Japan’s First Defense Trade Show Shows Abe Breaking Arms Taboo

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, left, attends a cherry blossom viewing party at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo on April 18. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Japan will host its first international defense trade show next month, underscoring Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s bid to loosen the shackles of its postwar pacifist constitution amid territorial tensions with an increasingly assertive China.

The MAST Asia exhibition and conference in the port city of Yokohama May 13-15 will coincide with the government’s plan to submit bills to parliament to bolster Japan’s security stance. Companies including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd., the country’s two largest defense contractors, will exhibit at the event.

Last year, Abe lifted a ban on defense exports and reinterpreted the 68-year-old pacifist constitution to allow Japan to defend other countries. This more robust security policy has divided the electorate and sparked expressions of concern from China and South Korea ahead of August’s 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

“Hosting an arms convention in Yokohama is a sign of the times as Abe shunts aside previous taboos on Japan’s military,” said Jeff Kingston, professor of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Japan campus. “Most Japanese oppose and relatively few support” such changes, he said.

Fifty-two percent of respondents to a Nikkei newspaper poll published Monday said they disagreed with the government’s plan to pass the security legislation in the current session of parliament, while 29 percent agreed. In a separate poll by Kyodo News last year, 67 percent of respondents said restrictions on arms exports should not be lifted.

Musical Welcome

While previous commercial aerospace shows in Japan have included exhibits of military planes, the MAST event, focused on maritime security, is the first event of its type in Japan.

Visitors will be welcomed with a concert by the Maritime Self-Defense Force band, and the program includes a speech by former Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto and tours of U.S. Navy vessels and a Japanese defense research center, according to the organizers.

“I’ve always had an interest to come here, but up until a few years ago, there was no appetite domestically for anything like this,” said MAST organizer Warren Edge, who said he has been organizing security industry events for about 20 years.

The Yokohama event, with 3,000 square meters (32,300 square feet) of exhibition space, is larger than those held in other countries, Edge said.

Defense Exports

The lifting of the ban on arms exports allows Japan to take part in joint development projects, as well as potentially exporting finished products to bring down unit costs for its military. While talks are under way about a sale of its Soryu submarines to Australia, doubts remain as to the level of success Japan will have in increasing overseas shipments.

“As soon as you say you are going to solve the cost problem by exporting, the question is exporting to who?” said Jack Midgley, a defense consultant at Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting in Tokyo. “We don’t see the budget growth. We don’t see the budget size. And when you layer on top of that the competitive pressure provided by the U.S., it’s really hard to tell a positive story around export growth.”

Japan’s Defense Ministry is also seeking to overhaul its procurement process to save money as health and social-security costs take an ever-larger bite out of the aging nation’s budget. While major U.S. contractors such as Lockheed Martin Corp. already do business in Japan, the changes could provide opportunities for smaller overseas firms to gain a foothold.

“This is a very topical event,” said Lance Gatling of Nexial Research, an aerospace consultancy in Tokyo. “It brings together a lot of people and provides opportunities to discuss technology cooperation.”

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