Why Germany and Japan are rebuilding their militaries now

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Why Germany and Japan are rebuilding their military power 8 decades after World War II

We’re now about as far removed, in years, from the end of the Second World War as people then were from the American Civil War. And yet there are days when it feels like World War II is still being fought. Russian President Vladimir Putin is battling phantom Nazis in Ukraine. Western leaders constantly invoke World War II — President Joe Biden did so four times in one day — to convey the importance of standing up to Putin. Some observers believe that the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping is attempting to reframe the country’s memory of the war years from a moment of national trauma into one of unity and victory against foreign occupation.

But nowhere has the legacy of the war and its aftermath continued to influence political debate as much as it has in Germany and Japan — particularly when it comes to military matters. Anti-militarist principles are hard-wired into the postwar constitutions of both former Axis powers: Both have strong pacifist movements that continue to wield substantial political influence, both have relied heavily on U.S. security guarantees, and while both have built substantial military forces, they’ve also shown far more reluctance to deploy them overseas than countries with comparable political and economic clout.

But nearly eight decades after the war, that may now be changing. Last Friday, Japan unveiled a new five-year defense plan that will double military spending and make the country the third-biggest military spender in the world after the United States and China. Prompted by concerns over North Korea and China as well as the aftershocks of the invasion of Ukraine, the plan is a remarkable pivot for a country that is still, technically, banned by law from maintaining “land, air or sea forces.” Unveiling the plan, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida described it as a “turning point of our national security policy.”

Intentionally or not, Kishida’s remark echoed a now-famous speech given by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Feb. 27, three days after the war in Ukraine began. Scholz used the same phrasing, describing the Russian invasion as a zeitenwende, or “turning point,” that would necessitate a rethinking of Germany’s defense policy. To that end, Scholz vowed to boost German defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, in line with NATO targets, and spend an additional 100 billion euros to help revamp the Bundeswehr, Germany’s military. From that day on, Germany also pledged to supply advanced weaponry to Ukraine, overturning a long-standing prohibition of not sending weapons into conflict zones. In a recent essay for Foreign Affairs, Scholz touted the decision as “the starkest change in German security policy since the establishment of the Bundeswehr in 1955″ and one that reflects “a new mindset in German society.”

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“Ukraine has really sent the alarm bells ringing all over the democratic world, and Japan and Germany are no exception,” said Ellis Krauss, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, and one of the co-authors of “Reluctant Warriors,” a study of the military culture of both countries. “For Germany, it’s in their neighborhood. For Japan, it’s the analogy to Taiwan and China,” he said.

The new mindset Scholz describes didn’t emerge overnight, however. Germany and Japan’s respective turning points are the culmination of developments that date back decades.

Out of the ruins

There are key differences between the two. In Germany, it was widely accepted that the country was responsible for World War II and had to shoulder the responsibility for the Nazis’ crimes. Japanese leaders have tended to take a more ambiguous attitude toward the question of war guilt and responsibility. And while Germany’s foreign and defense policies have always emphasized multilateralism and regional alliances like NATO and the EU, Japan’s approach has been more bilateral, emphasizing the U.S. alliance above others.

But in both cases, a strong anti-militarist impulse took root in the years following World War II, an era when Japan and Germany were defeated powers, their cities lay in ruins, they were occupied by their former wartime foes, and many of their former leaders were on trial for war crimes. Public revulsion at the horrors of war may have been partly behind the development of German and Japanese pacifism, but it was also the result of deliberate policies of the occupying powers.

Germany’s Basic Law, the constitution that was adopted in 1949 and subject to the approval of the occupying Western allies, criminalized any acts that “disturb the peaceful relations between nations, especially to prepare for a war of aggression.” Japan’s constitution, drafted in large part by the staff of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of the U.S. occupation forces, was even more explicit. Its Article 9 declares that the Japanese people “renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes” and prohibits the country from maintaining military forces.

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The United States’ desire to keep Germany and Japan demilitarized didn’t last long. During the Cold War, Washington pushed both countries to rearm as a counterweight to rising communist powers. The German Bundeswehr and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) were both founded in the 1950s.

By this point though, strong antiwar sentiment had taken root in both countries. For instance, when the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty was signed in 1960, allowing for U.S. troops to be based in the country, it prompted some of the largest and most violent mass protests in the country’s history.

