A major Japanese media outlet, Sankei Shimbun, recently reported that Tokyo is considering dispatching a civilian official from the Ministry of Defense to be posted at the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, the country’s de facto embassy in Taiwan. For years, Japan has had one retired Japanese Self-Defense Force (JSDF) official serving as the primary representative for security-related matters in Taipei, primarily handling intelligence liaisons with counterparts in Taiwan. Against the backdrop of China’s growing military assertiveness, there have been renewed calls for Tokyo to send a senior-ranking, active service official to the island in order to strengthen intelligence and defense cooperation. The addition of the civilian defense official, who could take their post as early as this summer, will reportedly form a “two-person team” that will ostensibly handle defense- and security-related interactions with counterparts in Taiwan.
Tokyo first created the post of “chief director of national security” (安全保障擔當主任) at its de facto embassy in Taipei in 2003. The status of the director is equivalent to that of a defense attaché in Japan’s other consulates. By comparison, the United States began stationing active-duty military personnel in Taiwan as liaisons in 2005. Since the creation of the post, the director has been exclusively held by a retired military officer with the rank of major general. The first to take the post in 2003 was retired Major General Nagano Yoichi, who was the first former JSDF official stationed in Taipei since Japan severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1972. The impetus for the creation of the post was reportedly due to the perceived failure of Tokyo to obtain sufficient intelligence on military affairs during the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. Despite this, it took seven years for the approval process to work its way through Japan’s infamous bureaucracy.
There were murmurs in Tokyo as early as 2007 about sending an active-duty military officer from the JSDF to be posted in Taiwan. These discussions followed the decisions by several other countries to send active-duty officers to serve as their military attachés to Taiwan. For example, the United States, South Korea, and Singapore all have active-duty military officers posted in Taiwan.  Yet, the Japanese government ultimately decided to shelve that decision due to concerns about Beijing’s potential reaction over the sensitivity of perceived Taiwan-Japan “defense cooperation.”
While the military ranks of the directors reflect a certain prestige associated with the posting, it is important to note that the individuals selected have been primarily drawn from the military intelligence branches of the Self-Defense Force, and thus have primarily focused on intelligence exchanges. It is also notable that three of the four previous directors have previously served as attachés in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with the exception of the most recent one, who previously served in Malaysia. Overall, there is an obvious dearth of personnel focused on other matters of defense.
|Nagano Yoichi (長野陽一)
|Kasahara Naoki (笠原直樹)
|Ogata Makoto (尾形誠)
|Watanabe Kinzo (渡邊金三)
As China has grown increasingly assertive militarily, there have been renewed calls from within both the Japanese government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for sending a higher-level representative to Taiwan, primarily to expand the exchange of information with the Taiwanese government. In this context, it is worth noting that Japan’s most recent defense attaché to Taiwan, Watanabe Kinzo—who served in the director position until May 2021—lamented in an August 2021 op-ed: “[t]he defense cooperation relationship between Japan and Taiwan does not exist yet.” In that article published by The Sankei Shimbun, Watanabe opined: “The issue of defense exchanges between Japan and Taiwan should be decided as soon as possible; it should also be a direct dialogue on the exchange of confidential information, the maintenance of communication status.” According to the recent Sankei Shimbun report, at this time the Japanese government’s current consideration appears to be limited to whether to dispatch a civil official; however, it has not ruled out sending an active JSDF officer in the future.
Heightened Tensions Spurring Japanese Public Opinion
The subtle yet noticeable shift in the Japanese government’s approach to security in the areas surrounding Taiwan is occurring against the backdrop of heightened political and military tensions—not just between Beijing and Taipei, but also between China and many of its neighbors, as well as countries much farther away. According to a recent report published by Japan’s Ministry of Defense on the number of scrambles conducted by the Air Self-Defense Force, the majority of scrambles—31 of 46 in April, and 81 of 119 in May—came in response to Chinese incursions along Japan’s southwestern flank. Among the 46 scrambles in April, 11 were in response to Russian military aircraft, while 35 were launched in response to Chinese military aircraft, accounting for 76 percent of the total number of scrambles in the month. Similarly, of the 119 scrambles in May, only 26 were in response to Russian military aircraft, while 93 were launched in response to Chinese military aircraft, accounting for 78 percent of the total number of scrambles in the month.
