Mindful of the past, Japan straddles the lanes of armed deterrence, staunchly supporting the US while striving to avoid an aggressive stance. But in an increasingly dangerous neighborhood, where China challenges Japan in the Senkaku Islands, North Korea is constantly rattling nerves and a resurgent Russia remains a question mark, the Japanese military is clearly on a heightened state of alert.

Japan continues to steadily modernize its naval and military forces. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) is fielding two new 24,000-ton helicopter-carrying destroyers and building up its Aegis ballistic missile defense fleet. Soryu-class submarines with advanced propulsion are being delivered annually, and new Kawasaki P-1 aircraft are replacing older US-built P-3C Orions in the maritime surveillance role.

Takei spoke with Defense News in February at his headquarters in Tokyo. He spoke both in English and through a translator.

How do you characterize your relationship with the American Navy?

The relationship between the US Navy — especially the Seventh Fleet — and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force is a core for the Japan-US alliance and also the core of the peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. The good relationship between the US Navy and JMSDF could become a basis for the further maritime relationship, for example US-Japan-Australia, US-Japan-India, US-Japan-South Korea as well.

So I would like to keep and enhance the relationship with the US Navy. In April last year, the Japan-US agreement for defense cooperation was revised, improving our peacetime cooperation and enhancing our deterrence capability. The cooperation with the US military, including the US Marine Corps and especially the US Navy — which is the core of the US-Japan alliance — is very indispensable for Japan to ensure peace and stability in this region. This close cooperation between the JMSDF and the US Navy is created by interaction over the last 60 years.

China has become far more assertive and aggressive in recent actions, creating air identification zones and artificial islands in what was international waters, especially in the South China Sea. How do you view China's actions?

First of all, the relationship between Japan and China is a very important concern for Japan's national security. China is one of the major regional powers and they have a responsibility to ensure peace and stability in this region. China's great sea power is able to contribute ensuring maritime security and China is already playing an important role in the Gulf of Aden and also conducting important activities in the Mediterranean Sea.

But on the other hand China is increasing its military powers and also enhancing its activities at sea and air space such as in East China Sea and South China Sea and rapidly expanding its activities, which is becoming a serious concern for neighboring countries. So the relationship with China is important not only for Japan but for maritime security in this region. It is important for Japan to continue to promote defense exchanges with China, try to increase Chinese military transparency and also increase engagement to avoid and prevent unplanned encounters.

Do you regularly visit China? Does Chinese Navy commander Admiral Wu Shengli come here?

In the last five years we haven't had any defense exchange with China.

Have you met Admiral Wu?

Yes, I did. When I was director general N3/N5 in this building. I met him twice in Tokyo and in Beijing in defense exchanges in 2008 and 2009. From then on there are no high-level officer exchanges.

Have you tried? Has he tried?

These issues are based on each government's political decisions, so we cannot decide this matter.

China has greatly expanded its Coast Guard, and the Japanese Coast Guard regularly encounters Chinese counterparts in the seas around the Senkakus. This white hull confrontation in many cases replaces gray hull naval encounters. What is your relationship with the Japan Coast Guard?

The Japan Coast Guard is in charge of the patrolling the territorial waters of Japan. The role of the JMSDF is to support the Coast Guard if they cannot respond to contingencies. The JMSDF and the Coast Guard cooperate with each other and communicate everything. The current head of the Japan Coast Guard is a former classmate of mine, and we have a hotline.

Your neighbor to the north is Russia. Have the Russians been very provocative in their actions toward you? What is your relationship?

Russia's war-fighting capabilities in the Far East, including the Navy's, have been significantly reduced compared to its peak. But they still have large-scale war-fighting capabilities including nuclear capabilities. And in recent years they have reformed their armed forces, including enhancing joint operational capabilities. Along with these reforms Russia is conducting large-scale exercises to enhance joint operational capabilities and mobilizing capabilities of its forces. Also their jet bomber are flying with close range of our country and they are enhancing all of their military activities. So we need to be cautious about Russia and these kind of activities.

