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Is Japan’s Postwar Pacifism Dead?

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Tokyo Report | Security | East Asia

Is Japan’s Postwar Pacifism Dead?

Japan’s defense spending plan shows how far the state has departed from postwar pacifism.

Is Japan’s Postwar Pacifism Dead?

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG 105) transits the South China Sea with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ship JS Izumo (DDH 183).

Credit: U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kryzentia Weiermann/ Released

Before his shocking murder, former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was pushing hard for a doubling of Japan’s defense budget. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine coupled with longstanding security concerns about China and North Korea have caused unusually high perceptions of threat and insecurity in Japan. After a successful upper house election this month, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio will now probably grant Abe’s last wish by raising Japan’s defense budget from 1 percent of GDP to 2 percent over a five-year period. Such a doubling would turn Japan into the third largest defense spender in the world.

The lack of opposition to such a drastic move vividly illustrates the weakness of pacifism in today’s Japan.

The push for 2 percent conforms to NATO’s defense spending goals and is undoubtedly part of Kishida’s larger vision of a bolstered Japan-NATO relationship. Kishida’s participation in last month’s NATO summit in Madrid – the first ever by a Japanese prime minister – signaled a new stage in this relationship. Just like the NATO countries, the Japanese government frames spending 2 percent of GDP on defense as a realistic response to an increasingly unstable security environment. As the Japanese ruling party’s National Security Strategy draft paper reads: “With the defense spending target of more than 2% of GDP for NATO nations in mind, our country also aims to realize a budget that meets a level necessary to fundamentally reinforce defense capabilities in five years.”

Kishida has called the 2 percent mark an “appropriate” level for Japan’s defense preparedness, but he has not clarified why 2 percent would be more appropriate than, say, 1, 3, or 4 percent. The 2 percent goal seems to be completely arbitrary, with little to no basis in external threat assessments or actual military needs. As former Defense Minister Iwaya Takeshi recently wrote, “What will [the increased defense budget] be spent on? Without clearly explaining this, it is not appropriate to first decide on a numerical target.”

Interestingly, exactly the same criticism was heard from conservatives when Japan introduced the current 1 percent limit in 1976. For them, the 1 percent limit became the ultimate symbol of Japan’s “heiwa boke,” or “peace senility.” Such an arbitrary limit, they argued, would decouple Japan’s defense spending from assessments of Japan’s security environment and instead peg it intrinsically to GDP growth (which was moreover beginning to slow down at the time). Such criticisms became particularly common when the Cold War intensified in the 1980s, spurring a debate about the viability of the 1 percent ceiling. Realism-inspired defense analysts wrote scathing criticisms with titles such as “The irrational 1% ceiling on defense spending” and “The laughable debate on defense spending.” Again, their main point was that it made no military sense to tie defense spending to GDP growth without any assessments of external threats.

And they were right. It made no military sense. However, that was exactly the point of the policy. The 1 percent ceiling was not meant to strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities, but rather the opposite. It was meant to reassure the world about Japan’s intention to never become a military great power. Due to Japan’s miraculous economic growth in the 1960s, many of Japan’s neighbors, and indeed many Japanese themselves, had become increasingly worried that all this wealth would be transformed into military strength. 

In 1974, violent anti-Japanese riots broke out in Southeast Asia where people were upset about Japan’s exploitative trade practices and concerned about the prospect of Japanese remilitarization. The 1 percent ceiling on defense spending was implemented in order to dispel such remilitarization fears and came to symbolize Japanese pacifism on the state level. By state-level pacifism I do not mean pacifism in the absolute sense, but rather a commitment to restraining the military more than other states and a tendency to turn this military weakness into a source of national pride. Igarashi Takeshi, a prominent political scientist, for example wrote in 1985 that the establishment of a 1 percent ceiling “to show that Japan will not become a military power is a politically effective way to demonstrate concretely the ideal of being a peace-loving state.”

So while the restriction did not make much military sense, it did make diplomatic sense as a symbol of Japanese pacifism. It was surprisingly successful in alleviating regional fears about a Japanese return to militarism. When Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo in 1977 announced the so-called Fukuda Doctrine – a pledge that Japan would strive for a trust-based relationship with the Southeast Asian nations and never again become a military great power – Japan’s relations with its former colonies drastically improved. The 1 percent ceiling was instrumental in this regard as it backed up such promises with concrete policy.

This background is important because it tells us something about the continuity and change in Japan’s military posture since 1976, which was the pinnacle of Japanese state-level pacifism. 

To start with the continuity: neither the 1 nor the 2 percent ceiling has a military rationale. Although the latter ceiling is framed as making Japanese security policy more realistic than it was under the former, they are both arbitrary targets that place Japanese defense spending at the mercy of the country’s economic performance rather than base it on threat assessments. Thus, neither ceiling has a military rationale. 

However, both ceilings do have a diplomatic rationale, and this is where we see how much Japan has changed from the heyday of state-level pacifism in the 1970s. While the diplomatic rationale for the 1 percent ceiling in 1976 was to reassure jittery neighbors in East Asia that Japan would stick to pacifism, the diplomatic rationale for the 2 percent ceiling is to reassure NATO countries that Japanese pacifism is a thing of the past. Not only is the target audience for this diplomatic gesture completely different, but so is the nature of the diplomatic reassurance: military abstention in the first instance and military readiness in the second.

While this contrast is like night and day, the push for a NATO-inspired 2 percent ceiling is hardly surprising after almost half a century of chipping away at pacifist security restrictions. Japanese state-level pacifism is dead by a thousand cuts. But it is surprising to see the lack of opposition from Japan’s traditionally active grassroots pacifists. After countless setbacks, Japan’s aging pacifist movement has become almost exclusively focused on protecting the holiest of Japan’s pacifist symbols: the constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9. Unfortunately, this has made them somewhat blind to security changes that are less conspicuous than constitutional reform but maybe more significant. The 2 percent ceiling on defense spending is one such planned change which seems to fly under the pacifist radar. Because Article 9 has already been virtually emptied of meaning through a seemingly endless string of hawkish reinterpretations, a doubling of the defense budget is arguably a far more significant step toward remilitarization than an actual amendment of Article 9.  

If Japan’s pacifists want Japan to maintain some degree of moderation in the military sphere compared to other countries, they should pay less attention to the empty shell of Article 9 and more to the actual changes on the ground and in the budget.