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January 31, 2024

Wargaming in Japan’s Policy Think Tanks
―Thoughts at the End of First-Term Activities of SPF Wargaming Seminar―

Hiroyasu Akutsu
(Research Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation)

Introduction: Wargaming Boom Spreading to Policy Think Tanks

The new global wargaming boom supposedly triggered by the U.S.’s Third Offset Strategy announced in 2015 continues even today. This has gone beyond the frameworks of military and defense agencies in various countries, and even policy think tanks are now actively engaged in wargaming. At first, some wargaming projects were concerned with technological innovation, but now they deal not only with the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war, but there has also been a marked increase in wargaming especially regarding a Taiwan contingency and in the number of formats. In Japan, multiple research groups, including think tanks led by former Self-Defense Forces officers and research institutes close to the government, have made public their “policy simulation” exercises on a Taiwan contingency. The SPF also started to conduct similar projects on a Taiwan contingency before the COVID pandemic.

There are also independent think tanks in Japan that conduct regular “policy simulations” quite apart from this boom. Regardless of the purpose, the fact that “policy simulation,” including wargaming, is taking place in Japan, where such activities are not particularly robust professionally compared to other parts of the world, is rather a positive development.

However, as far as I am aware, the wargaming boom is currently spreading to various institutions in the Indo-Pacific including private and policy think tanks and research institutes affiliated to universities, so we cannot be complacent with the situation in Japan. When both the government and private sector of various countries are increasingly engaging in wargaming, particularly in the security area, amid rapid changes in the international situation, Japan will be quickly left behind if it remains complacent and is unable to keep up with this trend properly. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), including Japan’s ally, the U.S., is already moving toward the “standardization” of wargaming.[1] Despite talks about setting up a NATO office in Japan, if more private policy think tanks do not step up their wargaming activities, or to say the least, if we neglect efforts in this area, this may become a mission impossible for private think tanks whose job is to support and give advice on policy.

1. Raison d’etre of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation (SPF) Wargaming Seminar

A number of willing members have started a Wargaming Seminar in the SPF out of consciousness of this issue, or rather a sense of urgency. The seminar members held a total of 10 meetings during their free time outside their regular jobs. As an expert in wargaming, I explained the history and methodology of wargaming and performed demonstrations of the main forms of wargame exercises. The seminar paid special attention to the following: first, the fact that wargaming is gaining prevalence even in private policy think tanks in Europe and America; and second, to build a way of wargaming unique to the SPF based on its past achievements, ideals, and goals. We also gave consideration to providing opportunities to researchers and staff members unfamiliar with wargaming to experience several basic methods.

2. SPF’s Unique Wargaming as a Policy Think Tank

 The SPF’s ethos is “Think, Do, and Innovate-Tank.”

  • A Think Tank that conducts unique research and formulates proposals
  • A Do Tank that takes action to resolve issues
  • An Innovate-Tank that constantly engages in innovation

In light of the above, the SPF shall engage in the following types of wargaming:

  • Wargaming aimed at providing unique research, proposals, and so forth
  • Wargaming aimed at actions to resolve issues
  • Wargaming that constantly engages in innovation

Since the seminar will only be able to meet around 10 times each year, we have decided to focus on preparing for “wargaming aimed at actions to resolve issues” and “wargaming aimed at providing unique research, proposals, and so forth.” Exercises were conducted on an existing matrix game developed in the UK, The High North,, for the former, and on the games I designed, The Second Cuban Crisis (matrix game), and Japan’s Cuban Crisis (both the matrix and seminar game versions) for the latter. The High North is a game about the geopolitical impact of the melting Arctic due to climate change and global warming that is appropriate for SPF to perform, since it aims to contribute to the resolution of future global issues. The Second Cuban Crisis and Japan’s Cuban Crisis were designed to directly inform research and proposal development, particularly in the security field. Three consecutive scenarios were created for the seminar game version of Japan’s Cuban Crisis , in particular, and participants who wished to do so were also able to experience Control Team operations. This article will not go into the details and results of the exercises, but my personal blog [2] provides an account of the exercises to the extent disclosable, mostly in English.

3. The Advantage of a Policy Think Tank with a Diverse Group of Experts

In addition to the interest shown by many researchers and staff members in wargaming, I am most impressed by their dedication and active participation utilizing their specialist knowledge. In particular, we were fortunate to have at least two experts in specific fields participate in several meetings. As far as I know, it is very rare for more than one researcher or expert in the same field or closely related fields to work together in Japan, except in some government-affiliated research institutions. Regardless of whether it is SPF’s policy to have more than one researcher involved in specific fields, such a situation is of great advantage for SPF. The knowledge of these experts is essential, particularly in developing concrete scenarios.

Furthermore, these experts are not simply observers of the situation or annotators of functional areas; they always conduct their research activities with an eye to developing policy proposals. The knowledge and insights collected through wargaming will therefore become a valuable resource for future policy making.

I have also noticed the participation of many women. Increasing importance is being given to diversity of the participants in the wargaming world, especially in Europe and America, and a women’s wargaming network has been built.[3] As Japan deepens and expands exchanges with other countries in wargaming, the diversity of its wargaming participants will come under their scrutiny. I have a feeling that some of our activities at the SPF Wargaming Seminar are groundbreaking for Japan.

Conclusion: Expectations for the Future

Our seminar has held brief lectures on the history and basics of wargaming and conducted several exercises using the games mentioned earlier. Matrix games on North Korea’s nuclear arms and missiles in light of the latest regional situation were also used to heighten the interest of the participants. However, we regret that the contents of just 10 meetings of the seminar were very insufficient and might have given the impression of shallowness. I will be happy to accept criticism if the participants were not happy with the programs I developed.

We hope that the researchers and staff members from different backgrounds and generations participating in our seminar will maintain the momentum (that probably remains) and will continue to be involved with our activities from now on. And as a result, wargaming tapping the strengths and advantage of SPF will take place regularly, ultimately leading to concrete projects.