Japan is at a crossroads — and has been there for a few years now — when it comes to technology and national security. Since drafting a peace constitution just after WWII (with a strong guiding hand from the United States), the Japanese government and people have managed to hold firmly to their ‘pacifist’ ideals as a nation, while still spending around 40 billion per year on the Japan Self-Defence Forces (JSDF).

While the JSDF can nominally hide a lot of offensive capabilities behind its ‘defensive’ name, the changing security environment in the Asia Pacific region, powered in large part by China’s increasing ability (and willingness) to project power, has policy-makers in Japan on edge. That’s why the debate surrounding the 70-year old ban on university researchers working directly on military technology projects has been attracting a bit of attention as of late.

The robotic litmus test

Dr Masatoshi Ishikawa, from the University of Tokyo (Todai), invented an advanced robotic hand several years ago, which is still in the news today. The hand, making use of high-speed imaging sensors, along with incredibly fast machine-driven motion, can beat a human being at the game of rock, paper, scissors every time. While Dr Ishikawa did not design his robotic hand for military use, and has no desire to see it repurposed as such, many in the defence community see the advantages of applying this dual-use technology to future military needs (combat robots, drones and more) — hence the increased debate around the pacifist constitution, and Japan’s pacifist values in general.

“The Japanese public will in response to public surveys probably express opposition to universities doing defence related research,” Corey Wallace, security policy analyst at the Graduate School of East Asian Studies at Freie Universität, Berlin, tells The Stack. “However, much like the relaxation of the overseas arm export restrictions, the intensity of this opposition is unlikely to be sufficient to make this a salient public issue that will lead to significant political controversy — if managed sensitively and incrementally.” In order to shift an anti-war nation’s attitudes toward a more militarily aggressive stance, Wallace believes limiting the development of “finished, off-the-shelf technologies and weapons that will be highly lethal” that could “make it into the hands of bad actors, or play a role in exacerbating conflict” is vital, as the Japanese voting public would have a hard time watching home-grown tech used in murderous ways on foreign battlefields.

Even though the security paradigm in Japan is shifting, the Japanese Ministry of Defence still has some work to do if it wants to change people’s perceptions — especially academics and scientists — about how Japanese research institutions should conduct themselves in the modern world. A prime example of this is an online-signature collection campaign trying to build support among Japanese scholars to put a ‘stop to military-academia joint research,’ as well as curb Ministry of Defence efforts at developing dual-use technologies with Japanese universities, which petition organisers believe violate the Science Council of Japan’s 1949 ban (reaffirmed in 1967) against conducting military research.

Dual-use technologies and Japanese security

Japan, an archipelago nation of some 126 million souls, is famed the world over for its robots. From the fictional Voltron (Defender of the Universe, no small task) to Honda’s incredibly real, and highly advanced ASIMO, the sociocultural potential robots and robotic research bring have enamoured the Japanese for decades. Is it any wonder that the men and women working in Japanese defence circles seek to take advantage of Japan’s cutting-edge robotic technology (and associated technologies) for military use?

honda-new-asimo-2Dr Michael Raska, assistant professor in the Military Transformations Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, while acknowledging that universities in Japan are indeed banned from conducting research related to military technology, points out the fact that “Japanese universities, think tanks and the National Defence Academy have been conducting military strategy research under the discipline of international relations” for some years now. In other words, many are already willing to go against the spirit of the law, if not the letter. Pressure from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government — which has already done away with Japan’s ban on military exports — is mounting, trying to find ways of bringing university researchers into the defensive fold.

“Japanese dual-use technologies include rocket technology, radar technology, aeronautics, microchips, robots, and unmanned systems, which could be used for select niche military capabilities such as anti-submarine warfare,” Dr Raska explains. Corey Wallace backs this up, drawing attention to Japan’s expertise “in sensor technologies, robotics, and artificial intelligence, which clearly have military as well as civilian applications. The Japanese government has already identified UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] and UUVs [unmanned underwater vehicles] as strategically important areas of research for national security.” These are all fields where Japan has some pre-existing technological advantages. With so much wonderful high tech being developed in Japan, the push to integrate university-based brainpower with defence research will likely only grow, especially in light of the fact that regional rival China has no such academic/military research taboo.

A possible boon for Japanese universities

The allure of military funding might be too much for some researchers and universities to resist

While premier institutions like the University of Tokyo, worried about their reputation given Japan’s post-WWII pacifist tendencies, may initially shy away from giving their staff too much leeway as far as military research is concerned, a gradual shift in academic and public thought on the subject might make cooperation with defence contractors more likely. “Over the last 15 years there has been greater emphasis within Japan’s universities’ business model to bring in more research funding from outside sources, including private industry,” Wallace says.

Todai, once the highest-ranking university in Asia, has slipped in recent years, losing ground to universities in Beijing and Singapore. Even though the University of Tokyo is still a premier institution, Japanese higher education has suffered from funding cuts due to a weakened Japanese economy (fuelled by debt), and governmental austerity measures. Over the course of the next few years, and decades, the allure of military funding might be too much for some researchers and universities to resist, which, Wallace thinks, will be particularly true for non-premier universities searching for cash.

Between a rock and a hard place

patrol-south-china-seaIn many ways, Japan is caught between a rock and hard place as far as its security posture is concerned, with China and the U.S. taking on the roles of those extremes (we’ll let you decide which is which). Japan has to meet the challenge of a more aggressive Chinese military, especially with so many conflicting claims over the vital waterways of the East and South China Seas. Traditionally the U.S.-Japan security alliance would have been the main avenue for dealing with these new challenges. While this still holds true, “there is fear of abandonment and as such the need to invest in military research,” Dr Raska says.

The Japanese are trying to be a bigger partner for the Americans. Academic research into dual-use technologies, from robotic hands to unmanned underwater vehicles, could potentially be fed into specific military projects that benefit the U.S. and Japan, creating a stronger human capital and technology exchange between both nations, while shoring up the alliance at the same time.

The question then remains as to just how deep Japan’s ‘culture of military restraint’ runs, and how many academics would be willing let the rules slide, or even be dismantled. Perhaps the dual-use nature of some technologies, coupled with the need for more grants and university funding — while confusing the issue on several fronts — might make it easier for Japanese universities to become more involved in developing, or even exporting military technology (especially in the field of robotics) down the road. Whatever the outcome, it will be a fascinating journey to watch, as Japan comes to grips with the fundamental nature of its technologically advanced, yet pacifist soul.