Why doesn’t Japan have a military?

A sixth grade student I worked with yesterday asked why Japan does not have a military.  We spent nearly an hour unpacking her question — it was an amazing discussion that got at the idea of why countries need a military and what happens when a country — say Kuwait — does not have a strong military.

Of course, Gandhi did not have a strong military, and his movement to get the British out of India using non-violence is worth learning about as well (it’s a good topic to look at in connection with MLK Day, since MLK was inspired by Gandhi’s work).

But my student asked her question about Japan’s military, and the rest of this extra-long blog post will explore how she came to ask that question, and what happened as we started to explore her question.

Not surprisingly, the answer to the question about Japan’s military has its roots in World War II.

We often tell younger students that they will learn more about World War II “later.”

I once saw a great cartoon that shows a classroom on the last day of a US History class — it’s June and the students are ready to be gone. As the final bell rings, the students spring out of the room.  The teacher calls out to them, “by the way, we won World War II!”

We do a poor job of teaching students about the modern world, and we need to do better.  Here’s a blurb from the Wikipedia article about World War II:

[It was] was the most widespread war in history, with more than 100 million people, from more than 30 different countries, serving in military units. In a state of “total war“, the major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, erasing the distinction between civilian and military resources. Marked by mass deaths of civilians, including the Holocaust and the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare, it resulted in an estimated 50 million to 85 million fatalities. These made World War II the deadliest conflict in human history.

That seems like an event worth studying in some depth. With the internet today, we could learn about World War II from a variety of perspectives.  Imagine contacting schools in China, Russia, Japan, France, Germany and the US to compare how history texts from each of those countries deals with World War II. Do any texts focus on the role of women?

But I’m getting ahead of myself — let me explain how my student came to organically pose her question about Japan’s military…

We started the way we typically start our days at TLC Middle School — with students each selecting their own articles from around the world to read.

The same student who eventually asked the question about Japan’s military chose this fascinating article about China from the Washington Post, titled In China one in five children live in rural villages without their parents.

Here’s a particularly powerful paragraph from the article:

More than 61 million children — about one-fifth of the kids in China — live in villages without their parents. Most are the offspring of peasants who have flocked to cities in one of the largest migrations in human history. For three decades, the migrants’ cheap labor has fueled China’s rise as an economic juggernaut. But the city workers are so squeezed by high costs and long hours that many send their children to live with elderly relatives in the countryside.

There’s a lot to unpack in this article, and in our discussion about her article, we talked a bit about how China is changing in response to its rapid industrialization over the past 30 years.

My students did not know the word “juggernaut,” so we looked it up:


The students then wanted to know why China is an economic juggernaut, so we looked up a list of countries by GDP — here are the Top 15:


Back in 2010, China passed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy. Here’s a New York Times article about that event.

china japan

What I learned from the discussion yesterday is that it’s a good idea to have students explore raw data and ask questions about it.

The 15 countries listed above all have GDPs above $1 trillion (Indonesia is getting there).  One student wanted to know what the European Union was, since its GDP (as calculated by the IMF, in the second column above) is larger than the $16 trillion GDP of the United States.  That led to a quick overview of the EU — a body the students had only a vague notion of before.

What got fascinating, however, was when students wondered how much of a military force each of these wealthy countries employs to protect itself:

military people

You would expect Japan to be on that second list, since its GDP is third in the world at nearly $6 trillion.

In fact, Japan is another list we found that ranks countries by military expenditures:

percent military

What stood out to my students in the chart above was how Japan spends only 1% of its GDP on military, which is less than other countries on this list.  They were also struck by how much the US spends on its military — $682 billion, or 39% of the world’s total.

Then something really interesting happened:

One student stated that the US spends a lot of its money on military but that Japan has no military.

We decided to explore whether that statement was accurate. We found a chart that shows how the US budget is broken down, and our government does spend about 20% of its budget on its military, depending on who’s doing the counting.

So yes, it’s fair to say that the US does spend a lot of money on its military.

But is it true that Japan spends no money on its military, and if so, how could that be?

It turns out Japan does have a small military, and I explained to the students (who had not yet studied World War II even a little bit) that Japan lost World War II, and part of the surrender agreement limited Japan’s military.

I told my students that I would follow up with more details about that limitation on Japan’s military, and here’s a follow-up from the Wikipedia article about Japan’s Self-Defense Forces:

In theory, Japan’s rearmament is prohibited by Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which states:

“Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

However, in practice the Diet, (or Parliament), which Article 41 of the Constitution defines as “the highest organ of the state power”, established the Self-Defense Forces in 1954. Although they are equipped as a conventional military force, they are, by law, an extension of the police, created solely to ensure national security. Due to the constitutional debate concerning the Forces’ status, any attempt at increasing the Forces’ capabilities and budget tends to be controversial. Thus the JSDF’s capabilities are mainly defensive, with only limited overseas capabilities. The JSDF lacks offensive capabilities such as aircraft carriers, long-range surface-to-surface missiles, ballistic missiles, strategic bombers, marines, amphibious units, and large caches of ammunition.


In 1976, then Prime Minister Miki Takeo announced defense spending should be maintained within 1% of Japan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a ceiling that was observed until 1986. As of 2005, Japan’s military budget was maintained at about 3% of the national budget; about half is spent on personnel costs, while the rest is for weapons programs, maintenance and operating costs. As of 2013, Japan currently has the fifth largest defense budget in the world.

That data point — that Japan’s defense budget is #5 in the world — lines up with the chart we found earlier, listing Japan behind the US, China, Russia and the UK — let’s look at that chart again:

top 6

France is #6 on that list, and it’s no accident that the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are the US, China, Russia, the UK, and France — the winners of World War II who set up the United Nations.

