Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, talk about any kind of military expansion remains highly sensitive in Japan.
Just consider the position of Akifumi Arai, the president of the Tamagawa Trading Company, a relatively small Nagano-based business that supplies sensors and gyroscopes used to guide torpedoes and missiles for Japan’s self-defence forces.
For decades, his firm has had only a handful of possible defence-related customers, restricted to the Japanese market and its major players, such as Mitsubishi and Fuji Heavy Industries.
Now, with the easing of defence export rules – part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wider effort to put Japan’s history behind it and return the country to a more “normal” footing – Japanese companies making military equipment have the opportunity to sell abroad.
But what should be a good business opportunity is complicated in a country that is still very conscious of its wartime actions.
“Weapons are for fighting with other countries but it’s good for us not to fight,” Mr Arai said. This is not the kind of sentiment likely to be expressed by a Western defence executive.
What about taking a leaf from Senkan Yamato, a Japanese science-fiction cartoon about a battle with aliens, he suggested? “If all the countries on this Earth can get together, maybe we can fight with another planet?” laughed Mr Arai, wearing the kind of blue work jacket ubiquitous in Japanese factories.
Tamagawa got its start in the defence industry by making fuel indicators for fighter planes, but that business dried up when Japan was banned by its American occupiers from building military aircraft after the Second World War.
Seventy years on, the prospect of selling military equipment again is creating a dilemma for Japanese defence companies of all sizes.
Officials at the big defence companies have been reluctant to even discuss the prospect of expanding their exports, privately shrugging off the opportunity to develop a global market and simply saying they’ll do it if the government asks.
The changes come as part of a broader push by Mr Abe, a conservative who has been trying to distance Japan from its legacy of wartime aggression, often angering neighbours and former victims Korea and China in the process.
He has proposed reinterpreting Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow the country’s military, officially known as its self-defence forces, to come to the aid of allies under attack.
He has also lifted the self-imposed ban on defence exports, although the government says Japan will “continue to adhere to the course it has taken to date as a peace-loving country”.
Both changes are highly controversial in a country where pacifism has become the default position.
When the relaxation on defence sales was announced last April, 77 per cent of the people surveyed by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper said they opposed the change, while only 17 per cent supported it.
The changes are guided by three principles, the defence ministry says. First, authorities will prohibit sales that violate international treaties or sanctions, ruling out exports to North Korea and Iran specifically, and to countries that are involved in conflicts.
Second, the ministry will limit sales to cases that would promote international peace and contribute to Japan’s security. And finally, it will sell only to countries that can keep control of the technology, seeking to restrict transfers to third parties.
“The main purpose is not to bring in more income or to sell our weapons, but to contribute to international peace and security,” said Masanori Kegoya, of the Defence Ministry’s equipment policy division. “The fundamental position is that Japan should stay as a peace-loving nation that does not promote conflict.”
The Japanese government has already approved selling gyroscopes to be used in the US-produced Patriot interceptor missiles, and has launched a research programme with Britain on air-to-air missile technology for fighter jets.
It is now in talks about selling a dozen diesel-powered Soryu class submarines to Australia. Negotiations are bogged down over where the subs would be built. Australia wants the £13bn deal to create jobs at home, and the Mainichi Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper, reported that Tokyo has proposed jointly building the hulls.
American officials support the idea of Australia buying Japanese Soryu subs, which would be fitted with US combat systems, saying it would make it easier for the US military if its allies were using the same equipment.
There is increasing military co-ordination between the US, Australia and Japan in the face of a rising China.
“Australia is a special country for us,” Mr Kegoya said. “We have a special relationship with them and the US, and better trilateral cooperative relations will contribute greatly to the security of the Asia-Pacific area.”
Senior officials from Japan’s defence and industry ministries have been attending defence trade shows such as Eurosatory in Paris and the Farnborough air show.
Reuters recently reported that Japan is seeking to sell its P-1 submarine-hunting jet to Britain in a deal that could top £660m, although it said no decision had been made.
Japanese officials have also been meeting representatives from American defence companies, including Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and have been talking about selling seaplanes to India and tanks to Turkey, defence industry insiders say.
“For the Japanese government, this is not just about export deals,” said Mr Kegoya. “This has a lot to do with our foreign diplomacy so we are making progress only gradually.”
Both the government and the defence companies are going to great lengths to avoid looking too eager to get back into the military business.
This public reticence goes to the heart of the modern Japanese psyche, said Professor Heigo Sato, a security studies specialist at Takushoku University.
“There is still a perception that defence exports are vicious products. We are more about pacifism than war,” Professor Sato said.
For most of the companies that are involved in the defence industry, this makes up only a small fraction of their overall business.
For Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, for example, defence equipment is only 5 per cent of its business, and other products such as air conditioners and cruise ships make up the rest.
“So companies are afraid of a backlash against defence exports that will affect their other products,” Sato said.
Over at Tamagawa, Mr Arai encapsulated this predicament perfectly, saying he was “very excited, but very nervous” about the changes.
“I’m very happy to provide our weapons all over the world,” he said. “Unfortunately, these weapons will be used to kill people, and I really hate this.”
©The Washington Post