DPG Policy Brief

Japan’s Defence Export Policy Evolves and Pivots West

Date: May 22, 2024

Post World War II, Japan has adhered to its pacifist constitution and imposed strict controls over defence exports, while its security has been undergirded by the US as a treaty ally.  Responding to growing challenges in East Asia in recent years, Japan has revised its national security strategy and hardened its defence posture.  Between 2014 and 2024, it has also gradually modified restrictions on arms exports on a conditional and selective basis. 

In this policy brief, the authors examine at length the contours of Japan’s evolving defence export policy, from its inception to the present day.

Japan’s  “Three Principles on Arms Exports” enunciated in 1967 led in practice to a complete ban on arms exports to all regions of the world.  The first exception to this blanket ban came in 1983, when Japan allowed the transfer of military technologies, including arms, to the US. 

Following a modification of the “Three Principles” in 2014, the Kishida administration announced further relaxations in December 2023 to permit the export of completed defence equipment under specified conditions, as well as of finished products licensed from foreign firms to the licensing country, and from there to third countries.  This in effect has allowed military transfers to Ukraine and the US. 

At the onset of 2024, Japan has further relaxed defence export measures by approving the future sales of defence fighter jets jointly produced with the UK and Italy under the GCAP programme  to countries with which Japan has a defence equipment transfer agreement, post Cabinet approval. 

The authors analyse in detail the reasons behind these periodic changes in Japan’s regulatory policies on defence export, in keeping with the demands of a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape. Revised national security documents released in December 2022, designed to strengthen Japan’s own defence capabilities and to deepen alliance cooperation with the US, have provided the foundation for revisions in defence export policy in 2023 and 2024.

Despite the changes, transfers of defence equipment and technology by Japan since 2014 to countries in the Indo-Pacific region have been modest, for reasons which are outlined by the authors.  Japan remains focused primarily on maintaining its core security relationships with the US and its allies, and has been reticent in pursuing a wider arms transfer programme. 

While the potential for collaboration between India and Japan in the defence sector is substantial, no significant results have been forthcoming despite ongoing efforts of both sides.

The authors conclude that the latest changes in Japan’s “Three Principles” for defence exports reflect a policy decision by the Kishida administration to align Japan closely with the security interests of the US-led West, including in Europe.  It remains to be seen whether the relaxation of defence export principles will gradually be extended to Japan’s defence and security partners in the Indo-Pacific. 

As a strategically independent partner, not an ally, of both Japan and the US, India remains outside the privileged circle of Japan’s growing strategic alignment with the West.  This consideration will likely impose political constraints in Japan on defence equipment and technology cooperation with India.  For the time being, our expectations must remain modest. 

To read this DPG Policy Brief Volume IX, Issue 13, please click “
Japan’s Defence Export Policy Evolves and Pivots West”.