Big Talk

Japan Will Not Survive Unless it Prepares for War

Chairman, Japan Forum of Security Yoshiaki Yano
Chairman, APA Group Toshio Motoya

Japan Forum of Security Chairman Yoshiaki Yano realized the necessity of studying military affairs as a college student, then joined the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) afterwards. Based on his intelligence and strategy work in the Ground Staff Office, he has continued doing military-related research even after leaving the JGSDF. Toshio Motoya spoke with Yano, who won the Prize for Excellence (Adult Division) for his essay on nuclear balance in last year’s “True Interpretations of Modern History” Essay Contest, about the issues with Japan’s security structure.

Strategy involves constant efforts for optimization


(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. You won the Prize for Excellence in the Adult Division of last year’s 15th Annual “True Interpretations of Modern History” Essay Contest for your text, “Japan Must Not be Intimidated by Nuclear Weapons! We Should Respond With Resolution and Confidence as a Latent Nuclear Power.” I agree with your essay in many ways and wanted to speak with you in more detail. Can you start by telling us about yourself?

(Y) Thank you for inviting me. I was in college during the student protest era, and my teachers all had anti-establishment, anti-government sentiments. I was just a student, but I started worrying about our country. Although I was in the Faculty of Engineering, I was also interested in history and literature. I took advantage of days when class was cancelled by protests to stay at my lodging house and immerse myself in reading those types of books. That taught me that wars are always historical turning points. I wanted to learn about the taboo topics of war and military affairs for the sake of Japan’s future. Afterwards I ended up in the Faculty of Letters, where I studied the history of Chinese philosophy. I then joined the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to gain practical military knowledge.

(M) So you wanted to learn about military affairs in addition to your studies.

(Y) The JSDF was an entirely different world than university, where I had free time and could think about things on my own. The JSDF is an armed force that requires physical strength, where priority is put on order. I was part of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) infantry – in other words, I was a foot soldier. I spent the first five years or so as a front-line troop in Hokkaido. We worked even when it was 30°C below zero, and I still have frostbite scars. After that, I taught at the Officer Candidate School and worked with troops. From 1987 to 1991 I was in the Ground Staff Office, which was like the Research Division of the old General Staff Headquarters. I gathered and analyzed intelligence about the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Socialist structures in Eastern Europe toppled like dominoes after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and finally a coup d’etat attempt took place in the Soviet Union. The Research Division believed the Soviet Union would crumble, but intelligence and strategy are not always in agreement. People on the strategy side saw the Soviet Union as a hypothetical enemy and were extremely reluctant to change their thinking. This became a big debate. Conveying the truth is the most important thing in the intelligence field, so we refused to compromise. We fulfilled our duty by sticking to our assertions. And just as we thought, the Soviet Union did fall apart.

(M) It seemed like it happened very quickly.

(Y) It was more fragile than people thought, which in my opinion was a reaction to the information blockade. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, popularized the concept of Glasnost (the open disclosure of information) as part of his reforms. This backfired, and he was no longer able to control information. The Communist Party dictatorship fell apart. The military was also under the command of the party, so it was fragile as well. Marshal Sergey Akhromeyev committed suicide at the time of the collapse, but other people in the military did nothing. This keenly showed how weak dictatorships are. I moved into the strategy field at the Ground Staff Office and drafted emergency operation plans. There, 80% of the tasks were the work of the former Ministry of the Army, such as budgeting and hiring. The remaining 20% was strategy and intelligence, and I was constantly involved in that part. I was appointed vice president of the Kodaira School and became a major general. That’s when I left the JGSDF. Before and after my retirement I have continued my research on nuclear weapons, missiles, counterterrorism, information warfare, and other topics.

(M) There are various types of peace. Peace can come from ruling another country or being ruled by a foreign power. But neither of these are correct. Japan should strive for peace through the third option, which is a balance of power. Our neighbor China has a strong military and a population 10 times larger than ours. We must have sufficient fighting power to prevent war so we do not end up ruled by China. I believe the JSDF should fulfill that role.