Meanwhile, some of these countries’ neighbors were not always pleased to see their reemergence as military powers. France opposed both West Germany’s rearmament and its joining of NATO in 1955. Former prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, who lived through the Japanese occupation of his country, once grumbled that encouraging Japan to take part in even limited peacekeeping missions abroad was like “giving liqueur chocolates to an alcoholic.”

Tiptoeing back to military force

For all the above reasons, Japan and Germany are often described as “pacifist” powers, but that’s a little misleading. For much of the Cold War, Germany boasted the largest standing army in Western Europe. Japan’s SDF is not technically referred to as a “military,” but it has the capabilities of one: Even before last week’s announcement, Japan ranked ninth in the world in defense spending. And both countries host sizable contingents of American troops.

But as the authors of “Reluctant Warriors put it, both countries have been “net importers of security,” relying more on international security guarantees — NATO in Germany’s case, the alliance with the U.S. in Japan’s — for protection, rather than their own military capabilities.

And when it comes to deployments abroad, the book notes, both have “military policies that are strikingly different from those of other comparable countries to this day.” For instance, Canada, which has less than half of Germany’s population, has had twice as many troops deployed on missions abroad. And both Japan and Germany have often had to strike a balance maintaining international military commitments and responding to public opinion that’s often highly skeptical of investments in defense.

After the end of the Cold War, Germany began showing more willingness to use military force abroad; its armed forces took part in NATO’s interventions in the Balkans and Afghanistan, to take two important examples. At the same time, however, Germany’s actual military capabilities dwindled. Defense spending plunged after the Cold War as immediate threats fell away. The country’s military has dealt with highly publicized equipment problems for years, to the point that in 2017, it was reported that none of the German Navy’s six submarines were in working order. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper recently estimated that the country’s military has enough ammunition stocks for only about two days of high-intensity combat.

Japan’s forays into international deployments have been more limited and restricted. The country deployed a naval mission to the Indian Ocean to support U.S. forces in Afghanistan and sent troops to participate in noncombat roles in Iraq. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan took a number of legal steps to allow the SDF to participate in a greater range of foreign missions, but still, remarkably, no member of the Japanese military has fired a shot in combat since the SDF was formed in 1954.

Are these turning points real?

In October, North Korea fired a missile over Japan for the first time since 2017. That provocation followed dozens of other missile tests this year. Couple that with growing fears over a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, and the precedent set by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and you have the context and backdrop for Kishida’s announcement.

“All these developments really changed the general attitude of the mainstream Japanese toward increased defense measures,” Naoko Aoki, a lecturer at the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies, told Grid. The new plan includes increased investments in cyberwarfare as well as so-called counterstrike capabilities: missiles capable of destroying enemy launch sites. “I could not have imagined Japan doing that just a year or two ago,” Aoki said.


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The move has brought out some anti-war protesters in Tokyo, but the bigger obstacle for Kishida’s plans may be how to pay for them. The majority of the Japanese public opposes raising taxes to pay for military expansion, and his party is divided on how to fund the new programs.

In Germany, critics at home and abroad have questioned just how real the zeitenwende really is. The government says the target of 2 percent of GDP defense spending probably won’t be reached until 2025, and a highly touted plan to purchase 35 American F-35 fighter jets has been delayed. Scholz’s government has also clashed with other members of the pro-Ukraine alliance (notably Poland, with whom Germany has a complicated historical relationship, to say the least) over Germany’s refusal to provide Ukraine with certain weapon systems, such as battle tanks.

Still, Germany is the third-largest military donor to Ukraine in absolute dollar terms, and some of the systems it has provided, such as Gepard anti-aircraft guns, are reportedly making a significant difference on the battlefield.

Ulrike Franke, a senior fellow at the European Center on Foreign Relations, told Grid that more than any specific policy, the zeitenwende has led to a shift in political culture.

“In Germany, for a long time, we didn’t really understand how to think about what armed forces and the military are for in a liberal democracy. You have politicians that two years ago would not have been able to name any kind of Bundeswehr weapons system, are now standing up to give a whole speech on the advantages and disadvantages of the Panzerhaubitze,” she said, referring to a German-made howitzer gun.

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As for how profound this shift will be going forward, Franke added, “this history isn’t going away. The memory of World War II as well as the 30 years that followed the Cold War and that period of peace and calm are experiences that shaped our views and will continue to shape them. But now, we have an additional historical reference point, which is this war.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.