China Ups the Pressure as Japan Struggles to Keep Up

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The scores of Type 90, or “Kyumaru,” tanks rumbled through recent mass shooting exercises on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido.

They represent the difficulty the country’s armaments makers face both at home and abroad, as the country strengthens its defenses versus strategic threats.


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It’s a Struggle

As Japan’s main strategy changes from Russia to the south (where it risks intrusions by Chinese jet fighters and naval vessels), as well as North Korean missile launches, the Self Defense Forces need more modern aircraft and armaments offered by US arms producers.

Big Japanese arms manufacturers like Mitsubishi, IHI Corp., and Kawasaki Heavy Manufacturing are battling to sell tanks, planes, and warships from the twentieth century.

They need to improve their expertise to serve a military interested in unmanned drones, like Northrop Grumman’s Tritons and Boeing’s subsea Echo Voyager.

Japan’s international armament sales, too, have never truly taken off. Arms manufacturers in Japan are rapidly retreating from the sector, due to expensive prices, obsolete technology, and a lack of government support.

The heavy Kyumaru tanks, developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, have been phased out in favor of smaller, more mobile armored cars that can operate on open streets and/or have aquatic capabilities, such as American amphibious landing vehicles.

“People may believe Japan has great technology and if it simply gets sincere, it can soon catch up with others and start to sell weapons. I believe that is incorrect,” said Heigo Sato, a defense specialist, and professor at Hokkaido’s Takushoku Institute.


“The issue is Japan’s military products aren’t up to par. No one wants to pay more for second or third-grade stuff,” he explained.

Japan is Working to Fix the Situation

In 2015, Japan established its own Acquisition, Technology, as well as Logistics Agency to re-energize the country’s lethargic weapons industry and promote collaborative technology research, production, and sales with friendly countries.

However, revenues at home have decreased as the government, rather than encouraging sales, encouraged major purchases from the United States.

With a 2.2 percent worldwide share, Japan is the world’s 12th largest weaponry importer. As per the latest poll by the Stockholm Global Peace Research Institute, a global research institution, the majority of purchases are made from its ally, the United States.


The US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program accounts for a major and growing portion of the Defense Ministry’s yearly hardware acquisitions of 2 trillion yen ($17.7 billion).

When Japan made orders for F-35 stealth jets, missile defenses, and other pricey hardware to boost its capabilities against China and North Korea, they more than increased from 190.6 billion yen ($1.7 billion) in 2014 to 701.3 billion yen ($6.2 billion) in 2019.

Officials from the Defense Ministry said wrangling over expensive American jets and other weaponry hindered progress on upgrading the country’s defenses.