Japan’s pacifism fades, but most Japanese aren’t happy about it

July 20, 2015
Protesters burn an illustration of Japanese military flag featuring a portrait of Tojo, former general of the Imperial Japanese Army and WW2 Japanese PM, during a demonstration outside the Japanese Consulate in Hong Kong

Protesters burn an illustration of a Japanese military flag featuring a portrait of Hideki Tojo, Japan’s prime minister during World War Two, during a demonstration outside the Japanese Consulate in Hong Kong, July 7, 2015. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Nearly to the day of the first successful test of a nuclear bomb in 1945, and just a few weeks from the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushed through legislation to give his country’s military the power to strike offensively for the first time since the war.

It is hard to understate the potential impact of this development.

Domestically, Abe is putting his own job on the line. Voters oppose the new legislation roughly two to one, opposition parties walked out of the vote in protest and the government’s support ratings fell to around 40 percent. The lower house of parliament’s decision to approve the legislation set off the largest demonstrations in Japan since the Fukushima nuclear accident; a crowd of 100,000 people gathered with signs reading “Abe, Quit.”

Abe took this action knowing that 55 years ago similar protests forced his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, out of the prime minister’s job after he rammed a revised U.S.-Japan security pact, seen as too militaristic, through parliament.

Abe’s move is also darkly symbolic both in and outside Japan.

Most Japanese remain proud of Article 9 in their postwar constitution, through which they became the only nation in modern times to renounce the use of offensive force. Abe’s walking his country away from this achievement represents the end of the last great ideal to emerge from World War Two, and an almost contemptuous disregard for his citizens’ view of themselves.

In addition, as China contests islands in the seas south of Japan, North Korea rattles its nuclear saber and Japan’s Southeast Asian neighbors remember their own World War Two experiences, the new legislation throws additional fuel onto the coals of East Asian tensions. China’s foreign ministry said the move called into question Japan’s postwar commitment to “the path of peaceful development” and urged Abe to learn the lessons of history.

Chief among the practical concerns in Japan is that Abe’s legislative end-run around the constitution will block case-by-case debate on the use of the nation’s military.

For example, Japan’s only post-World War Two deployment of troops abroad, a single battalion to Iraq in 2004 in support of U.S. reconstruction efforts, met intense scrutiny to the point where the government published images of the small arms the soldiers carried, which were to be used only for self-protection, to assure the public of its non-martial intent. A separate, one-time-only law, passed in the wake of 9/11 to allow Japan to refuel American ships in the Indian Ocean, restricted Japanese vessels to “areas where no combat is taking place.”

The new legislation does not immediately become law. The measure moves to the upper house, where no vote is expected to be taken. After 60 days, the measure will automatically return to the lower chamber, where Abe’s coalition holds a comfortable majority. In theory, the decision could then be challenged in the supreme court as being in violation of Article 9, though the court historically rules in favor of the government.

That addresses the “what.” The “why” remains much harder to discern.

Abe says the legislation is in response to threats facing Japan, including from China. He also cites the murder of two Japanese hostages by Islamic State, suggesting his military could have rescued them. While these views play well to the ultranationalists who help fund the prime minister’s party, Abe’s critics see them as blather; American security guarantees protect Japan without a (Japanese, at least) thumb in the eye of its neighbors. And even if Japan had the special-forces capability to pull off a hostage rescue, such an action seems well within the intent of Article 9.

Abe also says that the new legislation would allow Japan to help defend the United States, something his critics feel could lead to entanglements in U.S. aggression against China, or even in the Middle East. Abe’s own arguments about defending Japan aside, one real factor is the United States pushing the leader into a more aggressive stance under the banner of “collective defense.”

However, the real “why” likely rests deep inside Abe. He has long held a hyper-conservative view of World War Two. He stated, for example, that Japanese leaders charged with war crimes were “not war criminals under the laws of Japan.” American occupiers arrested Abe’s grandfather, Kishi, as a war criminal for his role in the war. Some say Kishi, who helped raise Abe, pressed into his grandson his own dream of remaking Japan as a military power and throwing off the postwar constitution.

Abe is a politician who found himself powerful enough to act on his own ideas, apart from what many feel are his nation’s legitimate security needs. Abe is apparently willing to pick a fight, risk his job and anger his country, all in service to his own ideology.

10 comments

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Anyone shocked by the way the world is after Obama……

Posted by nek866 | Report as abusive

nice

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Peter Van Buren, I enjoyed reading that, maybe one of the better contributions to the op-ed page(imlho).

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

There are countless reasons why Abe would like to revise the constitution. One reason is that he and his buddies like Mayor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro are great friends of The Heritage Foundation and of course through them a huge lobby of US defence contractors. The US are focused on containment of China is the Pacific. Thus, the US having a small obedient bull dog (more like poodle) in the form of the Abe government helps feel as if they have a coalition of the willing.

In truth, Abe’s sword rattling helps him deflect public attention from the ongoing meltdowns (x3) at Fukushima which cannot be brought under control, the failed Abenomics reforms that currently only benefit the Japanese corporations because of monetary easing, and the increasing birth decline because of Japan’s ethnocentric and compassionless policies for migration and refugee acceptance.

Posted by CitizenCane | Report as abusive

H

Posted by CitizenCane | Report as abusive

The Peace Constitution has served Japan well. The crazy Neocons in the US will bankrupt the country with an endless series of wars that drain the Treasury. Regime change, Color Revolutions and wars of hegemony are a greased chute to hell. Commerce will serve the people of Japan well.

Posted by LowIncome | Report as abusive

If you love peace, prepare for war.

Japan needs a real military as a matter of national sovereignty. Since Abe already buys into this Keynesian nonsense of spending driving the economy, why not at least get a real army in return. isnt that better than just running up the deficits for the sake of running up the deficits

Posted by yobro_yobro88 | Report as abusive

Good on him. Japan is taking responsibility for its own defense instead of hiding behind the US.
Obama has a mixed record in resolving armed threats – Putin fooled him in Libya and is doing what he likes in Ukraine, the rush to leave Iraq let IS fill the space caused by Shia triumphalism and vindictiveness, similar in Libya and possibly Afghanistan. Though like Bush he seems to be a master of losing the peace , Iran looks promising and I like that he had Britain and France carry the effort and pick up the costs in Libya.
Seems a more fair sharing of the load of fighting Islamists and containing Tsar Putin and the march (or sailing ) of Chinese sea grabs reduces the likelihood of global cop fatigue by the US leadership and citizenry.
I’m not an unqualified fan of US international actions (especially when they only do half the job) but a world with dominant forces being Chinese communists, Putin’s masked gangters and the Islamic equivalents is a lot scarier than the status quo.
Kudos for Abe for showing leadership.

Posted by compass2k | Report as abusive

Dear Reuters: In the second paragraph I think you meant “overstate” not:

It is hard to understate the potential impact of this development.

Posted by Verdae | Report as abusive

If a country is not willing to defend itself, why should the US bother with them?

The US has provided the defense of Europe and Asia at our own expense for 70 years. I think that is long enough.

Time to put America first.

Posted by Verdae | Report as abusive