Yes, Japan Is Still Pacifist
Tokyo’s reinterpreting its constitution—but that’s no cause for alarm
On July 1, the cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced an evolution in Japan’s military doctrine. The government has reinterpreted the restrictions governing Japan’s use of force in international disputes. The new decision reverses the postwar understanding that the constitution completely forbids Tokyo from defending its allies from attack.
The change is highly controversial. The move’s critics feel Abe is pushing Japan to remilitarize after nearly 70 years of peace.
On the day of the announcement, 10,000 protestors gathered outside the prime minister’s official residence. Smaller demonstrations sprang up across the country—but the most disturbing of these had happened days earlier.
On June 29, an elderly man climbed onto the girders supporting a walkway above Shinjuku station, the world’s busiest train terminal. Wearing a suit and carrying a megaphone, he sat cross-legged and discussed his plans to commit suicide. He continued his vocal protest of the government’s impending decision for an hour.
He then poured gasoline all over his body and immolated himself in front of the shocked crowd. Emergency workers attempting to coax him down quickly stamped out the fire and rushed the man to hospital. The suicidal protester is in a critical condition. Social media coverage of his actions shocked the nation.
What would drive a man to attempt suicide protesting a right that every other country considers reasonable? The answer lies in the fear that Japan might relive its tragic wartime past.
It is important to understand what the government’s announcement really means. Under the new interpretation, Tokyo can intervene to help close allies—namely, the United States—when an attack “threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to fundamentally overturn people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.”
The previous interpretation only allowed for the minimum use of force in response to direct attacks against Japan.
Since the postwar constitution came into law in 1947, its ninth article has strictly limited Japan’s defense policies. The pacifistic statement declares that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”
The new interpretation uses other sections of the document to balance the strict anti-force message of Article 9.
The government’s announcement focuses on the preamble which codifies Japan’s desire to live in “an international society striving for the preservation of peace, and the banishment of tyranny and slavery, oppression and intolerance for all time from the earth.”
It also draws from Article 13 in its requirement that the government protect its citizens’ “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
International law permits collective self-defense, but a 1972 interpretation of the constitutional limits on force deemed it legally off-limits to Tokyo. This is where the nationalist prime minister’s interpretation breaks with tradition.
The reinterpretation allows for “a minimum required level of force to protect Japanese citizens” when an attack on a foreign country “threatens Japan’s survival.”
Still, critics are unhappy.
Left-wing opponents of the move have criticized this new focus for “watering down” Article 9, labeling it a move away from Japan’s postwar anti-war values. Many are unhappy that the prime minister has not chosen to seek formal constitutional reform.
Abe’s reasons are obvious.
Constitutional reform requires a two-thirds majority in both the upper and lower houses of the Diet plus a majority in a national referendum. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party holds 61 percent of the lower house and only 47 percent of the upper house. It would be unlikely to pass a reform motion through the Diet—and even if it did, polls suggest a close fight if the government put reforms to a national vote.
Critics also ask why Japan needs to loosen its constraints on collective self-defense. Many still hold that continued, or even increased and more neutral, non-violence is Japan’s best choice. The recovering militarist nation has legally ruled out its ability to aid an ally for the last 67 years—why should that change now?
For Abe, the answer would incorporate the rise of China, Japan’s international security commitments and the need for greater alliance burden-sharing with the United States. But the government’s inability to explain this to the public has frustrated supporters of collective self-defense.
The debate is not new. Japan’s postwar generation was acutely aware of World War II’s major lesson—that blind obedience to the government can be disastrous.
During the 1960s, the postwar generation conducted large violent protests nationwide. The most famous of these demonstrations were the 1960 rallies against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.
Japanese youth understood that the government didn’t have their best interests at heart—and that they could avoid calamity through activism. Eventually the postwar generation settled into mainstream society and began to power Japan’s economic rise. As they did, they began to forget their activist origins.
The government and corporate mishandling of the 2011 meltdown at Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power station reawakened Japan’s activist spirit. Nationwide concern about radiation and corruption fueled mistrust in the government that Abe’s supposed constitutional coup has further stoked.
Opposition is widespread to Abe’s new interpretation of the constitution. Critics of the prime minister dislike his unapologetic attitude toward Japan’s wartime history. Fears that the changes might once more send the nation to war have sparked cross-generational protests nationwide. Protestors carry signs calling for Abe to resign, many labeling him a fascist.
A new Social Democratic Party poster opposing the government decision to allow collective self-defense captures the mood perfectly. “Then one day, Papa didn’t come home,” a boy laments in the poster.
The shame of defeat and wrongdoing suffuses Japanese tales about the war. They are different kind of war story than you might find in Western history books. Japanese memories emphasize home-front horrors.
Teachers, museums and authors frequently present the atomic, incendiary and conventional bombings that devastated the country without context, failing to mention Japan’s culpability in starting the war. Even where there is context, the tales frequently appear to lack contrition.
Ask anyone on the street why Japan went to war and there’s a very good chance you will be told that it was for self-preservation. This narrative emerged from militarist wartime propaganda. It plays up Japan’s “encirclement” by the “ABCD line”—America, Britain, China and the Dutch, and downplays Japan’s expansionism as a cause of those economic embargoes.
Popular memory holds that circumstance and a runaway militarist government inflicted the war upon the Japanese nation. This narrative fertilized the non-violent pacifism and anti-militarism that Japan’s postwar occupiers encouraged.
