The Defense of Japan 2020 annual white paper came out last week, and just like every year it has sparked media reporting on what it all means.

Like other governments' formal defense reports, this document provides a summary of the country’s security practice for the year — that is, the authorities and allowances afforded to defense forces and how they have used them based on the strategic environment. Since this report only comes once a year and is eventually made available in foreign languages, its arrival is a much-anticipated event for many a Japan observer.

When the document does come out, myriad interpretations and analyses inevitably follow. Some argue that the length of certain sections compared with previous years is steeped in meaning. Others will look at the order in which countries are listed and try to discern how changes connote a major “downgrading” or “upgrading” of a relationship. Still others will analyze what they believe to be novel policy positions. However, that analysis can be unhelpful or misleading while obscuring the real value of the white paper.

White papers can be important documents, but it is critical to know how and why. Those answers are different for every country and for every white paper. For some governments, reports may be mandated by domestic law for watchdog purposes. For others, it is solely a strategic communications tool to try to shape public perceptions or to deliver pointed messages to partners and adversaries. For Japan, its nature and purpose has changed over time.

Japan has been publishing defense white papers for decades, sparingly at first and then annualized. The first white paper came out in 1970, then a second in 1976. Starting in 1980, they became annual publications for the then-Defense Agency. In 2003, the series received the "Defense of Japan" title.

These documents, like other nations' defense white papers, explained Japan's security practice with a focus on near-term policies, activities and issues. This often included things like how the nation conducts operations with adherence to provisions under Article 9 (the war-renouncing clause of the Constitution), support for U.S. forces under the alliance, measures for accommodating base-hosting communities and Self-Defense Forces activities, while offering the strategic context underwriting all those things.

That sort of information is useful, but it is important to recognize that the reason for publishing that information changed over time. The 1970s were a dynamic period for Japan's security. U.S. President Richard Nixon had just announced the "Guam Doctrine" in 1969 calling for America's allies to do more. The government negotiated the reversion of Okinawa from U.S. administration, which happened in 1972. Japan was working on its first National Defense Program Outline (now National Defense Program Guideline) and completed its Fourth Defense Buildup Plan.

Consequently, the 1970 and 1976 white papers were tools for the government to manage public perceptions of the evolving dynamics of Japanese security and to signal foreign players, especially its U.S. ally.

In many ways, the purpose of managing domestic understanding and signaling foreign players still exists, but after the white paper became serialized with annual publication, it evolved the document in ways that dampened those effects. In essence, what now exists is a principally a bureaucratic document, not a political one.

Here's why: To accommodate the requirement to produce an annual report that usually sits at a few hundred pages in length, the Defense of Japan white paper is written by a single office within the Defense Ministry. That is all the office does for the entire year. The members of that office compile established policy documents (like the National Defense Program Guideline), budget documents, briefings that ministry officials have delivered throughout the past few years, statements by members of the Cabinet in the Diet, and past Defense of Japan publications.

They then compile the new edition, never veering too far off precedent, before routing it for approval through their intra-ministry and Cabinet chains. Understandably, senior political leadership is not reviewing a 500-plus page document line by line, so it is really up to the original drafters and each of their different sections to ensure the text aligns with well-established policy positions.

Given this, there are five things to keep in mind when reviewing or reading about Japan’s defense white paper.

First, understand that nothing in there is going to be groundbreaking. It may be new to some readers, but it is not new to the government of Japan. What is stated in a given year's version may use slightly different phrasing, but the policy positions have all been written down in other documents or uttered during Diet interpellations before they ever find themselves in the white paper.

If searching for the foundational policy documents that show how Japan is evolving its security practice for the future, the National Security Strategy, National Defense Program Guidelines, Mid-term Defense Program and annual budget requests are the best publicly available sources. For the most up-to-date positions, one should reference Diet interpellations, which yield de facto policy positions.

Second, despite none of its content being groundbreaking, Japan's is one of the most detailed and informative white papers out there. It usually contains a digest up front, which offers a summary of all of the major policy positions and strategic issues underwriting Japanese security practice for the year. It then dives into detailed chapters on all of the things mentioned in the digest, often including specific and clear explanations of Japan’s legal provisions and prohibitions vis-a-vis different scenarios. At the end of the document is an unparalleled reference section, which offers years of data and background information.

Which leads to the third point, which is that because it is so detailed, the Defense of Japan white papers are a triumph of transparency. There are plenty of critics who will argue that the Special Secrets Protection Act (or Specially Designated Secrets Law) demonstrates the Abe administration’s retreat toward government opaqueness, but a counter to that is this white paper, which lays more to bare than any other country with comparable military power.

It explains legal processes, provides records of defense expenditures, clearly indicates personnel end-strength, presents a chronology of events that have informed defense decision-making since 1954 and weaves in policy briefs on the issues of the day. Further, because a single office is responsible for putting the document together, the report often incorporates briefing materials that had already been prepared for Diet sessions and presentations to foreign officials. What this means is that the casual observer is able to gain about as much information as most Diet members and diplomats working in Tokyo — albeit with some time lag — simply by reading this document cover to cover.

Fourth, the Defense of Japan series is an excellent resource for those seeking to understand the evolution of Japanese security practice. As discussed, each white paper offers comprehensive explanations of the policy issues and SDF activities of the day. Because every single one of the Defense of Japan publications are publicly available on the Defense Ministry website, one can read through them all to track the evolution of Japanese security practice for the past 50 years.

Fifth, the most important thing for Japan observers to look for following publication is not in the text itself, but in audience reaction. Many, especially Japan's foreign competitors, may feel compelled to respond to the document in diplomatic rhetoric or military posturing. The things they protest and laud, as well as possible changes in behavior toward Japan, are really the most important things to observe immediately following the release of the white paper.

So, if you endeavor to examine this year's Defense of Japan or the reporting surrounding it, remember that there are no hidden messages and no attempts to sneak in some policy fait accompli. While that does make the document less sensational, it does not detract from its overall value as a repository of quality information about Japanese security practice. If you understand what really to make of it, you can get the most out of it.

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

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