Change often comes so slowly in Japan that it’s easy to overlook. That’s especially true with the Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF)—Japan’s military.
Five years ago the idea of foreign troops—other than the Americans—training in Japan was thought impossible. It was: “unconstitutional,” “politically explosive,” and for Japanese officials, “too difficult” (preceded by the sound of air sucking through teeth).
Yet, from May 11 to 17, French Army troops will be training in Kyushu at Kirishima Training Ground along with the Japan Ground Self Defense Force (GSDF) and U.S. Marines.
The exercise will involve the GSDF’s Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB)—Japan’s “Marines” and will also include tabletop exercises at Camp Ainoura near Sasebo, the ARDB’s home base. Ten years ago, the idea of a Japanese amphibious force was considered equally preposterous. It wasn’t, to those who knew better, but that’s another story.
This isn’t the GSDF’s first brush with the French forces.
In 2017, the French amphibious ship, Mistral, with French Marines and British Royal Marines aboard linked up with GSDF and U.S. Marines for joint four-way on Guam and nearby Tinian.
But this week’s training is the first time the French will be coming ashore in Japan.
Although largely overlooked these days, the British beat them to the punch.
In 2018, a year after the Guam exercises, the Royal Navy’s HMS Albion came to Japan with a company of UK Royal Marines. The British Marines and the Japanese Army did all the planning necessary for a small amphibious landing exercise at Numazu–west of Tokyo—and involving the British and Japanese navies, but the landing exercise was ‘weathered out’ by rough seas.
This would have been the first time foreign ground troops—other than U.S. forces—trained in Japan with the Japan Self Defense Force.
The upcoming Kyushu training is, in fact, the latest in a gradual expansion of GSDF (and JSDF) activities. It may seem to take place under the radar, but it is progress nonetheless.
Here are some of the important things to know about the French coming to Japan:
First, nobody in Japan is complaining. Such was also the case when the Royal Marines showed up three years ago. The public response was a collective yawn. Indeed, ask about it and one was likely to hear: ‘atarimae’—or in other words, ‘why not? It’s common sense.’
Even the usual suspects—certain Japanese politicians, academics, and leftist media—that typically howl at any excuse to claim Japan is returning to the 1930’s military dictatorship had nothing much to say. Notably, the Asahi Shimbun that is both anti-military and often anti-American was quiet. It even wrote a ‘straight news’ piece on the British visit and landing exercise.
Second, consider the implications of French (and British) troops training with the Japanese and the Americans in a location not far from where the Chinese are challenging Japanese control of the Senkaku Islands and the East China Sea—and also threatening Taiwan.
No matter what Paris might say, they are taking sides with the free nations supporting the idea of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). Though never directly stated, the implicit idea behind FOIP is to keep the Indo-Pacific ‘free and open’ from Chinese domination and control. And in France’s case, with territories and huge maritime exclusive economic zones in the South Pacific (and modest military forces covering the region), the Chinese threat is real.
Britain’s new aircraft carrier, Queen Elizabeth II, and escort ships (and with a U.S. Marine F-35 squadron embarked) are en route to the Pacific, and will be conducting training with the Japanese military later this year.
Since the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is not on the dance-card, one fairly concludes that France and Britain have a favorite in the Japan-China struggle.
Third, the training demonstrates that the Ground Self Defense Force is gradually becoming (or being allowed to become) less insular and potentially more professional via exposure to foreign militaries. Sixty years of seeing nothing but Americans has not been ideal for the GSDF’s development.
The GSDF (and the JSDF) still has a ways to go before it is an actual ‘warfighting’ force. But, it is trying. And with a bite-sized approach and the right focus and training, the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade could become a useful addition in a combined defense of Japan’s southern islands—including the rest of the JSDF, the Americans, and any other partners that wish to get involved.
Progress? Yes, but not fast enough.
While the training with the French and the British does indicate ‘progress’—not least in Japanese thinking about defense, it’s much too slow—and given the threat, it is glacial. The People’s Liberation Army’s rapid and ongoing development into a daunting force has outstripped the JSDF and is causing American commanders to sweat.
So here are some ideas for using the French visit as a stepping stone for picking up the pace:
- Have Japanese and American forces (and any other free nations’ forces) conduct routine and regular training, exercising, and patrolling in the Nansei Shoto—Japan’s southern islands. This week’s training will take place in Kyushu, about 800 miles north of where the Japanese and Chinese are contesting control. Operate much closer to the ‘hot’ zone.
- Establish a joint headquarters on Okinawa—next to the III Marine Expeditionary Force building on Camp Courtney—to organize and carry out the combined defense of the region. Have extra seats available for the British, the French, the Australians, the Canadians, and others who wish to join in.
- Include Taiwan’s defense in the equation and operate with that requirement in mind. Invite the Taiwan military to participate in the aforementioned activities.
- Permanently assign a Royal Marine liaison and training team to Japan—to operate with both the Japanese Army and Navy. The British Marines are different than the U.S. Marines, and have different operational styles, organization, and equipment. The Royal Marines’ way of doing things is in some respects better suited for the Japanese ‘Marines’ than are U.S. Marine Corps practices.
- The Australian Army recently assigned a liaison officer to the GSDF. This is a good thing, but sending a lot more Australians would be even better. Consider dispatching a Royal Australian Air Force squadron to operate out of Kadena Air Base on Okinawa or Marine Corps Air Station, Iwakuni.
- As for the French military? If they want to come, welcome them with open arms.
- Create a multinational amphibious group akin to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and U.S. Navy Amphibious Squadron 11 that currently operate out of Okinawa and Sasebo. The 31st MEU has a couple thousand Marines and four or five amphibious ships. It is supposed to cover the entire Western Pacific Ocean. Look at the map and one sees how difficult that is.
A ‘multinational MEU’ combining an amphibious ship from each of the United States, Japanese, and Australian navies—and Marines or amphibious trained infantry—will be an excellent platform for developing joint, amphibious capabilities while taking a burden off the 31st MEU. And there’s a political significance to all this as well—as free nations demonstrate a willingness to do something ‘difficult’ to defend themselves and their friends.
Get the multinational MEU underway and other nations might want in on a good thing. Singapore, Taiwan, Philippines Indonesia, South Korea, and India come to mind.
But isn’t all this impossible? No. Everything mentioned above is no more impossible than the idea of French infantry coming to Japan seemed five years back. It’s only as hard as you want to make it.
And if the People’s Liberation Army breathing down Japan’s (and everyone else’s) necks doesn’t concentrate minds—especially with risk averse Japanese Ministry of Defense and U.S. Department of Defense bureaucrats—nothing will.
Grant Newsham is a retired U.S. Marine officer and a former U.S. diplomat and business executive who lived and worked for many years in the Asia/Pacific region. He also served as a reserve head of intelligence for Marin Forces Pacific, and was the U.S. Marine attaché, U.S. Embassy Tokyo on two occasions. He serves as a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy.