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Japan Eyes China: Flexes Naval Capability by Launching Izumo


Coming in the wake of the biggest peacetime disaster to hit Indian Navy with its Kilo-class submarine INS Sindhurakshak (defender of the seas) subject to massive blasts that set off a raging fire and meeting its fiery end off the naval dockyard in Mumbai and killing in the process 18 precious crew on board in August 2013, the country also launched its first indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, thereby leapfrogging the country’s naval capability and strengthening its maritime power. Almost simultaneously, another Asian country, Japan, unveiled its biggest warship since the World War II as part of a plan to bolster its defense of territorial claims in disputed waters. Are these disturbing developments as Asian countries are spending massive amounts in beefing up their defence capabilities at a time when the Asian economies are in need of investment and infrastructure development and in other economic activities? Does it portend a new arm race in Asia? What are the triggers for the Asian countries for prioritizing enhancing defence capabilities over economic developments? This Issue Brief will focus only on Japan launching its “light carrier” Izumo and what it means for Asia.

Before analysing what Izumo means for Asia, the launch of INS Vikrant needs to be understood in perspective in view of the fact that both India and Japan are too deepening their defence cooperation and acquiring and strengthening simultaneous naval capabilities, which are perfectly in tune with their increasing bonhomie. When on 12 August, India launched INS Vikrant, its first indigenously built aircraft carrier, Indian Defense Minister A. K. Antony hailed the launch as a “crowning glory”, and said “India needs a strong navy to defend itself and will press ahead with developing its maritime capabilities.”

China was the first to comment on this event. Stressing the “vast interests in common” and the “identical or similar stances on a wide range of regional and global affairs” between China and India, the Chinese government welcomed the launching of the Vikrant as just one normal step for a “regional heavyweight” and “world’s largest importer of weapons” like India. According to China, India’s “normal buildup of defense is no cause of worry.” Such a stance clearly contrasted with China’s statements that denounced the launch of Japan’s “light carrier” Izumo. China feels India adopts a different attitude than Japan toward territorial disputes with China. China also feels and India realizes that its overall national strength lags behind that of China. This perception makes China perceive Japan rather than India as its biggest neighboring threat. On the diplomatic stage, this assessment proved true: India-China relations have warmed as much as Japan-China relations have cooled. It transpires, therefore, that China makes a clear distinction between India’s and Japan’s military developments.


On 6 August 2013, exactly 68 years after an atomic bomb destroyed the city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, Japan formally unveiled to the public the first of its 22DDH Class helicopter escort, the Izumo, which is larger than any of the aircraft carriers that Japan employed in the attack on Pearl Harbor. The 22DDH Class helicopter destroyer is Japan’s first aircraft carrier since the Great Pacific War. The designation 22DDH is short for helicopter destroyer project, Heisei Year 22. Heisei is the name of the reign of the current emperor. Each emperor’s reign is named, i.e. Meiji, Showa, etc. Heisei 22 is the 22nd year of rule by Emperor Akihito. The 22 does not reference the displacement, and in any event Asian navies always disclose empty displacement instead of loaded or full displacement. On 31 August 2009 it was reported that the JMOD FY2010 budget request included 116.6 billion Yen for a new 22DDH “helicopter destroyer” built to a design significantly larger than the 16DDH Hyuga Class. JMSDF’s newest and largest member, the Izumo with its 250-meter (820 feet) flight deck and 27,000-ton displacement, and capable of carrying up to 14 helicopters dwarf’s its 197-meter Hyuga-class cousins (the Hyuga, commissioned in 2009 and its sister ship Ise, which entered service in 2011).

After Yukio Hatoyama became prime minister in September 2009, new budget requests were submitted in October 2009 — including 118.1 billion yen for the construction of a helicopter destroyer. The ship would eventually replace the destroyer Shirane, which was scheduled to be decommissioned in fiscal 2014. A request for the helicopter destroyer was first made for the fiscal 2010 budget when the Liberal Democratic Party was in control of government.

