Features | Security | East Asia

How Japan Talks About Security Threats

The particulars of the language used to describe rivals are important to understanding Japan’s threat assessments and policy goals.

By Eitan Oren and Matthew Brummer for
How Japan Talks About Security Threats

An F/A-18E (left) of the “Royal Maces” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 27 flies in formation with two Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-15J Eagles during a dissimilar air combat training near Okinawa, Japan, February 24, 2015.

Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Cmdr. Spencer Abbot

On July 14, Japan’s Ministry of Defense (MOD) published its annual white paper, “Defense of Japan” (DOJ). The strategic document describes developments in Japan’s defense policy within the context of the U.S.-Japan alliance as well as the defense policies and actions of rival states in the international system. In particular, and for the 13th consecutive year, the document highlights three rivals in Japan’s backyard: China, North Korea, and Russia.

In DOJ 2020, MOD describes Chinese security behavior as “a grave matter of concern” and North Korea as a “grave and imminent threat.” Russia, on the other hand, is subjected to much softer language, with its security behavior requiring “close scrutiny.” Understanding the particulars of the language used to describe Japan’s rivals is important to understanding Japan’s threat perception(s), contemporary foreign and defense policy objectives, and the predominant attitudes toward national security. And while other indicators can and should be used when reconstructing Japan’s threat assessment, security language and the organization of the text itself as it appears in government sanctioned documents is an essential tool in the analyst’s toolkit.

In this article, we review the content of the DOJ 2020 with a focus on the language used to describe the threat emanating from Japan’s regional rivals and how this language relates to previous MOD white papers. Additionally, we comment on how the language of MOD white papers compares to the language of two additional strategic documents from the government of Japan: the National Defense Program Guidelines and the Diplomatic Bluebook. Taken together, these three strategic documents provide the most comprehensive representation of Japan’s official threat assessment, the production of which has traditionally been led by different government organs at the heart of Japanese defense policymaking and threat assessment – the Ministry of Defense, the Kantei (Japan’s Cabinet), and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, respectively.

Finally, we identify change and continuity of this language within and across Japan’s official threat assessment, and offer an explanation as to why this is the case.

Why Does Security Language Matter?

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The way security issues are framed in strategic documents is important for at least three reasons. First, language reflects how individuals and organizations think about the intensity of threats. Humans perceive and experience threats in markedly different degrees – from a mild sense of a potential danger to the feeling of an existential threat to survival. Whether a document frames a security issue as a “matter of attention” or as a “grave threat” matters greatly. Gauging the specific words used in the DOJ to denote a security issue can thus shed light on the fluctuating intensity of the perceived threat.

Second, the language used to describe security issues is also important because of its performative role: by communicating some security issues as threats to audiences – and by toning down language on other security issues – actors are “doing” security. Words carry weight and this is especially so in official government publications which will be scrutinized by foreign governments, domestic and international media, and political actors and security analysts both at home and abroad. Thus, how security issues are framed in the DOJ may not only reveal the intensity of perceived threats but also shed light on Tokyo’s foreign and security policy goals vis-à-vis specific security issues.

Third, tracing the specifics of security language over time is important in revealing “tectonic shifts” in the prevalent attitudes toward security in any given country. This aspect is arguably even more important in the case of Japan, because of the country’s historical sensitivities to issues such as militarism, war, and the use of force in international affairs. Throughout much of the Cold-War period (1952-1991), for example, both Japan’s leaders and the country’s strategic documents largely eschewed labeling foreign countries as threats when commenting on Japan’s security environment. Commensurate with Japan’s overall defensive posture, a unique jargon that focused on dangerous scenarios – rather than threatening actors – evolved instead.

Yet Japan’s security language has undergone significant changes since the early 2000s. Recent empirical work has shown that unlike in the Cold-War era, Japan’s contemporary political discourse about security threats is no longer sensitized to utterances of foreign threats, and an empirical investigation of Japan’s three leading strategic documents since 2006 has confirmed this trend. Thus, patterns in contemporary use of security language can illuminate deep, “undercurrent” attitudinal changes in the intricate ways with which Japanese strategists seek to address security threats, i.e., whether they believe that certain foreign actors might be best deterred by certain strategic means but not by others.

Taken together, the analysis of security language helps explicate how Japanese strategists and policymakers think and feel about the intensity of security threats, what their intentions vis-à-vis foreign actors might be, and what their overall attitude to security issues is. So how are the most pressing security issues described in DOJ 2020 and how does this language compare to that used in previous DOD white papers as well as the National Defense Policy Guidelines and the Diplomatic Bluebook?

Japan’s Security Language

Contemporary strategic documents in Japan can be analyzed with a basic four-layer typology of threats to denote security dangers. The first and lowest level of intensity is represented in the term “attention” (chūmoku), as in “matter of attention.” The second level of intensity is represented in the term “concern” (ken’en), or “problem,” often preceded by adjectives such as “great,” “major,” or “serious.” The third level of intensity is represented in the term “threat” (kyōi), often preceded by the adjectives “dire,” “serious,” “considerable,”  “direct,”  “grave,”  “imminent,” or by a combination of these. Finally, the fourth and most intense level is represented in the term “existential threat” (to date, none of the Japanese strategic documents have used this term; other countries have).

Defense of Japan

The 2020 English digest version of the DOJ mentions China 56 times, more than any other foreign country (except Japan and the United States). China is mentioned twice as much as North Korea and three times as much as Russia. Other security dangers such as piracy (eight mentions) and terrorism (six) are far behind; and the more recent “new” security threats such as space (31 times) and cyber (29 times) garner less attention as well.

