YOKOHAMA, Japan — Some of Japan’s biggest companies, best known for motorcycles, washing machines, and laptop computers, are pitching a new line of global products: military hardware.
Quiet-running attack submarines. Amphibious search-and-rescue planes. Ship-mounted radar systems that use lasers to help pinpoint approaching enemies.
After a ban on weapons exports that the Japanese government had maintained for nearly 50 years, Mitsubishi, Kawasaki, Hitachi, Toshiba, and other military contractors in this semipacifist country are cautiously but unmistakably telling the world they are open for business.
A maritime security exposition here in May was the first military industry trade show in Japan, organizers and participants said. And it was the first anywhere to feature the Japanese manufacturers.
“I’ve never seen them,” said Major General Mick Fairweather, a procurement specialist with the Australian armed forces who regularly attends such expos around the world. “It’s going to be a growing thing.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lifted the prohibition on military exports last year, part of a loosening of restrictions on Japan’s military power that were put in place after its defeat in World War II.
While much of the Japanese public opposes the changes, Abe says they are long overdue. The growing might of China, Japan’s close but not always friendly neighbor, has added force to his argument.
Abe is counting on increased military-related trade to help cement ties with other countries in the region that share Japan’s wariness of China. Southeast Asian nations and India are high on the list of potential customers.
Japan hopes Australia, a fellow Pacific democracy, will be a receptive market for Soryu-class submarines, built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Shipbuilding. The subs, which cost about 50 billion yen, or $410 million, use ultraquiet diesel-electric drives that make them hard for adversaries to detect.
Mitsubishi Heavy is also working on a prototype amphibious assault vehicle, used for landing troops on hostile seashores, that could eventually compete with American-designed vehicles used by the Marine Corps.
Some of the country’s large industrial conglomerates have long had sidelines in military production, supplying a variety of equipment, including tanks and planes, to the Japanese military, the Self-Defense Forces. With rare exceptions, the Japanese government has been their only customer.
“When you don’t fight wars, it doesn’t exactly help the arms industry,” said Masahiro Matsumura, a professor at Momoyama Gakuin University who specializes in politics and national security.
Only four Japanese companies are among the top 100 arms producers ranked by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a watchdog group. The biggest, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, earns less than a 10th the revenue from military sales as the top US military contractor, Lockheed Martin.
Small production runs make Japanese hardware relatively expensive, Matsumura said. And a lack of real-world experience presents an additional hurdle.
“The US fights a lot of wars, so they get feedback on the performance of their weapons,” he said. “Japan doesn’t fight, so there’s no feedback.”
Japan has not sent troops into combat since World War II, and its postwar constitution renounces the use of force “as a means of settling international disputes.” Among the changes Abe’s government is enacting are new laws that will allow the Self-Defense Forces to operate abroad in a wider array of circumstances, including to defend allies like the United States.
India has expressed interest in a large-capacity seaplane, the US-2, built for the Japanese navy by ShinMaywa Industries, a manufacturer better known for dump trucks and the passenger boarding bridges used at airports. The US-2 could help the Indian military patrol distant island chains like the Andaman and Nicobar, hundreds of miles from the mainland across the Indian Ocean.
Breaking into a market dominated by established giants, often with close ties to governments, will not be easy. In many areas, specialists say, Japan’s best bet is probably to cooperate rather than compete head-to-head.
Japan’s most marketable products, they say, are relatively inconspicuous components, like image sensors and carbon-fiber aircraft parts, many originally developed with civilian applications in mind.
“We make some excellent parts and subsystems, but if we intend to produce whole systems, like next-generation fighters, it’s impossible to develop these things on our own,” said Satoshi Morimoto, a former defense minister.
Japanese companies already sell a small number of high-tech military components to the United States, such as missile-tracking sensors used in ballistic missile defense systems, under exceptions to the export ban introduced beginning in the 1980s.
Despite their new freedom to export, Japanese companies remain wary of being associated with a controversial industry.
“Most of the things here aren’t very weaponlike,” said Yoshibumi Kusaka, a helicopter sales representative on duty at Kawasaki’s booth at the expo, noting the absence of guns, missiles and other blatantly threatening gear from the Japanese companies’ displays.