It is designed to be a vessel which is conscious of the Chinese Navy, and to support civil disaster relief operation and the United Nations Peace Keeping Operations (PKO). The planned helicopter destroyer will have a length some 25% greater than the 197 meter 16DDH Hyuga. At 250 meters the 22DDH is comparable to the Italian Cavour of 244. The full-length aircraft carrier type deck extends from the bow to the stern. The light displacement was reported as 19,500 tons, a 44% increase over the 16DDH, while the full loaded displacement is probably comparable to the 27,000 ton displacement of the Italian Cavour.

Domestically, Japan faces a tricky situation, irrespective of the party in charge. When it has tried to take measures to protect and makes provision to defend the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity from possible external threat, the pacifist constitution comes on the way. Not surprisingly, the “helicopter destroyer” looks like an aircraft carrier, which raised questions that it would violate Japan’s pacifist Constitution. As in the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq, aircraft carriers have been a main maritime base of attack for the US military. In light of the constitutional ban in Article 9 on possessing “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential,” the government in 1988 issued a statement that said, “Because offensive aircraft carriers exceed the war potential needed for a minimum level of self-defense, possession of such ships is prohibited by the Constitution.”

As of 2010 the MSDF possessed about 50 major surface combatants, including Small Destroyers [Frigates, Corvettes]. In line with the budget request for the helicopter destroyer, the decommissioning of four other destroyers in addition to the Shirane would be moved up and no replacement ships constructed. The total number of destroyers possessed by the MSDF would decrease. But the government hopes to gain the understanding of the public by not only constructing the necessary ships, but also showing that it is ready to decrease equipment that can be eliminated.

Being a maritime nation dependent on sea-borne trade, Japan needs helicopters to seek out and keep an eye on submarines as well as to patrol surface ships from as far away as possible outside the range of enemy missiles. For those reasons, Japan needs a large destroyer that can carry many helicopters at one time. To allow up to five surveillance helicopters to land and take off simultaneously, the bridge of the new helicopter destroyer is on the starboard side to make room for an uninterrupted flight deck.

The new 22DDh is reported to have the capability to transport up to 4,000 people and 50 trucks. It would also be able to refuel other ships. According to the MoD, each of the 22DDH would accommodate nine helicopters simultaneously operating on flight deck [5 more than the 16DDH], and 14 helicopters in the hangar deck [3 more than the 16DDH]. The 22DDH would be fitted with two close-in weapon systems and two Sea RAM missile systems for air defence. The anti-submarine warfare armament includes a mobile decoy and floating acoustic jammer.

The main component of the MSDF fleet is its four destroyer flotillas, each with eight destroyers and eight helicopters. Those numbers were arrived at during the Cold War to counter Soviet submarines plying the waters around Japan. More recently, the main trigger comes from China as Chinese navy has been strengthening its sea attack capabilities. Advanced Chinese destroyers carrying cruise missiles have been spotted near gas fields in the East China Sea. Japan can just not overlook the possible danger stemming from this. Apart from a counter to China’s enhanced naval capability, another reason for building the large helicopter destroyer is to respond to the expected increase in emergency assistance missions. Participation in international peacekeeping activities was upgraded to a primary task of the SDF, opening the path for more dispatches both in Japan and abroad. Such deployments would become much more efficient, as the new 22DDH helicopter destroyer would be capable of performing as a transport and supply ship. Not only will the helicopter destroyer be able to transport a large number of Ground SDF members and vehicles, but it could also provide fuel to other MSDF ships in its flotilla. That would eliminate the need for ships to drop anchor to refuel. The underway replenishment function is about half that of the existing supply ship.

Japanese officials say the ship would refuel other vessels, transport personnel and equipment, and conduct surveillance of surrounding waters. The reasoning is that rather than constructing destroyers as destroyers and supply ships as supply ships, building ships that have multiple functions would lead to more efficient use of the budget. The ship is so large because a number of functions are included in it. The ship is incapable of having fighter jets land on and take-off from the deck. Japan does not have any such intentions. From this perspective, it is not an offensive aircraft carrier.

