TOKYO — Japan’s Self-Defense Forces currently cannot maintain the country’s security in the face of evolving regional and global challenges, warned Gen. Yoshihide Yoshida, chief of staff of the Joint Staff, in an interview with Nikkei.

Yoshida, who became the country’s top uniformed officer earlier this year, outlined the importance of bolstering the SDF’s capabilities, including through coordination with Japan’s partners and the private sector.

Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: Does the SDF currently possess the capability to defend Japan?

A: We cannot maintain Japan’s security with our current capabilities. That is why the decision was made to increase defense spending to 2% of gross domestic product and to fundamentally strengthen our capabilities under the three key defense policy documents [updated in late 2022].

Q: What about Japan do we need to protect?

A: We need to protect the state and the three things that define that state: the people, territory and sovereignty. The challenge is protecting those three things when our sovereignty is threatened, as in the situation in Ukraine.

The National Security Strategy clearly defines Japan’s national interest as the peace, security and further prosperity of Japan, and an international order based on universal values and international law. National interest used to be a taboo topic because of how it helped drive Japan into [World War II]. But we are starting to have more open discussion of it.

Q: Still, there is not enough public support and understanding for defense policy.

A: I want the public to recognize the strategic environment facing Japan. The international community is at a critical juncture on whether it can prevent unilateral changes in the status quo by force and maintain an international order based on the rule of law. Japan is on the front lines of this fight in the Indo-Pacific.

How the Japanese people view the SDF is changing dramatically. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has lessons for us, too. Interest in our defense is growing, as the public sees the provocations by North Korea and China firsthand. Opinion polls show that many people support an increase in defense spending, as well as Japan acquiring counterstrike capabilities.

Q: What can we learn from what is happening in Ukraine?

A: Russia underestimated Ukraine’s military capabilities and the resistance it would face from Ukrainians. The fact that Ukraine was not part of NATO contributed as well. We cannot rule out a similarly serious crisis happening near Japan, and we are strongly concerned by this possibility.

There are two things Japan must do. First, we must fundamentally strengthen our defensive capabilities so that we are not underestimated. Second, we need to do what we can to sustain extended deterrence, including through strategies involving U.S. nuclear weapons.

Q: Given North Korea’s advances in its nuclear and missile technology, missile defense alone does not seem to be enough to protect Japan.

A: Strengthening our missile defense on its own will not protect the lives and property of our people. North Korea has gained advanced, sophisticated capabilities, including missiles with irregular trajectories that are difficult to intercept.

There are three areas we must address. We need to gain counterstrike capabilities so that we can hit a target using missiles, and bolster our ability to intercept attacks. We also need more underground shelters so that we can minimize damage from a missile attack and protect our people.

Q: Some critics say there has not been enough explanation on how Japan would utilize counterstrike capability.

A: There hasn’t been enough dialogue with the public. We plan to provide a thorough explanation. But it is also important that we do not show our hand. If we reveal operational details to the public, we lose the ability to deter opponents from attacking.

Q: Would the U.S. defend Japan in a crisis?

A: We have been engaged in a deep dialogue with the U.S. since 2010 on extended deterrence — extending the U.S. nuclear umbrella over Japan. In late June, we agreed to share more information, improve the quality of our joint exercises, and bolster our missile response. There have also been detailed conversations between our foreign and defense ministers.

The Japan Self-Defense Forces have faced structural challenges, including problems with staffing.   © Jiji Press

Q: During the Cold War, the SDF was said to need the ability to sustain two weeks of fighting. Now, it is said to need three.

A: I’ll refrain from commenting on how long the SDF can hold its own, since that’s an operational detail.

Our National Security Strategy aims for Japan to be able to take primary responsibility by fiscal 2027 for dealing with invasions.

Q: Changing global dynamics have transformed the Japan-U.S. alliance as well.

A: So far, we have been able to count on U.S. deterrence should there be a crisis. But if we rely too much on the U.S., there will be voices there questioning whether its alliance with us is worth the cost. We will bolster the alliance’s capabilities by increasing the things Japan can do on its own.

Q: What can Japan do on its own?

A: It’s important for the SDF to demonstrate its monitoring and intelligence-gathering capabilities in peacetime. We must also maintain an advantage in cutting-edge technology, such as artificial intelligence and quantum cryptography.

We will expand partnerships including with the U.S. and Australia, as well as with them and India. We need to work closely together with forces interested in defending the status quo in the Indo-Pacific and in Europe.

Q: Cooperation with the private sector is also critical.

A: We will speed up research and development and the deployment of defense equipment. It’s been taking us more than a decade to develop new equipment. We will instead start introducing prototypes to units as soon as they are ready so that capabilities can be strengthened in parallel with new research and development.

Q: Japanese companies traditionally have not highlighted their involvement in the defense industry.

A: Today’s defense industry cannot fully take advantage of cutting-edge technology on its own. We will build relationships with startups that lead in their fields. We will create a framework that allows us to adapt civilian technology for defense, and engage in public-private efforts to promote defense exports.

We will also work more closely with academia, which has traditionally kept its distance from military matters. We will start a direct dialogue to foster an understanding about the current security environment.

Q: A trainee for the Ground SDF in June killed two people and injured a third in June.

A: Given that we as an organization are authorized by the government to handle weapons, an incident like this should never have happened. We are taking it extremely seriously.

Q: Interest in joining the SDF has been declining.

A: Recruitment and training is a key challenge. We want to boost the percentage of women in our forces to 14% by 2050 from the current 7% to 8% by increasing retention. We need to reshape the organization with the help of AI, unmanned equipment and the private sector.