(Y) There are said to be three factors related to deterrence: military capabilities, political will, and two-way communication. Political will can undergo changes, both our own and that of other countries. Therefore, the most important factor is military capabilities that can be exercised during an emergency. People working in military strategy constantly run simulations to predict victory or defeat. If victory seems likely, they think about how to further improve the country’s fighting power. If defeat is predicted, they come up with a plan to make up for its weaknesses. Strategy is essentially a process of conducting simulations to optimize a plan and make defense preparations. Rather than sticking to a fixed plan, constant optimization is the only way to maintain a balance of power for deterring war. For both deterrence by denial and deterrence by punishment, the important thing is demonstrating capabilities that discourage military movements by the enemy. From this viewpoint, the JSDF’s most vital peacetime role is constantly thinking about how to distribute resources and use them in emergencies.

Japan should build nuclear submarines for enhanced defense


(M) From that defense viewpoint, I don’t think the Three Non-Nuclear Principles are a good approach. They specify “not possessing, not producing and not permitting the introduction of nuclear weapons.” I think it’s better to stay vague about whether we have them or not, which makes it unclear what Japan would do in an emergency situation.

(Y) Sun Tzu said warfare is based on deception, and that one should appear to be incapable of attacking, even when the opposite is true. In other words, he wrote that war is a game of cheating. I think China is doing something similar to this today. I mentioned before that the three elements of deterrence are capabilities, will, and communication. It’s important to accurately convey our will and capabilities to the enemy; this is the concept of arms control in nuclear deterrence, which is premised on mutual trust. But traditionally there is another way of thinking that says deterrence comes from concealing or giving a mistaken impression of our true capabilities and intentions. I think this resembles British military theorist B. H. Liddell Hart’s psychological “line of least resistance,” an indirect approach where the enemy least expects it. China focuses on Sun Tzu’s way of thinking.

(M) It seems like China puts importance on the mindset developed from its long history and ample experience with civil war. Perhaps Japan should emulate some of these things. Japan’s defense has to start with the ocean because we are an island nation. I think the Fleet Submarine Force will play a vital role in maintaining command of the sea. It’s said this force has the top non-nuclear submarine technologies in the world. Japanese submarines, which can submerge to and launch missiles at great depths, would likely pose a particular threat to enemies thinking of invading from the ocean.

(Y) Today there are highly advanced technologies for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, known as “ISR” in the military world. Satellites, drones, and other equipment can detect small objects down to a scale of several dozen centimeters, from the ground to the sky. They can accurately show targets for highly precise missile attacks from hundreds of kilometers away. People say the only places that can survive these are in the sea or underground. It’s not at all easy to find an object under the ocean if it makes no noise. Submarine-fired missiles used to have poor accuracy, but today they can be carefully guided after launch for a much higher level of precision. I think submarines will remain an important weapon going forward.

(M) Japan sealed off Port Arthur with mines during the Russo-Japanese War. That might be an effective way to stop a submarine attack.

(Y) China has powerful missiles as part of its anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy. Military aircraft and ships cannot enter the area within the “first island chain” from the East China Sea to the South China Sea. I imagine that nuclear submarines are the only weapon that can be used inside that zone, but Japan does not possess any. Nuclear and non-nuclear submarines are entirely different types of weapons. Nuclear submarines have reactors that generate vast amounts of electricity. They are also equipped with powerful sonar systems for detecting objects in a wide range, meaning the submarine can quickly flee if an enemy is discovered. No oxygen is needed as an energy source. Electric power can be used to produce oxygen from seawater for crew members, which makes long voyages possible. Enemies could target normal submarines during their regular trips to the surface for oxygen. Lithium batteries are said to enable longer voyages, but there are still limitations and I think it would be difficult to use these submarines for offensive purposes like following and destroying nuclear submarines, or laying mines to close off a port. South Korea is already designing and building nuclear submarines. With its small nuclear reactor technologies, Japan could create its own nuclear submarines if a political decision was made. The Three Non-Nuclear Principles wouldn’t apply to the use of nuclear power for energy. That’s why I think Japan should build nuclear submarines.

(M) People in Japan seem to believe in lasting peace. But I think it’s important to prepare for all sorts of possible scenarios, including the use of nuclear submarines.

Japan cannot rescue its citizens because it has no anti-espionage law


(Y) We need to be ready, which isn’t limited to military preparations. An enemy would certainly send its special forces here before an invasion. China’s National Defense Mobilization Law, which went into effect in 2010, requires citizens in China and abroad to follow orders from the government and military in the event of an emergency. It’s possible that China could command the roughly 76,000 Chinese citizens living in Japan to carry out obstruction or subversive activities. There’s also the potential of cyber-attacks, psychological warfare, economic blockades, and the like. We have to be ready according to the reality of unrestricted warfare, using all types of methods, as advocated by Chinese strategists. Japan would be defeated if its citizens and government fell into disorder, or if they yielded to intimidation, no matter how hard the JSDF fought. We need a structure to prevent this, which depends on the awareness of our people.

(M) I agree entirely. When exercising military force, a country is prepared to suffer damage. This might be avoidable with unrestricted warfare, which uses other means to intimate the enemy and force them to submit.

(Y) It’s very important to deal with intimidation in times of peace, too. In March, a Japanese employee of Astellas Pharma was detained by the Chinese authorities on suspicion of espionage. If Japan gives in at such times, China will think we are easily threatened. If the price of invading Japan seems low, China would feel a greater enticement to do so. The same is true regarding the Senkaku Islands. If we compromise even once, it sets a precedent that leads to further actions. We have to consider and judge this carefully.

(M) I feel like Japan, including the mass media, should be more concerned about having the Astellas Pharma employee returned.

(Y) It’s unfortunate at times like this that Japan doesn’t have an anti-espionage law. If we did, we could exchange people arrested here for our citizens detained in another country, like prisoner exchanges during war. We don’t have any legal basis to detain foreign spies at present.

(M) Do most countries have anti-espionage laws?

(Y) Yes, all of them do. We can compare Japan to a human being without immunity to a disease. Even a minor illness ends up becoming something serious.

(M) Do our neighbors see Japan as an easy target for invasion?

(Y) The Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (GHQ) shut down the Ministry of Home Affairs after World War II. That left police stations and fire departments under the control of local governments. There was no longer a centralized national organization to handle espionage, major disasters, and the like.

(M) We must be prepared for major disasters, including the earthquake that might strike right under the Tokyo metropolitan area. Many people died in fires caused by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Contemporary buildings in Tokyo are much better equipped to withstand earthquakes and fires compared to 100 years ago, so the level of damage would probably be much smaller.

(Y) That’s true, but today there are many more buildings in the same area, which would result in more damage. Estimates say the Hiroshima atomic bomb killed approximately 140,000 people by the end of 1945. If a similar bomb hit the more populous City of Hiroshima today, about 500,000 people are predicted to die.

(M) More people are concentrated in Tokyo today, which would mean more deaths.

(Y) Another problem is that Japan has many underground buildings that could be used for evacuation in the event of a nuclear attack, but they aren’t equipped as fallout shelters.

(M) Underground shelters would probably protect people from the initial impact, but they aren’t capable of blocking radiation afterwards.

(Y) The buildings have many openings that let in air from outside. Pressure-resistant doors could withstand heat rays and bomb blasts while keeping out air. Shelters should also have air purification filters and water for decontamination. Japan doesn’t have these things, including the technologies for making them. During the Cold War, many developed countries built fallout shelters for 60% to 70% of their populations.

The number of Japanese soldiers is much too small to defend our territory


(M) Although the ocean serves as a fortification, I’m extremely anxious about whether we could defend Japan’s long coastlines if an enemy force tried to land.