The Izumo DDH22 is intended as a replacement to the decommissioning of Shirane-class destroyers, thereby reducing the size of MSDF’s overall force. Furthermore, the ship lacks potential offensive capabilities, like a ski-jump ramp which would allow it to be deployed as a light aircraft carrier. The Defense Ministry has also specified the destroyer’s mission scope and offensive limitations, insisting that “the ship will be incapable of having fighter jets land on and take-off from the deck”.

The 22DDH could possibly use the F-35B carrier-based aircraft, and so might be considered as a light aircraft carrier. First, it is necessary to meet thermal performance of the deck, the condition of the weight of the aircraft carrier take-off and landing is light. Since laying an enhanced deck is possible, the thermal performance of the deck would not be a problem for Japan. The maximum take-off weight of the F-35B will reach 27 tons, but for take-off and landing of large carrier-based aircraft, this is also not an issue. The 22DDH could possibly accommodate 12 or more F-35B carrier-based aircraft. The F-35B fighter has a vertical takeoff and landing capability, so that even though the 22DDH is not equipped with a catapult, there is no problem operating the F-35B with flat deck without a ski-jump.


The launch of Izumo causes concern in China, which remains embroiled in a territorial dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. The islands are administered by Japan, but claimed by both sides. For months, ships from both countries have been conducting patrols around the islet chain. Tensions over the Senkakus, along with China’s heavy spending on defense and military modernization, have heightened calls in Japan for beefed-up naval and air forces. China recently began operating an aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, a refurbished Soviet-era vessel, and is reportedly moving forward with the construction of another that will be domestically built.

Although Tokyo has been careful to include tasks such as the transport of personnel and supplies in response to natural disasters high on the list of the new ship’s priorities, the destroyer presents a potent addition to the operational capabilities and strategic reach of the JMSDF. Crucially, it helps Tokyo keep pace with China or indeed, stay ahead of China’s own rapidly growing navy. All recent and forthcoming changes to Japan’s defense policy aside, keeping pace with Beijing has proven a challenge as the country continues to feel the squeeze of its frail economy and the limits of its 1%-of-GDP defense spending cap. Even so, the Izumo may provide renewed impetus for those who believe that East Asia is already knee-deep in an arms race, as well as those who believe that Japan is emerging from its long pacifist slumber.

Reactions from China notwithstanding, reading in light of the still-fresh images of China’s second aircraft carrier under construction, the symbolism of choosing 6 August as the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 to unveil Japan’s largest post-WWII ‘aircraft carrier’ is sure not to go unnoticed in Beijing.

This is the biggest warship that Japan has unveiled since World War II as part of a plan to bolster its defense of territorial claims in disputed waters. The $1.2 billion Japanese-made destroyer revealed at a ceremony in Yokohama on 6 August 2013 will go into service in March 2015. The Japanese military is barred from building up offensive capabilities by the country’s pacifist constitution, but the conservative government of Abe is considering modifications to that restriction. Beijing has long viewed Japanese military activities with suspicion and accused Tokyo of failing to fully atone for 20th century wartime atrocities against China.

Indeed, tensions between China and Japan have been mounting for years, and these have intensified since the election of Abe in December 2012. The two countries have been constantly quarrelling over the sovereignty of several islands of rather symbolic than real strategic significance. Now the confrontation has turned into comparisons regarding the military forces of both countries. Tired of its military development coming under intense scrutiny by the US and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region, the Chinese government has started specific media efforts aiming at “identifying the real intentions” behind Japan’s “re-militarization” and proving China has been the victim of double standards as a result. The truism, however, is that China’s growing military arsenal has alarmed its Asian neighbors, as the build-up has coincided with an increasingly assertive Chinese stance on maritime disputes.

The huge flat-top destroyer Izumo has strong resemblance to a conventional aircraft carrier as it is designed to carry up to 14 helicopters. Japan, however, wants to use it in national defense, particularly in anti-submarine warfare and border surveillance missions, and bolster the nation’s ability to transport personnel and supplies in response to large-scale natural disasters, such as the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.