But at the same time Russia has a great influence on the security of Japan and it's an important partner, so it is necessary for Japan to continue defense exchange acts. For example, Japan and Russia's Navy is conducting a search and rescue exercise, or SAREX. This is an important exercise for Japan and Russia to maintain good communications with each other.

Is North Korea the biggest threat to stability and peace in this region?

It is a very good question. North Korea [rejects] United Nations Security Council resolutions and continues conducting nuclear tests and developing missiles. This is a serious threat to North and East Asian countries. North Korea is likely involved in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This situation is becoming a serious threat for not only this region but also around the world.

In order to respond to the threat, such as the missile launches from North Korea, Japan is conducting close cooperation with the US military. [During] the recent North Korean nuclear test, we were prepared to deploy an Aegis ballistic missile defense (BMD) destroyer. We will improve and enhance information exchange with the Republic of Korea so that we can take more effective measures.

You are continuing to expand your Aegis BMD fleet?

Yes. We have six Aegis destroyers and have requested two more with Aegis Baseline 9. In five years we will have eight BMD-capable Aegis destroyers.

Is Aegis Ashore something that interests you?

A land-based BMD system is one of Japan's challenges. But at this moment the JMSDF is going to concentrate on increasing the number of Aegis destroyers.

You continue to increase the power of the JMSDF. Your new helicopter-carrying destroyers Izumo and Kaga are very impressive ships. Is there another generation beyond that?

The Kaga or Izumo-class destroyers, because of their size and shape, attract attention to their ability to carry the aircraft. But the real operational concept of these ships are different. It is based on joint operations and designed for activities such as HADR [humanitarian and disaster relief] in peacetime and war fighting in contingencies. The ships are equipped with very good medical facilities. Two years ago the Ise, which is a little bit smaller than Kaga, was deployed to provide HADR when a massive typhoon struck the Philippines. I believe that Kaga will make an important role in the near future. I believe that you think that Japan is increasing its military power, but that I this indicates that the JMSDF has adapted to the maritime security environment around Japan and in this region.

We can say the same thing as to our aircraft. Our P-3C maritime patrol aircraft is now engaging in anti-piracy operations around the Gulf of Aden and its activities are highly valued by other countries for their high level of performance. The P-1 is the successor to the P-3C, and I believe it will also create an important role in maritime security in this region and also around the world.

So you don't see a real aircraft carrier in Japan's future?

No.

You mentioned the anti-piracy patrols, where Japan has been sustaining escort forces in the western Indian Ocean. Has that been an opportunity for you to test out new concepts or just give your sailors and your ships and your organization more experience and sustained out-of-area operations. Or is it all been just in stride?

The Indo-Pacific region is quite important for Japan's peace and security. Since Sept. 11, 2001, we deployed replenishment ships and destroyers — we did that for nine years.  [More recently] Japan deployed anti-piracy forces in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia. That is a symbol of the Japanese government's direction to contribute to the peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

Have you learned much from these operations, supporting ships several thousand miles away and routinely replacing them, or has it been something you could do all along?

From its foundation, the JMSDF has inherited the tradition of the Imperial Japanese Navies. Being a blue-water navy is one of the traditions of the Imperial Japanese Navy. I believe that this is one of the DNA of Japan's Imperial Navy.

As you know the US Navy has been carrying out freedom of navigation (FON) passages in the South China Sea and elsewhere. There have been calls from some quarters for nations to join in these operations, but that has not yet happened. Will Japan join with the US in FON demonstrations?

The Japanese government supports the US Navy's freedom of navigation operations but Japan has no plan to participate. However, the South China Sea and the western Pacific must be open and stable. It is in the national interest of Japan. The Japanese government intends to keep the current presence around the oceans — to have joint maritime exercises with coastal countries and use the South China Sea as a transit. More than ever that is one of the Japanese government's directions for us.

By Christopher P. Cavas in Tokyo.