TOKYO — Shinzo Abe is facing some of the toughest challenges of his record-setting tenure as Japan’s prime minister, with persistent flare-ups of the coronavirus, an economy mired in recession, and a public fed up with his government’s handling of the crises.
Yet Mr. Abe’s administration is focusing on a different threat, one that lines up with a long-running preoccupation for the prime minister: the prospect of ballistic missile attacks by North Korea or China.
This month, Mr. Abe’s political party began publicly considering whether the country should acquire weapons capable of striking missile launch sites in enemy territory if an attack appeared imminent.
Such a capacity would be unremarkable for most world powers. But for Japan, which on Saturday commemorated the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II — and 75 years of renouncing combat — the proposal is fraught. In considering loosening restrictions on Japan’s ability to attack targets in other countries, the party has revived a protracted and politically sensitive debate.
The discussion is taking place as Japan finds itself caught between China, whose rising military aggression has reverberated across Asia, and the United States, whose once-ironclad commitment to guaranteeing the region’s security has come into question.
In a sign of the sensitivities around the proposal, Taro Kono, Japan’s defense minister, spoke evasively about the idea of acquiring long-range missiles during an interview at the Defense Ministry this week.
“Logically speaking, I won’t say it’s a zero percent” chance, said Mr. Kono, who noted that any such acquisition would need to include complex radar and surveillance systems and the training of military personnel to use them. “The government hasn’t really decided anything yet.”
Mr. Kono’s tiptoeing reflects the Japanese public’s strong identification with the country’s pacifist Constitution, which was put in place by American occupiers in 1947 and limits military action to instances of self-defense.
“In the Japanese context, it can be scandalous” to make such a proposal, said Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “People get freaked out when people start speaking about ‘strikes.’”
But given the increasing risks around Japan, including North Korea’s expanding nuclear arsenal and China’s muscle-flexing during the pandemic, Mr. Michishita and other security analysts said it should be only natural for the country to consider bolstering its defenses. In a poll this week by NHK, the public broadcaster, half of respondents said that Japan should acquire weapons that could stop missile attacks before they are launched from enemy territory.
That approval rating is better than Mr. Abe’s at the moment: According to a recent NHK poll, only 34 percent of those surveyed approve of the cabinet’s current performance, the lowest rating since Mr. Abe returned to power as prime minister in 2012. (He served a first term from 2006 to 2007.)
That figure is largely a matter of public dismay over the administration’s mixed messages about the coronavirus, with the government promoting subsidized domestic travel in July even as cases were rising. Mr. Abe has also contended with persistent rumors about his health as he has dialed back public appearances.
The current discussion about acquiring long-range missiles was prompted by the government’s decision in June to cancel a plan to buy an American missile defense system, known as Aegis Ashore, that would have been deployed in northern and western Japan. The governing party said it would need to explore alternatives after the cancellation of the system, which would have served as a shield to intercept incoming missiles.
Mr. Kono said that though Aegis Ashore represented a good form of defense for Japan in principle, the cost of hardware adjustments, necessary to ensure that rocket boosters would not fall on Japanese territory, would be prohibitive. Given that expense, he said, “I don’t think it’s worth it.”
But while Japan has decided against the American missile system, Mr. Kono said it was important to “send a clear message” to North Korea about the country’s alliance with the United States and “our resolve about protecting Japan against any missile offensive from North Korea.”
Under the alliance, the United States has traditionally assumed the role of providing offensive capabilities, while Japan has stuck to purely defensive activities.
“The old paradigm of the U.S.-Japan alliance is that Japan wears the ‘shield’ and hosts the ‘sword,’” said Euan Graham, senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, invoking a commonly used metaphor for the stationing of about 55,000 American troops in Japan.
But “that paradigm has been breaking down for many years,” Mr. Graham said, a trend that has only accelerated as the Trump administration has pushed allies to assume more responsibility for their own defense.
Mr. Graham noted that Australia, another U.S. ally in the Pacific, had recently announced new military spending plans for long-range missiles. South Korea also recently negotiated a loosening of missile guidelines imposed by the United States that would allow it to build rockets that could be applied to long-range missiles.
Japan, where three years ago cellphones beeped with warnings of North Korean missiles flying high overhead, must make similar calculations. With the possibility that President Trump could be elected to a second term, Japan is “seeking to leave defense options open,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “Japan increasingly has to provide for its own defense by Japanese means.”
At a news conference in Tokyo this month, a reporter asked Mr. Kono, the defense minister, whether Japan would need to consider the sensitivities of either China or South Korea in acquiring long-range missiles. Critics have questioned whether the victims of Japan’s former wartime aggression might consider such missiles a breach of its constitutional commitment to pacifism.
“At a time when China is enhancing their missiles, why do we need their approval?” Mr. Kono retorted. “Why do we need South Korea’s approval for defending our territory?”
Japan’s discussion of long-range missiles goes as far back as 1956, when the government ruled that it had the legal right to send missiles into enemy countries to counter an attack on Japanese territory.
At the time, Ichiro Hatoyama, who was serving as prime minister, famously said: “I don’t think the Constitution means that we just sit and wait for death.”
In 2003, Shigeru Ishiba, then the defense minister, detailed the conditions under which Japan could launch missiles toward another country such as North Korea: if the enemy’s missile was fueled and loaded onto a launcher, and its intention to attack Japan was apparent.
Such criteria can lead to murky decisions and questions about when, exactly, Japan could deploy its own missiles.
“Japan does have to in some ways walk a fine line legally because of their own laws and their policies” about allowing only for self-defense, said Jeffrey Hornung, an analyst at the RAND Corporation. “If you see a rocket fueling on a launchpad, you have no idea where it’s going, and if you take it out you’ve just started a war.”
As part of its self-defense activities, the Japanese Coast Guard has been closely monitoring ships sent by China to patrol waters around the Senkakus, islands in the East China Sea administered by Japan but contested by China. Japan has also recently signed a deal to lend Vietnam patrol boats to monitor maritime activities in the South China Sea, where China has recently been projecting its military might.
Mr. Kono said in the interview that Japan did not want any of its actions to be seen as provoking conflict in the region. “I don’t think we are on the verge of going to war or anything,” Mr. Kono said. “And I don’t think we should try to escalate tension anywhere.”
Some analysts note that Japan has already been moving to develop the ability to mount a missile counterattack. Two years ago, when Japan released new defense guidelines, the government indicated that it would acquire missiles that could be used to attack enemy warships or even land-based targets.
Critics say the Abe administration is trying to take advantage of the current circumstances to short-circuit public debate over the idea of acquiring long-range missiles.
“I think it’s a common understanding among the vast majority of Japanese people that as a last resort — five minutes before an enemy attack — Japan as a sovereign nation has the right to attack enemy forces that are trying to attack us,” said Yoji Koda, a former commander in chief of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force.
But the current proposal, he said, “could be a kind of willful attempt, without discussing anything, to conclude that attacking capability is best.”
Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo, said anxieties over American efforts to get allies to shoulder a greater share of their defense costs could prompt more serious discussions in Tokyo about purchasing long-range missiles.
“The U.S. is expecting its military allies to increase their burden of both budget and capability,” Mr. Watanabe said. Even if Mr. Trump is not re-elected, he said, Pentagon planners would be likely to “welcome Japan to spend more on defense, including strike-back capability, considering the long-term risks, especially from China.”
Makiko Inoue and Hikari Hida contributed reporting.