Technically, Izumo is a “destroyer,” but, according to experts, it could potentially be used in the future to launch fighter jets or other aircrafts that have the ability to take off vertically. That would be a departure for Japan, which has one of the best equipped and best trained naval forces in the Pacific but which has not sought to build aircraft carriers of its own because of constitutional restrictions that limit its military forces to a defensive role. Japan says it has no plans to use the ship in that manner. The Izumo does not have catapults for launching fighters, nor does it have a “ski-jump” ramp on its flight deck for fixed-wing aircraft launches.

As was expected, reactions from North Korea were on expected line too. After all if the big brother China feels uneasy, the younger sibling is not expected to feel safe. On 7 August, North Korea warned that Japan was following a militarization program that had already crossed “the danger line.” A commentary by the official Korean Central News Agency highlighted a Japanese Defense Ministry paper published in July 2013 that stressed the need to boost the strength and range of forces required to protect Japan’s far-flung territories. The paper specifically called for a “comprehensive containment capability” to counter ballistic missile threats from North Korea. The KCNA observed: “This is nothing but a broad hoax by Japan to justify its moves to turn it into a military giant which have gone beyond the danger line”.The commentary argued that “loudmouth” warnings about the missile and nuclear threat from Pyongyang were aimed at diverting international attention from efforts by Abe’s conservative government to ditch the nation’s pacifist Constitution. It observed: “Japan’s assertions are too unreasonable and illogical to justify its sinister aim. Japan would be well advised to behave with reason, aware that to do so would be beneficial to its security.”

Tokyo’s move coincided with Manila’s latest efforts to upgrade its military, as the Philippine navy received a second former US coast guard ship. Manila received the first ship in 2011. Analysts see the upgraded warships in Japan and the Philippines as efforts to gain an upper hand in maritime disputes with China, as well as a catalyst igniting an arms race that would escalate regional tensions. China’s Ministry of National Defense expressed concern about Japan’s ‘continuous military buildup’ and urged it to adhere to peaceful self-defense. Because of the shadow of history, Japan has remained the whipping boy by China, which insists that Japan should reflect on its history, adhere to self-defense and the promise of following the path of peaceful development. China also called for Japan’s neighbors and the international community to be ‘highly alert’.

Since Izumo is larger than many countries’ aircraft carriers in terms of displacement and deck length and can be easily and swiftly refitted to support F35-B fighters, it has strong combat capabilities. According to Zhang Junshe, a senior researcher at the People’s Liberation Army Naval Military Studies Research Institute, it is “an aircraft carrier, and Japan just called it ‘a helicopter destroyer’ to downplay its aggressive nature’. He accuses Japan of creating regional tensions by breaking the postwar order. Chinese officials who remain cognizant of Japan’s savage invasion and occupation of China some seven decades ago, say they are not fooled.

The vessel was named Izumo, the same name as the flagship of the Japanese fleet that invaded China in the 1930s. Jin Canrong, an international affairs professor at Renmin University of China argues that although the vessel is not 100 percent an aircraft carrier at the moment, it can be a platform for Japanese forces to train under circumstances similar to that of an aircraft carrier. Besides, argues Jin, Tokyo intentionally chose the date of the vessel’s debut — the 68th anniversary of the US dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima — to woo public support for the government’s military ambitions by taking advantage of sentiments about the attack.

Japanese Prime Minister Abe has been considering developing a regular army, which would require changing the Constitution imposed on Japan by the US and its allies after World War II. But a possible overhaul of the Constitution has stirred strong reactions among Japan’s neighbors, which have long maintained that Tokyo has never come to terms with its militaristic past. Washington, which currently is facing defense budget cuts, needs Tokyo’s assistance to guarantee the US focus on Asia and this encourages Abe to beef up Japan’s military.

China’s official position has been maintaining cooperation among countries conducive to regional peace and stability, and sees US-Philippine military cooperation from this perspective. China is concerned that Washington had stepped up its military assistance package in the fiscal 2014 to about $50 million from $30 million, the highest level since US troops returned to the Philippines in 2000.


