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Japan is examining its security and defense policy as Russia continues war in Ukraine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Mourners are paying their respects to former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was killed by a lone gunman on Friday. As Japan's longest serving leader, Abe advocated for more robust defense policies. As NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam reports from Tokyo, those policies have recently taken on more importance in Japan.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL SCRAPING CONCRETE)

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Low metal barricades are dragged aside as a big black sedan enters Japan's Ministry of Defense. The compound is in a busy part of Tokyo. It's ringed by high-rise apartments and office buildings. Cars roar by its main entrance. Security is surprisingly light. You'd think there's nothing to worry about.

But climb the steps to the main grounds and you get a different perspective. Nestled behind a stand of cherry trees sits two Patriot missile batteries ready to shoot down any incoming missiles. Japan's in an increasingly fraught neighborhood - North Korea, China and Russia, which is recently causing a lot of concern.

CHIKAKO UEKI: I think the Russian aggression against Ukraine showed something that many Japanese didn't imagine, and this was an aggression by a very powerful state against its neighbor.

NORTHAM: Chikako Ueki is a professor of Asia-Pacific studies at Waseda University in Tokyo. She says the Ukraine war is forcing many people in Japan to examine their security and defense policy.

UEKI: People in Japan are asking, is China another Russia? Is Japan another Ukraine? Or is Taiwan another Ukraine?

NORTHAM: Abe understood Japan's vulnerability and long pushed but failed to amend a particular clause of the country's pacifist constitution. Article 9 says Japan cannot use war as a means of settling international disputes. But Abe felt that limited Japan's ability to defend itself. Ministry of Defense spokesman Takeshi Ishikawa says they're already charting a steady uptick in Chinese military activity.

TAKESHI ISHIKAWA: (Through interpreter) China is beefing up its military capability at high speed, and they're now deploying highly technical equipment in their territory. In order to increase our deterrence power, we need to strengthen the alliance between Japan and the U.S.

NORTHAM: But the Japanese don't want to be reliant entirely on the U.S. There are calls by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the LDP, for Japan to be more proactive, creating counter-strike capabilities and boosting defense spending. Waseda University's Ueki again.

UEKI: The public seems to be more in support, whereas they were opposed previously. But I think it's a fairly limited offensive capability that Japan is talking about.

NORTHAM: But Ueki says that engagement with China is still important. It is, after all, a major trading partner. Japan is due to unveil a new national security strategy later this year which could address changes to Article 9. Hitoshi Tanaka with the Japan Research Institute in Tokyo said there have been some amendments to that clause over the years. For example, in 2004, Japan deployed its self-defense forces to Iraq to help with reconstruction. But Tanaka says there needs to be careful consideration before any dramatic changes.

HITOSHI TANAKA: I'm not disagreeing to have a debate on the change of the constitution, but you just don't do it while the atmosphere is quite explosive today - Ukraine, Russia, China and sort of thing. Let's be quiet. Let's be cold-headed.

NORTHAM: If Japan does decide to amend the country's pacifist constitution later this year, it'll be one step closer to securing the late Prime Minister Abe's legacy.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jackie Northam
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.