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Defenders of Japan: The Post-Imperial Armed Forces 1946-2016, A History

05 Dec 23

440 pages

Brian Trim

This is an important book for UK military readers, at an important time. Mulloy’s work is the only comprehensive explanation of Japan’s defence forces after the Second World War. Meticulously researched, it combines historical narrative with socio-political analysis to chart the development of each service and overarching bureaucracy. The historical detail is impressive and informative, but Mulloy’s mastery has been to focus on the events that explain the configuration of today’s Self Defence Force.

With the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) gathering pace, the February 2023 Recriprocal Access Agreement, and a drumbeat of ship visits to Japan, the UK is investing effort and interest in Japan at a rate not seen for over 100 years. Though I have exercised with the JMSDF, visited Japan, and lived in the Asia-Pacific for nearly a decade, I was humbled in reading this book by just how little I knew about the JSDF. I suspect others would find the same. Thus, this book is timely for UK defence professionals who want or need to better understand our new partner.

The is an academic work, which brings strengths and challenges. The detailed table of contents, comprehensive notes and well crafted index will support those conducting research. Unfamilar abbreviations are readily deciphered via the comprehensive table at the front. It is largely written in a readable style, though there are a few language thickets requiring perseverance. I was a little irked by some hillocks of syntax and punctuation that should have been smoothed by the editorial team. A more significant issue was my poor understanding of Japanese geography; a map or two would have been helpful in understanding the interplays of regional geopolitics and JSDF basing decisions. The use of particular Japanese terms also demands the reader pay attention to grasp them when they first appear; I admit to resorting to Wikipedia once or twice. While key terms are defined in the index, a separate lexicon would improve subsequent editions.

All that said, this book is rammed with useful explanation and analysis of the JSDF’s development. Each of the three services has a different relationship with Japan’s imperial past, but there is common ground in willful forgetting, certainly in not discussing, that history. Particularly for the Ground Self-Defence Force (GSDF) the legacy of 1930s-40s militarism continues to cause tension with Japanese civil society. Eliding any imperial forbears, the GSDF traces its history to the National Police Reserve, established in the 1950s, and only since the 1990s has it gained any real acceptance within Japan.

Drawing heavily on its technical nature, the ASDF exempted itself from any connection with imperial air power. Established in 1954, it was effectively fostered by the USAF, with operational responsibilities handed over in a graduated manner as the ASDF grew over decades. As our FCAS partners, it is worth understanding the ASDF better.

Of the three services, the MSDF most acknowledges an imperial ancestry. Though heavily shorn after 1945, a spark of naval power was kept alive as a minesweeping force, which soon saw action in the Korean war. Mulloy charts the growth of today’s MSDF from this nadir, including operational and resource challenges that many of us would recognize.

Finally, the political dimension is vitally important for understanding the JSDF and frankly worth a book in its own right. Mulloy does it considerable justice by covering key concepts such as kokusanka – prioritisation of domestic industry – and the way in which Japan justifies defence spending using the DPRK, to avoid describing China as a threat.

A highly-educational read. Highly recommended.