“Normality” Over “Neutrality”?

by Alex Soble:

Article IX of the Constitution of Japan sets it apart from most members of the world community: “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation.” To uphold this declaration, the Constitution goes on to declare that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

In fact, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) are not like most militaries. True to its name, the SDF has focused on peaceful operations like disaster relief since its creation at the end of World War II, specializing in responding quickly to the major earthquakes that have hit Japan. The SDF was first deployed in a war zone only in 2004, with a 600-man non-combat unit dispatched on a humanitarian mission to Iraq.

This relatively minor assignment provoked enormous controversy in Japan. For decades, Article IX has been interpreted with great strictness—in spite of the calls of some, like former Prime Minister Ichiro Ozawa, to remake Japan into a “normal country” that uses its military to advance national interests as it sees fit. However, since the 2006 election of conservative Prime Minister Shinto Abe, the government has conducted a string of bureaucratic changes that have oriented the SDF in a new direction. Since last year, the Agency of Defense was elevated to the status of a Ministry of Defense; a proposal to create a Japanese National Security Council has been submitted; and Abe himself has broached the topic of amending Article IX.

That Japan is tilting away from the isolationism and strict pacifism dictated by its Constitution is clear. The international implications of a revision of Article IX would be enormous. For the U.S., Japan’s greatest ally, it would allow a greater Japanese contribution to the military alliance between the two countries. To China and South Korea, its neighbors, a revision would represent a disturbing change from the pacifist stance that Japan has maintained since World War II. As the Japanese people and government debate the role of their Self-Defense Forces, they will have to choose just what kind of “normal country” Japan should be.

A Controversial Past

To some, any changes to Japan’s pacifism are worrying, hinting at a reawakening of Japanese militarism and nationalism that could spark conflict in the already tense region of East Asia. In his recent article, “The Trouble with Japanese Nationalism,” philosopher Francis Fukuyama links a revision of Article IX with Japan’s recalcitrance about issues of historical guilt. “Unlike Germany, Japan has never come to terms with its own responsibility for the Pacific War,” he claimed. In light of Japan’s territorial disputes with China and Korea in the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan, many fear that military rearmament will combine with latent nationalism to lead to heightened tension or even conflict.

Memories of Japan’s role in World War II are still strong in the region. Enormous protests erupted in China and South Korea in 2005 when the Japanese government authorized schools’ use of a history textbook downplaying Japanese war crimes. More recently, Prime Minister Abe has denied evidence of coercion in the Japanese Army’s historical use of “comfort women,” the hundreds of thousands of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese women forced to work as sex slaves in Japanese brothels during World War II. His remarks sparked outrage in China and South Korea, once again placing the Japanese Army’s history in the headlines.

Even Japan’s famous cartoons, or manga, have managed to become part of the debate over Japan’s strained relationships with its neighbors. Sharin Yamano’s 2005 comic book Kenkanryu—roughly, “Hate the Korean Wave”—suggests that Korea owes all of its development to Japan’s occupation and portrays Koreans as overbearingly arrogant. It reached first place in sales on Amazon.com’s Japanese site, with over 360,000 copies sold within three months.

However, Francis Rosenbluth, a professor of Political Science at Yale, argued that these flashpoints of controversy are not accurate portrayals of Japanese public sentiment. “Yamano is a sensationalist, like the Michael Crichton of Japan,” Rosenbluth told The Yale Globalist. “There have always been extreme rightists like him in Japan, and they have always been a very vocal minority.” In her recent paper, “Japan’s New Nationalism,” Rosenbluth claims that the changes in Japan’s military policy are due not to aggressive patriotism but to “cool nationalism,” a level-headed political decision to heighten Japan’s role on the world stage. According to Rosenbluth, the causes of this shift lie not across the Sea of Japan, in China and South Korea, but rather across the Pacific, in the United States.

Alliance with the United States

The political calculations behind Japan’s military stance have always centered on the U.S.-Japanese alliance. It was the United States that originally imposed a pacifist constitution on a defeated Japan in the aftermath of World War II. General Douglas MacArthur directed the occupation and guided the adoption of this “Peace Constitution,” believing that Japan should never be a major military power after the events of World War II. Yet only five years afterwards, the U.S. urged Japan to rearm itself in order to fight alongside its ally in the Korean War. Japan refused. Its war-weary people had enthusiastically adopted the ideal of pacifism and used the U.S.-installed constitution to reject America’s own demands.

Fifty years later, the United States is still pushing Japan to adopt a more robust military stance. The core of the current U.S.- Japan security configuration is the United States Pacific Command, a military force of 300,000 American troops based largely in Japan and South Korea and geared mostly to protect against possible threats from China and North Korea. Japan spends about one percent of its GDP on its military; proportionally, the U.S. spends almost four times as much. In the 1980s, American politicians regularly called for making Japan “pull its own weight” in the alliance. Today, such rhetoric has cooled, but the geopolitical circumstances that pit U.S. military interests against Japanese pacifism still hold. A larger Japanese presence would allow the U.S. to divert some of its military resources elsewhere––for example, to the Middle East.

Japan’s New Military

But what, exactly, would the post-Article IX SDF look like? Some envision a force having mainly a humanitarian, non-combat role. “No one wants to become a full-fledged military might,” Naoyuki Agawa, former minister for public affairs at the Embassy of Japan and professor at Keio University, told The Yale Globalist. “But we want to meaningfully contribute and cooperate with the U.S.” Agawa considers Japan’s pacifism a key strategic advantage in the difficult task of peacekeeping—one that could be useful to the U.S. “Because we had no intention of engaging in combat [in Iraq], when our troops would wave to the locals, they waved back. Our peacekeepers succeeded in helping them to build schools and water facilities. Some of the major tasks American forces are facing now—how to stabilize areas and make the locals your friends—are areas where the SDF is far more effective, because of its definition as zero-combat.”

The success of Japan’s peacekeeping operation in Iraq has buoyed Japanese public opinion of international deployment, associating it with the disaster-relief expertise for which the SDF has always been famed. With its overtones of a UN humanitarian mission, the expedition also cast a positive light on Japan’s attempt to gain a permanent seat on the Security Council. But such peaceful humanitarianism would not be the only new element of a post- Article IX Japanese military. A large defense budget would mean more military hardware: planes, boats, and missiles. This beefed-up Japanese military would supplement the American defense network in the Pacific. As Agawa remarked, “Article IX should allow Japan to meaningfully contribute to the U.S.-Japan alliance.”

Some of the technology involved, such as missiles with the capacity to strike preemptively at North Korea’s own arsenal, could appear atypically aggressive for Japan. Undoubtedly, such a move would be met with enormous protest from the Chinese and South Korean governments. Such offensively-oriented weaponry, they argue, can never be “normal” for Japan, given its history.

In choosing the future of its military, Japan must navigate between its geopolitical interests, its controversial past, and the desires of its people. Each has a different idea of how a “normal” Japan should act. If Agawa and Abe are right, the Japanese people a hundred years from now will see the revision of Article IX as the first step in the birth of a truly “normal” Japan, untroubled by difficult questions about its role in the world and its past. But escaping history is never easy—especially a history one’s neighbors can never forget.