(Y) That’s an important question. Japan lacks the ability to continue waging war, including coastal defense. There are many ideal landing spots on our isolated islands and coastline, which is longer than the coast of the United States. The JGSDF numbers 150,000 people, which isn’t enough. There are only about 40,000 reserve self-defense officials. Other nations have reserves of the same size or twice as large as their conventional armed forces. There are about 3.2 million reserve officials in South Korea and 1.66 to two million in Taiwan, which is transitioning from a conscription system to volunteer soldiers. Taiwan has shortened its training period for compulsory military service since 2000. Due to its tense relations with China, the training period will be extended from four months to one year starting in January 2024. Looking at the size of our population, Japan should establish a structure in which 1% of our people (1.2 million) can provide fighting power as active-duty and reserve soldiers. That certainly doesn’t mean returning to the militarism of the past – this is an accepted practice across the globe, including in South Korea and Taiwan. There are approximately 107 million military personnel worldwide, including semi-military forces. That’s 1.338% of the roughly eight billion people on this planet. Japan’s rate is just 0.19%, one-seventh of the global average. The fixed number of reserve officials in particular is around 47,900, of which just about 70% of the positions are filled.
People often say the declining birthrate is the reason why Japan has such a hard time recruiting soldiers. However, public opinion polls indicate that just over 10% of citizens would pick up a weapon and fight if Japan was invaded. Their self-defense awareness is of the lowest level in the world. Moreover, we don’t have a sufficient reserve self-defense system on the national level. Soldiers are not treated very well, which is why people don’t want to join. If Japanese citizens put in similar efforts as residents of other countries, we should have 400,000 active-duty soldiers and around 800,000 reserve soldiers based on our population. The problem isn’t that we don’t have enough people. It’s that our citizens lack the spirit to defend their country, and that we don’t have a sufficient system in place to safeguard our territory. That’s the fundamental reason why people don’t sign up for the JSDF.
The falling birthrate and ageing population is an issue. Women don’t want to marry a man with a monthly salary of three million yen or less. About 10 million people are temporary employees. For example, 200,000 of them could be hired as reserve officials. We could pay them 500,000 a month to spend four months of the year training with the JSDF and learning the skills that are most needed by the JSDF and private sector, such as cyber, IT, and drone technologies. After returning to regular society, they would have an easier time finding a job. Private-sector companies could more easily secure human resources, too. And if these people earned more money, I think they would have a simpler time finding a spouse, which would help resolve the declining birthrate. With the current system, this would mean drastically increasing the number of positions for reserve soldiers with special skills. If we raised the age limit, we should be able to use about 2% of those 10 million temporary employees. In other countries it’s normal for the military to function as a place where young people can gain employment skills and further training. I think Japan should consider doing something similar.

(M) Japanese people feel an inherent resistance to the terms “conscription” and “mobilization,” which is why we haven’t been able to strengthen these systems in the postwar era so far.

(Y) Japan also lacks ammunition for fighting. The war in Ukraine involves unimaginable firepower. The Russian military is firing 60,000 howitzer shells every day, while the Ukrainian army is firing 6,000 to 7,000 shots. You can’t do this unless you already have stockpiles and the ability to increase production. Other logistic functions are also important, such as transporting the produced ammunition and equipment to the front lines, as well as repairing broken equipment.

(M) Supply lines are essential for a country to continue fighting. Even if it survives the initial attack, it can’t last without stockpiles of ammunition.

(Y) That’s right. And as I mentioned before, ISR capabilities have reached an extremely advanced level in modern warfare. Objects on the Earth’s surface can be detected from a long distance away with reconnaissance satellites, drones, etc. With technologies like long-range, precision-guided missiles, you can attack the enemy before reaching the appropriate distance for a battle. Russia is using satellites and drones to keep a remote eye on the Ukrainian military. It fires volleys of missiles, rockets, and long-range artillery at the Ukrainian side before it arrives on the front lines, which is estimated to account for roughly 75% of the total damage. In other words, three fourths of Ukraine’s fighting power is being destroyed before it reaches the action zone.
To avoid this, Japan must have central facilities for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR). We shouldn’t build equipment, ammunition, and fuel storage on the ground. The same applies to equipment and part factories. It’s extremely important to construct these below ground to avoid enemy monitoring and reconnaissance. Japan has the world’s top excavation technologies, which we should leverage to the fullest extent.
A current issue is the ammunition depots on the Nansei Islands. If we don’t swiftly build underground storage, it’s possible that most of these could be destroyed in a surprise missile attack at the start of a war. With an outlying island near a national border, there is a particularly high potential of a surprise attack at the beginning of an invasion. Once the enemy establishes a sea blockade, it could easily cut off our supply lines. These are urgent issues, including underground C4ISR facilities, equipment hangars, ammunition depots, and fuel stores.

(M) Komatsu Air Base had an aboveground fuel depot. After myself and others pointed out how risky this was, they eventually covered it up with soil.

(Y) The American Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) estimated how a Taiwan crisis would affect Japan and the U.S. The CSIS predicts that more than 90% of the total damage would be to aircraft on the ground, including the initial surprise attack using missiles. However, even this scenario assumes that Japan and the U.S. carried out their plan to build 400 aircraft bunkers by 2026. Despite that, many fighters would still be destroyed on the ground, each of which costs over ten billion yen. The Russian military is focusing on striking Ukrainian radar systems, anti-aircraft missile bases, and air bases in its current war.