This heightened state of tensions is also having the visible impact of steeling public opinion in Japan against China. According to the latest public opinion polls in Japan conducted by Nikkei in late May, “91 percent of respondents in Japan said the nation needs to be prepared for a Taiwan crisis, including 41 percent saying they would accept legislative revisions to make this so.” The balance of 50 percent agreed that Japan should make preparations for a Taiwan crisis, but do so within the scope of existing laws.
In an interview with Sankei Shimbun conducted in March 2019, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) indicated her administration’s desire to hold security dialogues with Japan. In the interview, she emphasized that “Taiwan and Japan are confronted with the same threats in the East Asian region […] [i]t is vital that talks be raised to the level of security cooperation.” “Prime Minister Abe [Shinzo] has been extremely friendly with Taiwan, and, after his inauguration, has made dramatic decisions [for Japan-Taiwan relations]. For the next step, it is necessary to strengthen our security discussions,” she added.
The reports that the Japanese Ministry of Defense may be considering dispatching a defense official to Taipei—albeit a civilian—also comes on the heels of growing calls from senior Japanese leaders for the United States to make explicit its commitment to come to Taiwan’s defense. These sentiments were forcefully echoed by former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who boldly stated that a “Taiwan contingency is a Japan contingency,” and implored the United States to abandon strategic ambiguity with regards to Taiwan.
The renewed push to dispatch a Ministry of Defense civilian official to serve as a liaison in Taipei is likely the initiative of the Japanese Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo (岸信夫). Kishi, who had previously served as a senior vice foreign minister, is well known for his support of stronger Japan-Taiwan ties. He is also the younger brother of former Prime Minister Abe, as well as the grandson and grandnephew of two other prime ministers. As a Diet member, he visited Taiwan numerous times as the unofficial—but de facto—envoy of the Abe Administration. As defense minister—which is a cabinet-level position—Kishi has also previously stated that “The peace and stability of Taiwan is directly connected to Japan and we are closely monitoring ties between China and Taiwan, as well as Chinese military activity.”
The recent discussion of upgrading communication channels with Taipei, especially with regards to defense issues, likely stems from a recognition of the urgent need to do more operationally with Taiwan. As Bruce Klinger, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former CIA analyst, noted: “These statements represent a significant evolution in Japanese foreign relations, but it remains unclear whether they also reflect a change in policy. Tokyo may have changed rhetorically, but not yet operationally. There likely remain significant differences among what Japan can do, what it implies it will do and what it will do.”
In 2021, Japanese and US armed forces began drawing up a draft plan for combined operations in a possible Taiwan emergency. The growing consideration of dispatching a defense official—albeit a civilian—is reflective of the increasing sense of urgency. While in the past, Japan’s relations with Taiwan have been largely a byproduct of the requisites of the US-Japan alliance, Tokyo is beginning to take a more proactive approach to its relationship with Taiwan (although this is still occurring primarily within the context of improving policy coordination with the United States). To this end, establishing an official communication channel could help facilitate closer coordination between the Taiwan, Japan, and the United States.
The main point: In recent months, there have been growing calls for Japan to send a civilian defense official to Taiwan to serve at the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association. Given China’s increasingly assertive policy in the region, such a move could signal enhanced defense cooperation between Japan and Taiwan.
The author would like to thank GTI interns Koji Kawamoto and Megan Shoop for their research assistance.
 粉碎中國野心: 共建台日聯合防線 [Smashing China’s Ambitions: Building a United Line of Defense with Taiwan], (Tokyo: Japanese Strategic Studies Forum, September 2020).