[Should Japan become a permanent member of the security council?  Its ministry of foreign affairs thinks so.]

In our conversation yesterday, my students wondered whether a country could exist without a strong military. If Japan were a peaceful country and if it did not attack its neighbors, then maybe it would not need a military.

I suggested that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait would be a good counter-example. Iraq was far more powerful than Kuwait in 1990, and so it decided to invade and take over Kuwait (and its most valuable resource, oil).

None of my students had ever heard of Kuwait before — this Time Magazine cover from late 1990 would have been interesting to show them:


I then outlined how Iraq invaded Kuwait in large part because it had depleted its resources during its 8-year war with Iraq (1980-88), known as the Iran-Iraq War.  Most students don’t learn about this war, even though a million people were killed and it was the longest war of the 20th Century.

My students had also never heard of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and had no idea that 52 Americans were held hostage in Iran for more than a year, putting a damper on US-Iranian relations.

But here’s the thing — the students were fascinated by all of this new information.  We talked about this stuff for nearly an hour, and they wanted to know more.

These students attended TLC Middle School for just a one-day program.  Sadly, they go back to their regularly scheduled (and teacher-planned) schools in a few days, so we don’t have time for much of a follow-up.

If I were working with these students on a full-time basis, their short-term homework, which would grow organically out of our discussion today, would be twofold:

  1. Read a selection of those Wikipedia articles referenced above for background (about the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, and the 1990-91 Gulf War).
  2. Pose questions about the articles on our shared Google Doc so we could continue the conversation later in the week.

We determined that it would make sense to spend a few weeks looking at the basics of what happened in World War II and the Cold War that followed, so that students can get a sense of the framework of the world in which they live today.

That project I mentioned above — learning what students in China, Japan, Russia, Germany, France and the US learn about World War II — would be an amazing one to work on for a few weeks.

You need an understanding of World War II and the Cold War between the US and the USSR in order to make sense out of today’s world.

Going back to the data in the charts we looked at earlier in our discussion, the reason North and South Korea both have a big military traces back to the Korean War in the 1950s (again, no students had heard of the Korean War).

What I found so powerful about our discussion is that the students initiated the conversation — they wanted to figure out why Japan did not have a military — or at least not a strong one.

Another neat thing happened as we briefly discussed how the US led a multi-national effort to get Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991. We saw that most of the firepower came from the US, which sent more than 500,000 troops to the region, whereas most other countries sent tens of thousands, if that.

We then slowed down and looked at a map of the countries around Kuwait:


We talked about how it would be hard for the US to get troops into Kuwait — they can’t come from Iraq — that’s the country we’re fighting to kick out of Kuwait.  And they can’t come from Iran because the US is not on good terms with Iran — see the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979 (getting familiar with that crisis would be part of most students’ homework, unless they knew about it already).

So that leaves Saudi Arabia as an entry point — and in fact, that’s where most of the US troops came from during the 1991 Gulf War — they set up bases in Saudi Arabia and swept in.


That seems like a small, insignificant fact — that the US had troops in Saudi Arabia.  But from a Muslim perspective, Saudi Arabia is wildly important because it is home to the two holiest sites in Islam — Mecca and Medina — as we can see if we shift our map a bit:

mecca medina

When you look into the causes of 9/11, Osama Bin Laden repeatedly stated that the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, home of Mecca, was offensive to Muslims.

Here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia article that describes the US withdrawal of troops from Saudi Arabia in 2003:

Since Saudi Arabia houses the holiest sites in Islam (Mecca and Medina) — many Muslims were upset at the permanent military presence. The continued presence of US troops after the [1991] Gulf War in Saudi Arabia was one of the stated motivations behind the September 11th terrorist attacks and the Khobar Towers bombing. The date of the 1998 United States embassy bombings was eight years to the day (August 7) that American troops were sent to Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden interpreted the Prophet Muhammad as banning the “permanent presence of infidels in Arabia”

By the end of fifth grade, most students in the US typically have not yet learned anything substantial about Islam.  The bright students I worked with yesterday had vaguely heard of Mecca and had never heard of Medina.

So we determined that we need not only a 2-week lesson on the basics of World War II, but a multi-week look at Islam as well, since there are more than 1.5 billion Muslims on the planet.

And we should probably look at 9/11, since that’s kind of an important event in world history, and it happened before today’s middle schoolers were born.

But here’s the difference in our approach — we’re not learning this material because “the syllabus says we are supposed to study Islam,” but because we are genuinely trying to answer a big question, such as “what led to the 9/11 attacks?” or “why has Japan been able to exist since WWII without spending money on a large army?”

We owe it to students to allow them to engage with the world in a way that is meaningful to them — not in a way that has been pre-determined by teachers or curriculum-makers.

As my students said, the way they usually learn history is boring and meaningless — the work we did yesterday was fun and engaging and made them want to learn more.

That’s how we can — and should — do school in the 21st century: present students with compelling material and let their questions lead the way.


About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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3 Responses to Why doesn’t Japan have a military?

  1. Great post, Steve. I am going to use it in my class today at Elon. We are talking about the purposes of education, both historically and currently. My students will be “playing detective” and figuring out what five teachers’ beliefs are about education, and you are one of them. Your blog is an incredible resource.

  2. suhowowow says:

    Reblogged this on 내 우주는 전부 너야 and commented:
    This is a truly inspiring post.

  3. John E Muniz says:

    Excellent job. Great contents. It was great to refresh my memory with your lessons and projects.
    Kids are blessed to have you as their teacher.

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