The Debate

Japan: Pacifism Is Not a Moral Choice

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The Debate

Japan: Pacifism Is Not a Moral Choice

“Only in Japan is unilateral pacifism considered by so many to be viable national policy.”

Japan: Pacifism Is Not a Moral Choice
Credit: Japan anti-war protest via Chris McGinley /

A month after Japan’s new security bill passed into law, the gulf between supporters and opponents remains wide. To its supporters, in a world of new threats, the bill represents a necessary new chapter in Japan’s 70-year process of postwar normalization; a proportionate and responsible shouldering of the global security overhead that advanced nations are obliged to share. Opposition voices, however, remain angry and loud. In an effort to overthrow the bill, the Japan Communist Party has even proposed an extraordinary partnership with the Democratic Party of Japan to create a single issue unified national coalition. Those who stand in opposition to the legislation, including a sizable swath of the Japanese public, identify a recidivistic, revanchist and militaristic “war bill.” How can a seemingly straightforward initiative create such divide and outrage?

The bill does introduce a new norm for modern Japan: It permits the practice of collective self-defense. This incensed the opposition, which now talks of imminent war and conscription. Outside of Japan, however, the concept of security synergy (i.e., that the sum of the military parts of nations in concert adds up to more than the constituent elements) is neither original nor controversial. The idea that allies looking out for each other are stronger than nations with shared values working alone is indeed an internationally recognized prerogative of nations and forms the core of Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Constitution (in which an attack on one NATO member is seen as an attack on all). In the case of Japan the statute is, in fact, much more restrictive than in the case of NATO; the nation may only come to the aid of an ally overseas, using the minimum force necessary, when Japan itself faces an existential threat.

The opposition in Japan, however, sees things differently. Notwithstanding that the nation has long enjoyed the postwar benefits of international trade, many are incapable of entertaining the concepts of mutuality and multilateralism when it comes to security matters. To this sizable constituency, isolationism and pacifism appear to offer a safer, if not the only safe option, with any form of defense cooperation deemed to be inherently militaristic. Why, in Japan, is pacifism seen by so many as the only moral choice?

Notably, those opposed to the bill conflate their judgments, through guilt or political opportunism, with issues from Japan’s wartime history of aggression that are less than fully resolved – the Yasukuni Shrine and the comfort women to name but two – thereby deflecting a rational and intellectual debate. But recognizing new threats does not deny past aggression, and denying contemporary threats actually does nothing to serve those who suffered in times of war. These issues simply need to be unbundled. The war history of old Japan has to be separated from the security challenges faced by the nation today. Only then is a truly reasoned and mature dialogue that considers the merits and morality of unqualified pacifism against a deterrent-based collectivist self-defense policy made possible.

To some, opposition is more emblematic than rational, affirming not only their antagonism towards the bill, but also inferring that they hold a monopoly on peaceful intent, rhetorically asking the bill’s supporters if they “want war.” Yet many nations, such as members of NATO, the EU, and ASEAN, including wartime adversaries of Japan, actually welcomed the bill. The overwhelmingly sanguine international response, however, has done little to placate the domestic opposition.

In understanding the uniqueness of Japanese pacifism, it is instructive to compare the nation’s measured but nevertheless steadfast return to postwar normalcy with the international rehabilitation of the Federal Republic of Germany through its 1955 entry into NATO. The alliance’s effective containment of German nationalism reintegrated the nation into the international community and enabled the economic success of the Wirkshaftswunder. Similarly, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and the Yoshida Doctrine – of economic growth over militarism – enabled Japan to achieve its own recovery. Exceptionally, however, the bilateral security treaty omitted any collective self-defense provision similar to that enjoyed by the Germans upon their admittance to NATO. More than half a century later, the bill finally addresses this omission.

Do opponents of the bill consider modern Germany to be a threat to world peace? Or are the Japanese so militaristic, so dangerous to the world order, so jingoistic, and so uniquely irrational and volatile that, alone among the world’s citizenry, they must put their military assets beyond use? Are the past seven decades merely a self-delusional or calculated pretense that modern Japan has transformed itself into a nation of peace?

Only in Japan is unilateral pacifism considered by so many to be viable national policy. But in a world of new threats and crises, including those emanating from non-state actors who murder Japanese citizens without hesitation, a return to a policy of sympathetic indifference would surely be morally questionable.

But the partisan nature of the debate should not be cause for despair. For the first time in recent history, Japan has begun a national dialogue on security issues. Even the viability of the existing Constitution has not escaped review. That Japan has finally matured to the extent that it can discuss hitherto taboo military matters is a natural and positive development. Such openness is long overdue.

Yukari Easton is a Public Diplomacy graduate student at University of Southern California, and also a recipient of the 2014 ACE-Nikaido Fellowship awarded by the East Asian Studies Center at University of Southern California. Her research focus is upon international relations and security issues in the Asia-Pacific. Previously, she worked for ten years in international banking in Europe and Asia.