Japan is currently in the midst of a domestic political debate about whether or not it can participate in collective defense with the United States. This raises the question whether the time might be right for the international community to drop the double standard that it applies to the military roles and capabilities of the Japanese defense forces (SDF).
This double standard derives from Japan’s war history and holds that Japan presents a perennial risk of revived militaristic nationalism. It therefore judges Japan’s military activities much more critically than those of other neighboring states. It mistakenly assumes that a militarily more powerful Japan must necessarily become a threat to the rest of Asia rather than a stabilizing influence, and that Japan, even in the midst of provocative actions by other states, particularly China, must refrain from any new military commitments.
Japan has followed a slow, incremental and politically fraught path to defense normalization spanning decades. Both the Japanese people and the international community have demanded a high standard of justification for even the most modest addition to the functions of the Japanese military, even when these additional roles have not involved the use of force, such as providing logistical support for UN peacekeeping operations and rear area support for U.S. forces under the defense cooperation guidelines.
The constitutional and legal strictures under which the Japanese defense forces operate continue to impose some of the tightest rules and regulations on any military in the world. First and foremost, what the SDF are permitted to do and where must conform to the long-standing interpretation of Article 9 (Peace Clause) of the Japanese Constitution. Second, and by no means less importantly, what the SDF can do is strictly controlled by legislation. If laws, including the SDF Law, do not authorize a particular function, then it is proscribed. The legal basis for SDF action means that the domestic political requirements for major changes in Japanese defense policy are that new proposals be incorporated into legislation and formally approved by a majority in the Diet. These democratic processes of lawmaking have, in the past, helped to ensure that despite the desires of some Japanese leaders to push the boundaries of SDF action, changes have been limited to piecemeal advances.
The question now is whether, how and to what extent due political process will circumscribe the ambitions of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to expand the roles of the Japanese military forces, including authorization of a collective defense role. The convoluted and extended discussion currently being conducted in Japan on this question illustrates once again the tortuous political process that each step towards Japan’s defense normalization must take.
The formal-legal requirements of defense policy change sit alongside an additional, compelling political constraint – the need for support from the so-called “national defense consensus.” Inevitably, proposals for change elicit strong opposition from sections of the general public and media, and from political groups, including political parties, stemming from an entrenched “culture of antimilitarism.”
Not surprisingly, politically entrenched pacifist elements in Japanese society and politics have surfaced to hold the Abe administration to account. Objections to the Japanese military forces participating in collective defense are even being raised openly by senior members of Abe’s own government. The path forward will not be smooth.
In this context, it is important to maintain the distinction between militarism and expanded military roles and capabilities. They are not the same thing. Prewar Japanese militarism was built into the very ethos of the state. The 1934 “Basic Principles of Japanese Defense and Proposal for Defense Buildup” declared that “war is the father of creation and the mother of culture.”
Postwar, militarism has been excised from state ethos and replaced with the peace ethos of Article 9. Perhaps this explains why Japanese pacifists hold the spirit of the Constitution so close to their hearts. They bear in mind the maxim of former Foreign Minister Zentaro Kosaka who said in 1970, “Militarism is a ghost that we must always watch closely.” The Japanese people watch this ghost closely and so continue to distrust military and political leaders who are historical revisionists such as Shinzo Abe. They accuse the prime minister of wanting to attack the Constitution in order to “shake free of the postwar regime.” In their view, because Abe sees the Constitution as a symbol of the postwar order that was imposed by the occupation forces, he regards it as in need of amendment in order for the Japanese people to regain pride. In this way, Abe has put himself on the “watch” list.
The argument about Abe’s unhidden agenda to change the constitution may have a point. What is qualitatively different about the current plan for Japan to assume a collective defense role is that it proposes to dump a long-standing (since 1981) interpretation of Article 9, which permits the Japanese military to act only to defend Japan in the event that it is attacked directly and to use the minimum necessary level of military force to do so – the absolutely fundamental principle of “exclusively defensive defense” that is deemed compatible with Article 9 and which permits Japan to maintain military forces. This makes the debate about Japan’s assuming a collective defense role significantly more consequential compared with previous additions to SDF roles, which did not challenge this fundamental principle to anything like the same degree.
What is more, the major change in interpretation would be made by the cabinet rather than through any processes involving the Diet or the voters, which places the Constitution itself under possible future threat of revision by reinterpretation rather than by undergoing the formal (and politically difficult) amendment procedure. Abe and his clique of historical revisionists, including Minister of Education Hakubun Shimomura, National Public Safety Commission Chairman Keiji Furuya, and Minister of State for Regulatory Reform Tomomi Inada, could use the change in constitutional interpretation not only as a precedent but also as a stepping-stone to achieving formal amendment of the Constitution itself. Abe has justified his advocacy of collective defense by saying that “under the current Constitution, we can’t participate in combat outside the country, and so it [the Constitution] cannot protect the people’s lives.” In other words, exclusively defensive defense is no longer sufficient to protect Japan. Superficially this is a powerful argument, but it does not stand up to close scrutiny. Participating in combat “outside the country” does not necessarily enhance Japan’s ability to defend itself. In fact, it may endanger Japan’s security further by drawing it into a conflict that it might otherwise have avoided.
On the other hand, while Abe and others who support his goals have certainly been assertive in their ambitions to shake off Japan’s historical legacy, there is a world of difference between what they are proposing and Japan’s prewar military expansionism. The government must observe due political process and remains politically accountable to a population that is steadfastly cautious and anti-militarist, and would never countenance military action that was anything more than legitimate self-defense in the face of an increasingly dangerous regional environment.
It is also important to separate Abe’s personal motives from a dispassionate and objective assessment of what Japan needs to do in order to deal with new kinds of security threat. The collective defense proposals include others that affect areas where Japan’s own ability to defend itself is debatable. The question remains whether Japan has the capability to deal with “grey zone” threats to remote islands in the Southwest, which fall between the cracks of permissible SDF and Japan Coast Guard functions.
As a gesture to solidify the alliance with the United States, Japanese participation in collective defense is also important. Indeed, the political value of collective defense to Japan may outweigh its security value in an alliance context. It is designed to elicit a stronger U.S. commitment to the defense of Japan, particularly to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. It is ironic that a potentially significant development in the U.S.-Japan alliance relationship is occurring at a time when the current American and Japanese administration basically don’t like each other. In particular, figures close to the prime minister view the Obama administration coldly and, to some extent, the feeling is mutual. The White House is wary of the Abe administration because of America’s vested interest in regional stability and the record of extreme Chinese reactions to Abe’s symbolic gestures of historical revisionism (by, for example, visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo) as well as Japanese unwillingness to acknowledge a sovereignty dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu.
Aurelia George Mulgan is professor of Japanese Politics, University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra, Australia. Author of six books on Japanese politics (the latest “Ozawa Ichiro and Japanese Politics: Old Versus New,” Nissan/Routledge 2014).