ENIWA, Japan On the northern island of Hokkaido, Japan opened up its humbly named Self Defense Force's firing exercises to the media, coinciding with a recent escalation of Chinese and Russian military moves around Japanese territory.
The drills, which foreign journalists rarely have a chance to witness, will go on for nine days and include some 1,300 Ground Self Defense Force troops. On Monday, as hundreds of soldiers cheered from the sidelines and waved unit flags, lines of tanks shot at targets meant to represent enemy missiles or armored vehicles.
Japan has rapidly stepped up its military role in its alliance with Washington, and has made more purchases of costly American weapons and equipment, including fighter jets and missile interceptors.
"Japan faces different risks coming from multiple fronts," said defense expert Heigo Sato, a professor at the Institute of World Studies at Takushoku University in Tokyo, as quoted by ABC News.
Among those risks are North Korea's increased willingness to test high-powered missiles and other weapons, provocations by armed Chinese fishing boats and coast guard ships, and Russia's deployment of missiles and naval forces.
One of Japan's biggest concerns is also China's increased naval activity, including an aircraft carrier that has been repeatedly spotted off Japan's southern coasts.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who took office in October, said during his first troop review that he would consider "all options," including possibly pursuing pre-emptive strike capabilities to further "increase Japan's defense power" - a divisive issue that opponents say violates the constitution.
Japan has more than 900 warplanes, 48 destroyers, including eight Aegis missile-combating systems, and 20 submarines. That exceeds Britain, Germany and Italy. Japan is also buying 147 F-35s, including 42 F-35Bs, making it the largest user of American stealth fighters outside of the United States, with 353 to be deployed.
Kishida's Cabinet recently approved a $6.8 billion extra budget for the fiscal year to accelerate missile defense and reconnaissance activities around Japanese territorial seas and airspace, and to bolster mobility and emergency responses to defend its remote East China Sea islands.
That would bring the 2021 defense spending total $53.2 billion, up 15 percent from the previous year, and 1.09 percent of Japan's GDP.
Experts say a defense budget increase is the price Japan must pay now to make up for a shortfall during much of the postwar era, when the country prioritized economic growth over national security.
In part because of a relative decline of America's global influence, Japan has expanded military partnerships and joint exercises beyond its alliance with the United States, to include Australia, Canada, Britain, France and other European countries, as well as in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Japan also cooperates with NATO.
Despite the government's argument that more is needed, there are worries domestically over Japan's rapid expansion of defense capabilities and costs.
"Although the defense policy needs to respond flexibly to changes in the national security environment, a soaring defense budget could cause neighboring countries to misunderstand that Japan is becoming a military power and accelerate an arms race," the newspaper Tokyo Shimbun said in a recent editorial.