In DOJ 2020, China is said to have “relentlessly continued unilateral attempts to change the status quo by coercion in the sea area around the Senkaku Islands, leading to a grave matter of concern.” In past DOJs, Chinese military developments were framed in terms of “a strong security concern” (2019), “strong security concerns” (2018), “great concerns” (2014-2017), “concern” (2013), “a matter of concern” (2010-2012), “concern” (2007-2009), and a matter for “attention” (2006). That is, although China garners the most attention in DOJ, it has only been framed as a “concern” (threat level 2).

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The DOJ 2020 frames military trends in North Korea as posing “grave and imminent threats to Japan’s security” (level 3). In the past, aspects of North Korea’s behavior including its nuclear and missile programs and the abductions of Japanese citizens were framed in terms of a “serious and imminent threat” (2019), an “unprecedentedly serious and imminent threat” (2018), a “serious and imminent threat” (2014-2017), a “serious threat” (2013), a “significant threat” (2010-2012), a “major threat” (2007-2009), and a “considerable threat” (2006). That is, although the DOJ is less occupied with North Korea as a whole, it frames it as a more severe security issue that China.

What about Russia? The DOJ 2020 frames Russia as a matter of attention (level 1): “Russia is modernizing its military equipment, including strategic nuclear forces, and is stepping up military activities, so close scrutiny of developments in this regard will be required.” In the past, Russian behavior was framed in terms of calling for “close scrutiny of developments” (2019), “closely monitoring its trends” (2018), the need to “keep our attention on future developments” (2015-2017), the need to “continue to observe their future trends” (2011-2014), the necessity to “continue paying attention” (2010), the necessity to “continue monitoring” (2009), a matter for “attention” (2008), and the necessity to “continue monitoring” (2006-2007).

Japan’s Other Strategic Documents

National Defense Program Guidelines

The most recent NDPG (2018) has used its most pointed language to date to describe North Korea, labeling it as a “grave and imminent threat to Japan’s security” (compared with “destabilizing factor to regional security” in 2010). It has also used its most pointed language to date to describe China, characterizing it as a “strong security concern for the region including Japan and the international community” (compared with “concern for the region and global community” in 2010, for example). In line with the DOJ, then, North Korea is framed as a level 3 threat, with China as level 2.

Interestingly, despite Russia’s military and nuclear force modernization; confrontation with Europe and the United States over issues including the situation in Ukraine; intensifying military activities in the Arctic; and more assertive posture in the Far East, including the Japanese-claimed Northern Territories, the NDPG 2018 describes Russia as simply meriting “close attention.” Russia’s military activities were framed as “active” (2013) and “increasingly robust” (2010) in the previous two NDPGs.

Diplomatic Bluebook

In line with the DOJ and NDPG, consecutive publications of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ white paper have used the sharpest language to denote North Korea. The Diplomatic Bluebook (DB) describes North Korea as “an unprecedented, grave and imminent threat towards the peace and stability of Japan and the international community” (2018), a “threat of a new level” (2017), “a direct and serious threat to Japan’s security” (2016), “a grave threat to peace and stability in the region and the international community” (2015), “a grave threat to the security of the region and the international community” (2014), a “threat” (2012-2013), “a major destabilizing factor” (2011), a “threat” (2010), an “outstanding issue of concern” (2008-2009), and a “serious threat to Japan’s peace and security,” (2007, the first Abe administration).

Here, too, although recent publications of the DB have extensively detailed issues related to China’s military modernization, lack of transparency in defense budgets, and “unilateral attempts to change the status quo” at sea and in the air, China has only been framed in terms of “concern,” and in a less straight-forward manner than in the DOJ or the NDPG. During the pro-China Fukuda administration (2008), no indication of threat was used, and in the previous Koizumi administration, Chinese military modernization and lack of transparency as well as cross-Taiwan relations merited “close” and “careful observation.”

Russia has not been part of the section describing the “security environment in East Asia” or the “Asia Pacific Region” since 2013, after the Abe administration was inaugurated. The last time Russia was framed in terms of a threat was in 2012, when Russian military activities in the Far East were denoted as a “problem” during the Noda administration. At the same time, the DB has consistently referred to the Northern Territories issue as an “outstanding issue” and “the greatest concern between Japan and Russia.”

Trends Within and Across Japan’s Language of Threat Assessment

Three trends stand out from this brief survey of Japan’s strategic documents.

First, although China receives most attention in all three documents, and while private conversations with Japanese defense planners reveal that they are mostly concerned with the threat of China – and overwhelmingly so – China is only framed in terms of “concern.” Why?

The three documents surveyed above are not only strategic documents, products of bureaucratic assessments; they are also political documents. As such, while the Japanese have been increasingly alarmed by Chinese military activities, Japanese decision-makers are keen to avoid further escalation of Sino-Japanese tensions by toning down its security language in publicly released strategic documents. The day when these strategic documents do label China as a “threat” will be the day when East Asian security dynamics enters a new phase of tension.

Second and third, why have Japanese strategic documents during the second Abe administration been harsh on North Korea and soft on Russia? Abe’s campaign for constitutional revision and his drive to resolve the territorial dispute with Russia may best explain why Japan’s official threat assessments have manifested in the manner that they have. Political instrumentality may well explain why certain threats were amplified (North Korea) while others (Russia, and at times China) were tempered.

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Japan’s security language is a delicate matter, perhaps more so than in any other large and industrialized country on earth. Much hangs on what is said – as well as what is not. Understanding the particulars of the language used to describe Japan’s rivals provides insight into Japan’s threat perception(s), contemporary foreign and defense policy objectives, and the predominant attitudes toward national security.

Eitan Oren is a teaching fellow at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.

Matthew Brummer is an assistant professor and the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) and Research Associate at The University of Tokyo.