Tokyo Report

Preliminary Lessons From Japan’s Security Debate

“There is a lot more continuity than discontinuity in Japanese defense policy.”

Preliminary Lessons From Japan’s Security Debate
Credit: Japan SDF via akiyoko /

Absent a major upset, the Japanese Diet will approve new security legislation this September. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF, Japan’s armed services) should thus be better able to assist allied militaries (“collective self defense”), and to intervene overseas, even if Japan is not directly under attack.

The most striking aspect of these reforms is that they should even have to be enacted. Other states, regardless of their political orientation, take it for granted that their soldiers, sailors, and airmen shouldn’t wait for their country to be bombed by the enemy to start fighting.

In Japan’s case, Article 9 of the U.S.-drafted 1947 constitution renounces the right of belligerency and bans the country from having a military. However, Washington quickly decided that Japan should contribute to the defense of the Free World. Thus, it pushed Japan, against the wishes of many, including some conservatives, to establish a military in the early 1950s. To maintain the fiction that Article 9 was respected, they were called Self-Defense Forces (SDF).

Besides Article 9, pacifism retains a strong hold on numerous Japanese, and not only among leftists. Seventy years of peace thanks to the protective umbrella of the United States (and the SDF themselves) have allowed some Japanese to believe that the end of history had arrived, thus negating the requirement for national defense.

As a result, there were numerous delays in the Diet, forcing the cabinet to extend the parliamentary session to September. There were, by Japanese standards, a fair number of large demonstrations. The premier’s popularity took a big hit in opinion polls.

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To an outside observer, the debate looked surreal. Scholars were brought in to opine on the constitutionality of the bills. Yet, anyone who reads the constitution and sees the SDF, with their tanks, aircraft, destroyers, and submarines, knows that Article 9 has been eviscerated and relegated to the dustbin of (constitutional) history for more than sixty years. Criticizing the proposed legislation as unconstitutional is like indicting for murder a gunman who shoots a long-dead corpse. It may be objectionable, but it is not homicide.

There were also arcane discussions, with many hypothetical scenarios, about the circumstances under which Japan could or could not come to the aid of U.S. forces and about how serious a crisis had to be to justify the deployment of the SDF. (Should it involve only emergencies where Japan’s very existence was a stake, or should it also encompass dangerous but not existential situations?).

The controversy revealed the analytical error common in Japan of viewing war and peace through the prism of constitutional abstractions rather than to focus on policy. The answer to “should we go to war?” is never going to be found in a constitutional text. Moreover, it defies rationality to try to specify detailed conditions that warrant going on the offensive. Assessing whether a particular situation must be dealt with militarily or not is a judgment call that cannot be codified in legal scriptures.

Some argue that Article 9 should place special restrictions on military action. But the “war renouncing” clause, besides having been a dead letter for over half a century, is incompatible with surviving in a dangerous world. It’s a noble aspiration but is not policy-relevant. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “[a] strict observance of the written law is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to the written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us.”

Unfortunately for supporters of the legislation, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the worst possible salesman. It is no secret that he reveres a man – his grandfather – who was a cabinet minister under wartime Premier Tojo. His dislike of the current constitution – imposed by the U.S., but widely accepted by the Japanese people – is well known. His pilgrimages to Yasukuni, his signing a petition against a memorial in the United States to Korean “comfort women,” his friendship with Nanjing Massacre deniers, make it easy to paint the bills as a prelude to war.

The domestic politics of Japan today and its position inside the U.S. alliance system mean that Japan is neither about to start a war nor turn into a dictatorship. Abe is no warmonger (if he were he’d start with really beefing up the SDF) nor will he stage a coup d’état. But by being who is – a Yasukuni-worshiping revisionist – he has harmed his own cause. The task of Japanese who care about national defense is to find leaders who are both strong on national security, clean when it comes to history, and devoid of Abe’s reactionary views against the liberal legacy of the American Occupation. Germany returned successfully to (fairly tame) “normalcy” by participating in the Kosovo intervention and War in Afghanistan partly because no one inside and outside the country could accuse Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel of nostalgia toward the Third Reich.

In the meantime, the new laws will marginally enhance the alliance with the United States. But Tokyo will remain far less willing to contribute to U.S.-led military operations than most other American partners. If anything, the past few months have shown how far Japan is from “normalcy” when it comes to national security. Notwithstanding the hopes of supporters and of Shinzo Abe and the fears of his adversaries, there is a lot more continuity than discontinuity in Japanese defense policy.

Robert Dujarric is director, Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University Japan ([email protected]).