(M) We must have more bunkers, along with underground facilities like ammunition depots and fuel stores.

(Y) We should also build a reserve system in which skilled private citizens help defend Japan. Chinese President Xi Jinping frequently emphasizes the need to prepare for adversity in times of prosperity. It’s like the Ancient Roman adage that says, “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

(M) Yes, but I don’t think the importance of this is understood by the Japanese prime minister and other leaders.

(Y) A Cabinet decision was made on three new security-related documents last December. It was a major step forward, allowing Japan to free itself from its past basic defense force concept, and will double defense spending as well. However, we can’t actually call this a “strategy” unless we start by coming up with tactics for protecting Japan. After that, we should systematically acquire necessary defense capabilities by the applicable fiscal year.
In other words, we should follow this process: 1) Analyzing national interests to clarify our defense priorities, 2) Estimating threats to these, including their likelihood, level of danger, and invasion scenarios, 3) Proposing means to deal with these and organizing them into several policies, 4) Putting together the invasion scenarios and plans to deal with them; repeatedly performing war simulations including formations, equipment, and combat methods; and repeatedly comparing and analyzing them, 5) Determining the best strategy and how to implement it, including the optimal combat methods, formations, and equipment, 6) Deciding on the required budget and how to allot it for the applicable fiscal year. During the execution phase, we should refer to the strategic plan while training the assigned units and maintaining readiness to cope with emergencies.
Afterwards, feedback is also important. If we do not accurately pinpoint the lessons learned and share this information so it can be reflected in the next strategy, we will simply repeat the same mistakes. Strategy is an unending cycle made up of a logical thought process, followed by efforts to reflect the results. It is the only way to ensure victory. Even if we are victorious one time, we will not continue winning unless we make use of the vital things we have learned.

(M) I do think Japan’s security is heading in a positive direction, but it sounds like there are still many things to be accomplished. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”

(Y) The beginning of the security documents clearly states that the Three Non-Nuclear Principles and exclusively defense-oriented policy are the basic policies for Japanese security. But by all rights, strategies should be entirely rational. We should still be asking whether we can protect Japan by adhering to the Three Non-Nuclear Principles and exclusively defense-oriented posture. We must put aside our assumptions to take a straight look at reality; deliberate how to defend our country against likely threats; and draft strategies via a pragmatic, logical process.
We talked about issues we should consider to that end, such as an anti-espionage law and intelligence agency. This also includes things that affect our ability to continue fighting, including a reserve system, ammunition stockpiles, submarines, and underground shelters.
Still, these are merely a few of the things we must do. The JSDF is limited in terms of its capabilities and jurisdiction. To truly protect Japan, we must bring together different abilities and receive support from citizens, centered on the JSDF. I predict that Japan will face a real threat in the next five to six years, or within the following decade at the latest. A self-satisfied, unreasonable public stance or convenient assumptions would be of no use in that case. If you want peace, prepare for war. Japan will not survive unless we follow this adage by making regular efforts for defense. All our neighbors are working earnestly for defense at the national level. Of course alliances are important, but the true power to maintain peace comes from the citizens’ will to protect their country and our regular defense endeavors. No one is going to rescue a country or its people if they lack the will and ability to defend themselves. I definitely hope that young people will be inspired by this.

(M) Thank you for sharing such an instructive conversation with me today.

(Y) Thank you.


Yoshiaki Yano

Born in Osaka Prefecture in 1950. Graduated from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, Kyoto University in 1972, and from the Department of the History of Chinese Philosophy, Faculty of Letters, Kyoto University in 1974. After studying at the Kurume Officer Candidate School, he became a leader in the Infantry Regiment and served in a range of different positions including vice president of the Kodaira School (final rank: major general). He left the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in 2006 and earned his Ph.D. in Security Studies from Takushoku University in 2013. His published works include The Missile Threat and the Defenseless Nation of Japan (Kojinsha), Japan is Already in the Range of 200 North Korean Missiles (Kojinsha), Japan’s Ideal Defense Structure (NAIGAI PUBLISHING), and Japanese Territory is in Danger (GYOSEI).