Attributing the causes of their national tragedy to external factors, Japan hasn’t yet learned to trust itself again. Japan fears itself. Its neighbors fear it, too. For that reason, Article 9 is a comfort to much of the world. No wonder millions fear what could happen if Abe undermines the constitutional symbol of Japanese peace.
But they needn’t.
Japanese citizens take much pride in their country’s postwar record of pacifism—and rightly so. Japan is the eighth most peaceful country on the 2014 Global Peace Index. The island nation has exercised restraint and control as it evolved from a ruined militarist empire to a mercantile economic powerhouse. Tokyo funds peace activities globally and participates in international security operations as much as its stringent laws allow.
Non-violence has weaved itself into Japan’s national identity … and this social and political restraint on military force will survive even if Article 9 doesn’t.
Japan and international security
Over the past 70 years, Japanese money and volunteers have done a lot of good around the world. But Japan’s non-violent principles are an extreme expression of pacifism that are not entirely in keeping with its mission of peace.
Tokyo has used the non-violent message of Article 9 for economic advantages. In its unbalanced alliance with the U.S., Japan has benefited from comprehensive protection for minimal cost. If Japan wants to uphold the spirit of the constitution in its entirety, it has to take on its full share of the work required to maintain international security.
The new government interpretation of the constitution may undermine Article 9, but it won’t be the first time. The article clearly forbids the maintenance of “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential”—but this year the Self-Defense Forces are celebrating their 60th anniversary.
Japan is also complicit in “the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes”—which the article also renounces.
Beyond its logistical support in Iraq and Afghanistan, Japan has been happy to bankroll the use of force when sanctioned by the U.N., as in the 1991 Gulf War. Japan donated $13 billion to that war effort but its refusal to send troops sparked American complaints about Tokyo’s “checkbook diplomacy.”
The diplomatic spat convinced the government to explore ways that Japan could provide materiel support to international security in the form of U.N. peacekeeping operations.
Japan is the second-largest financial contributor to U.N., after the U.S. Much of Tokyo’s international development work firmly supports the organization’s ideals of international peace, and since 1992 the Self-Defense Forces have contributed troops—engineers, mostly—to peacekeeping operations around the world.
However, the strict interpretation of Article 9 has severely limited Japan’s involvement in these missions, ruling out operations anywhere that might be considered a conflict zone. This has made Japan unable to participate in any meaningful fashion in many peacekeeping operations. These legal constraints won’t change.
The new government decision will uphold the strict conditions governing the dispatches of peacekeeping forces. However, the government plans to review legislation to allow Self-Defense Force members to carry weapons for protection. This will include the possibility of protecting peacekeepers from other countries.
The Self-Defense Forces may even be able to lend support to missions protecting Japanese nationals abroad—such as during the In Amenas crisis in Algeria, which left 10 Japanese dead.
These measures will give Tokyo more tools to deal with international crises and more power to act when its peacekeeping partners need help—putting an end to non-violence masquerading as pacifism in Japan’s international security policy.
Outrage over the reinterpretation of collective self-defense isn’t proportionate to the changes the cabinet decision will bring. Japan will be no more capable of war than it is now.
What will change is Japan’s ability to aid its allies. Currently Japan can only watch if hostile forces attack the U.S. military. With the new interpretation, Tokyo will be able to provide armed support to American forces defending Japan even if Japanese forces or people are not under direct attack.
Japan will also be able to provide logistical support to U.N. Security Council-sanctioned interventions, as long as there is no combat in the areas the Self-Defense Forces operate. Previously the government considered support for combat missions a use of force, regardless of U.N. judgements.
It’s a measured change—and it’s much stricter than the conditions the Chinese, Korean or Russian governments place on their own forces.
Contrary to opposition criticism, Abe’s path has been democratic and with precedent. While constitutional reform would have been undeniably more democratic, that doesn’t make the cabinet’s reinterpretation undemocratic. The new collective self-defense policy follows a line of decision-making that has been part of the executive’s right since the postwar government came into being.
The decision wasn’t a secret one. The media, public and politicians have debated the issue considerably in the past year. And the interpretation isn’t just Abe’s vision.
Needing the support of its coalition partner New Komeito, the government tightened and negotiated the wording. What is left is just a partial relief of the ban on collective self-defense. The decision doesn’t allow, for example, Japan to defend American forces in the Middle East or Europe.
The reinterpretation isn’t the end of the process. Democratically-elected representatives in both houses of the Diet will have to vote on the changes to the Self-Defense Forces Law and the U.N. Peacekeeping Cooperation Law. The government’s announcement also states that any use of force in the name of collective self-defense will require prior Diet approval.
While the reinterpretation may be democratic, the government must work harder to adequately communicate to the public why Japan needs to change.
Traditional interpretations of the constitution are outmoded. Military operations aren’t always act of war—peacekeeping, disaster relief and humanitarian intervention all are military missions for international peace and development.
The non-violent interpretation of the constitution rejects the possibility that the Japanese military can contribute good to the world. Clearly that’s no longer true.
Additionally, the Asia-Pacific region faces an increasingly belligerent China. Japan and the United States both have had dangerous confrontations with the Chinese navy and air force. Beijing also has staked historical claims to Japanese territory. While Tokyo must be careful not to provoke the Chinese, it must take the steps necessary to secure itself in an ever more dangerous neighborhood.
It is time for Japan to move beyond this paralyzing fear of itself. The debate over the legitimacy of force must continue. Calling Abe a fascist and his policies militarist does nothing but stifle the debate over what kind of role Japan should play in the international community.
The government needs to encourage and listen to this debate. The people need to participate.