Reconciliation in mind and spirit between Japan and China does not seem to be in the horizon in view of historical experiences and rising aspirations. Following China’s massive military militarization and increasing assertiveness, territorial disputes between the two nations have flared over uninhabited islands that Tokyo administers but Beijing claims. The return to power of Prime Minister Abe, who campaigned on a nationalist platform, and the rise of Xi Jinping, China’s new patriotically-minded President, have further heightened distrust between the world’s second and third largest economies.

While China remains aggrieved that Tokyo has only offered insincere apologies for the savage bloodshed inflicted during World War II, which are often undermined by the unrepentant utterances of Japanese right-wingers, Japan frets over China’s increasing regional assertiveness as the budding global power flexes new muscles in the neighborhood. Tokyo’s response has been to place a new emphasis on its military capacity in view of the perceived threat from China. In January 2013, the country boosted its defense spending for the first time in a decade, albeit by 0.8%. Japan is also considering whether to ease restrictions on the use of its military, which is currently barred by the Constitution from almost all activities but national defense. It was revealed in March 2013 that China’s 2013 military spending increased by 10.7% over the last year. Given the opaqueness of Chinese system, foreign analysts believe the hike could be much higher.

The spats between the two countries have fanned public sentiment on either side. A survey published on 5 August by Genron NPO, a Japanese think-tank, and China Daily found that more than 90% of Japanese and Chinese citizens had unfavorable views of the other country. In 2012, 64.5% of Chinese citizens reported unfavorable feelings toward Japan, while 84.3% of Japanese felt the same way of their neighbors to the west.

By launching Izumo, Japan also sends a subtle political message to China. On 6 August, the same day the US dropped atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan launched the warship named Izumo, the same name for old Imperial Japanese cruiser in service for both first and second Sino-Japanese wars. That is not all; what is more interesting is that in old Japanese Izumo means “the clouds cannot block the rise of the sun”. While Japan is the ‘sun’, where from comes the cloud? It could be China, North Korea, Article 9 of the Constitution and even the US. China must be busy reading the euphemism of the word Izumo. As it soon transpired, the significance of the name Izumo certainly did not get lost to China. The Defense Department of China issued a statement a day after the launch – 7 August, pointing that Izumo was the flagship of the Chinese invasion in the 1930s and the launch date was the atomic bomb victim day. Izumo, the cruiser, had attacked a US gunboat and forced it to surrender in Shanghai in 1937, four years before Pearl Harbor.

As Abe said in Washington in February 2013, “Japan is Back” and China must be prepared to welcome Japan to the big league. For the present, Izumo does not challenge the Constitution or Article 9 of it that prohibits the country to project force abroad with strike carriers. But Izumo with flight deck of 250 metres could be used to launch fixed-wing aircraft, should the circumstance of the Constitution change. The vessel is similar in size to the French and Italian carriers, the Charles de Gaulle and the Cavour. Chinese military experts say that after the DDH183 Izumo warship formally enters into service, Japan will actually own three “quasi aircraft carriers”, including the two “Hyuga-class” helicopter destroyers previously equipped in the name of destroyers. If they carry F-35 aircraft, they will become downright aircraft carriers. Therefore, Chinese see Izumo as an “aircraft carrier in disguise”.

Criticism apart, the manner in which China is bullying around the region, Japan will find it difficult to avoid militarizing. Though Japan still is protected under the US security umbrella, opinion within Japan is growing that it cannot be guaranteed for eternity. Being a technologically advanced nation, it would be irresistible for Japan not to strengthen its military capability to neutralize the Chinese threat. This could include revising nuclear option as well. That is not easy, however, as many aspects related to this are too complex to make that possible.

It is time China realizes that by going offensive, it has created a situation in the region where other nations are stressing their focus on strengthening their defence capabilities. This way, China has triggered a veritable arm race. Arms build-ups always come with people willing to use them. There lies the danger. Mutual deterrence must not come at the cost of Asian prosperity and that is the biggest challenge that Asia faces today. The launch of Izumo should be seen from this perspective.

( The writer, Dr. Rajaram Panda is Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. E-mail:

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