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The Reiwa Era began last month, and just like Heisei stood apart from Showa before it, this new period in Japanese history promises to witness notable changes in the country’s government and society. What those changes are and how they will affect Japan’s place in the world are important considerations, and they are especially relevant to the Self-Defense Forces — an entity that has evolved much since its inception in 1954.

If one attached themes to each of the eras spanning the postwar period, the Showa Era (which lasted until 1989) would be marked by the SDF seeking its place within Japanese government and society. Among the public, the SDF held notoriously low standing. At worst, SDF personnel were seen as holdovers of the old runaway imperial military. A more common perception was that they were zeikin dorobo — “tax thieves” who were unnecessary drains on Japan’s otherwise booming economy.

Politically, opposition parties challenged the constitutionality of the SDF (a battle they would only surrender when briefly wresting control of the government away from the Liberal Democratic Party from 1993 to 1994). Within the government, the SDF was managed by the Defense Agency, an organization that failed to have any clout when stacked against full-fledged ministries. Militarily, the SDF was principally a well-equipped but supplementary component of its United States ally in posturing against Soviet threats.

This changed in the Heisei Era (1989-2019), when, as one Japanese senior officer described, the organization went from the “SDF that does nothing to the SDF that does everything.” Backlash from Japan’s “checkbook diplomacy” in the Persian Gulf War, the fall of the Soviet Union, the North Korean nuclear crisis, the Great Hanshin Earthquake and the sarin gas terrorist attacks between 1991 and 1995 revealed capability and credibility gaps that had to be addressed.

The SDF adapted to the demands of the new era, adopting and/or enhancing peacekeeping operations, chemical response, missile defense and disaster relief capabilities. It participated in international operations, supported the coalition-fought global war on terror, conducted major disaster relief operations at home and abroad, and postured against growing military threats in Northeast Asia. Along the way, SDF members elevated their status to the most trusted of all government personnel in public polling.

Now, the Reiwa Era stands to be a period when the SDF fully matures. The main question is whether it will be able to sustain its place among global militaries once it reaches its peak.

Leading the continued maturation of the SDF is a new generation of officers with a different outlook from their predecessors. These officials never knew the Soviet threat or the sentiment of distrust among the Japanese public. Many joined the SDF not to defend Japan against foreign invaders but to respond to natural disasters and to represent their nation in overseas missions.

Along with public trust, the SDF has a firmer footing in the government now that the Defense Ministry has grown into its own for over a decade and the Abe administration has established an active and effective National Security Council. The council’s accompanying secretariat is comprised of a sizeable percentage of SDF officers, and it is increasingly commonplace to have SDF personnel meaningfully seconded to other ministries and agencies.

The Reiwa Era SDF also looks much different internally. The latest Defense Ministry reorganization placed even more responsibility in the Japan Joint Staff that will be exercised in the new era.

Although each of the component staffs — ground, air and maritime — will fight to maintain primacy, the reality is that a “joint” force is the only one that can sustain itself with the broad demands of the SDF and limited resources available.

Contributing to organizational change is the recently established Acquisitions, Technology and Logistics Agency (ATLA), which continues its push to minimize budget infighting. The goal is realization of more seamless implementation of new capabilities needed to achieve Japan’s long-term strategies. This battle over reorganization is still in the early stages, but it will reach a tipping point in the Reiwa Era.

Certainly, there are some things that will not change, even if some outside observers argue otherwise. The first is the SDF’s respect for international law. The core of all of SDF authorities and directives is rooted in the rules and norms of the postwar international order, and the Japanese system built around it reinforces and preserves it. Ancillarily, the SDF will continue to exercise extreme caution in its use of military force. Even if the Liberal Democratic Party one day realizes its policy objective of amending Article 9 of the Constitution to remove prohibitions on use of military power in resolving international disputes, the organizational culture and institutionalized practices will continue to separate the SDF from the militaries of other global leaders.

With these new leaders and institutions in place, the SDF faces some difficult challenges. The single most precarious issue is Japan’s looming demographic crisis. This renders three consequences: First, Japan’s population is aging; second, there is a dwindling pool of young people from which to recruit; and three, there are plenty of attractive job options for the limited Japanese youths out there. This means the SDF must find ways to extend the service life of its personnel, and it will have to improve recruiting practices to make uniformed service a more attractive employment option.

An alternate possibility, albeit one that comes with major political obstacles, is expanding the recruiting pool to foreign residents of Japan as an avenue to naturalization. Whatever the right solution may be, failure to take measures now will leave the SDF understaffed and unable to sustain the world-class defense equipment it is operating and acquiring.

Another challenge for the SDF will be improving whole-of-government responses to security situations. The rise of gray zone incidents that fail to meet the threshold for international military response blurs the lines between law enforcement and military action, while demanding greater use of nonmilitary instruments of power. As the scope of “defense” broadens in the Reiwa Era, the SDF must forge effective and lasting partnerships with other organizations in the government.

As Japan seeks to exercise greater leadership among the international community, the SDF will need to shoulder more of the burden as a tool of that leadership. That means taking on trailblazing, heavily politicized missions. Precision and finesse will be needed to establish effective precedents, and for every new type of operation the Reiwa Era introduces, the SDF will be challenged to do it right for the sake of future engagements.

It also means forging new international relationships. The SDF has made great strides in building security partnerships with countries throughout the region, but more is needed for it to reach its full potential. Building partner capacity, participating in joint exercises and supporting disaster relief operations are excellent measures, but the SDF will need to expand its pool of partners while broadening its multilateral operability to cement its place as a global security leader.

The Reiwa Era is one of great promise for the SDF but not without significant challenges. It will require leadership and action to ensure that reaching a new peak does not mean an immediate decline. With a lot of skill and a little bit of luck, the SDF just might be able to strike a sustainable balance between its roles and capabilities, achieving its own “beautiful harmony” to which the era name aspires.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He was the deputy chief of government relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces Japan, and is a former officer in the U.S. Air Force.

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