR by “demonizing North Korea and muttering about China’s transition” (Johnson, 2003:368). In other words, the Post-Cold War period brought about concerns over the combination of China’s rise and military assertion and North Korea’s military behavior (Hughes: 18, 45). In particular, China’s willingness to project military power in the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis alarmed Japan and provided a change in Japan’s security policy over the longer term (Hughes: 45). Furthermore, North Korea provocation caused immediate concerns for Japan (Smith, 2015: 3). North Korea’s Taepodong missile was seen as an insult to Japanese sovereignty (Smith: 6) and the Second Nuclear Crisis revealed a lack of US-Japanese preparation in the event of an attack (Hughes: 10).

Japanese public opinion remained divided on issue of defense and security. Japan had initially restricted itself because of a dual dilemma: desiring to avoid entrapment and abandonment. Japan feared both alienating the US and also getting entrapped in the US military strategy. However in practice it was not always easy. For example, Japan claimed a veto over the US introduction of nuclear weapons in Japan, but turned a blind eye (Hughes: 25). The US was also pressuring Japan to become more actively involved militarily. Multilaterally Japan became a political and financial support of UN security activities (Hughes: 29) and assisted in UN Peacekeeping Operations (Hughes: 11). Regardless, Japan was seen as ‘benefitting by noninvolvement’ (Pyle: 37) and only providing financial resources in the Gulf War.

Already a divisive issue domestically, the US-Japan alliance faced roadblocks through the protest movements against US bases in Okinawa, military personnel incidents, and trade friction (Smith: 3) In particular, the frustration of local residents in Okinawa led to a mass movement over the location of US bases in Japan (Smith: 4; Johnson: 376) and the overwhelming financial burden of to keep American troops (Johnson: 369; Hughes:105). The Japanese public wanted security of the US, but at a decreased scale. The withdrawal of US troops, however, would mean overturning the Yoshida Doctrine, as Japan would need to buildup a military to secure their borders. With domestic support waning, Japanese leaders faced another dilemma: push for ‘autonomous defense’ potentially antagonizing neighbors and negating the US-Japan Security Treaty or strategize and reaffirm the US-Japan alliance in the midst of the anti-base sentiment and Japanese sympathy of Okinawans.

The alliance was reaffirmed through the US call for strengthening of the alliance, direct leadership meetings, and Japanese reconfirmation of defense cooperation in the midst of Chinese and North Korean threats. Reaffirmation led to the acquisition of new military capabilities and the domestic re-examination of the restrictions on the use of military power (Hughes: 14). Following September 11th, Japan created a mandate to provide protection for not only Japanese units, but also US military personnel and refugees (Hughes: 15). In 2005, Japan announced the next-generation missile interceptor with the US (Calder, 2006: 135). The alliance became more integrated through Japan’s independence as a military actor, strengthened through Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) during Koizumi’s reign (Hughes: 108). Additionally, Japanese public opinion became more in favor of a ‘normal’ security relationship (Hughes: 59). As a result, Japan became a more ‘normal’ US ally, slowly losing fear of entrapment by the US (Hughes: 115). However, this issue is complex given the joint development structure of BMD between the US and Japan.

China still remains a large threat for Japan, contentious issues including, energy (Calder: 130), foreign policy assertiveness (Gordon, 2) and China’s military buildup (Calder: 131).  Japan’s new national security strategy calls for stronger alliance with the US, seeing China as the major threat (Japan Times: 1). This includes Japan’s joint development and production of defense equipment (Japan Times, 2). In other words, increasing tensions between China and Japan has led to diminishing the Yoshida Doctrine to proactively combining forces with the US. This integrates the US and Japan even further, as tensions increase between China and Japan will possibly lead to a reinterpretation and eventually revision of the constitution to provide greater flexibility for Japan to act (Calder: 132). Further integration may mean Japanese involvement in the event of another Taiwan Strait Crisis and tension on the Korean peninsula, (Hughes: 23). The US is also facing rising tension between Japan, China, and South Korea over territorial disputes. However, the US is working to ensure that tension over territorial disputes, does not lead to an armed conflict.

Once a forbidden topic, Japanese policymakers are now open to debate about revising the postwar constitution and questioning of the self-imposed ban and collective defense (Smith: 2; Hughes: 33). After Koizumi, Abe has strategized to undermine the Yoshida Doctrine and protect Japan’s interests by influencing US policy. However, the Yoshida Doctrine became “deeply rooted, almost instinctual for Japan” (Pyle: 36). While the argument may appear outdated, the removal of the Yoshida Doctrine is nuanced; decreasing relevancy and complete irrelevancy are different. Revision will take time, and hold implications bilaterally and multilaterally. While Japan is currently more open to integration with the US (Hughes: 115), revisions could increase US expectations of Japanese global involvement. US bases do not appear to be leaving Okinawa in the near future either. Furthermore, given the current regional tensions, overturning the Yoshida Doctrine could lead to further provocations from China and protests from the US’s other ally in the region, South Korea, given Japan’s historical record. Despite the decreasing relevancy, the Yoshida Doctrine will continue to be partially relevant to Japan until complete removal. 

Joyce Kang is a Robertson Foundation for Government Fellow and an MPIA from IRPS concentrating in International Politics and Korea. In addition to prior position in  JIPS, she was the President of Mannam Korean Cultural Club and Director of External Affairs for Women Going Global at IRPS. Her research interests include the role of educational and cultural diplomacy, soft power, and national identity in shaping foreign policy and security initiatives. 

Works Cited

Calder, Kent E. (2006). ‘China and Japan’s Simmering Rivalry,’ Foreign Affairs, 85:2, March-April 2006,

Gordon, Leonard H.D. (2009). Confrontation Over Taiwan: Nineteenth-Century China and the Powers. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Hughes, Christopher W. ,(2015). Japan’s Foreign and Security Policy Under the Abe Doctrine: New Dynamism or Dead End?. New York, Palgrave Macmillan

Japan Times. (2013). 'Japan adopts new security strategy to counter assertive China" , Japan Times December 17, 2013. Accessed from

Johnson. Chalmers. (2003). Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. New York: Holt, Henry & Company.

Pyle, Kenneth . (2007). Japan Rising. New York: The Century Foundation

Smith, Sheila. (2015).  Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China (New  York: Colombia University Press.