Proactive Pacifism, Arms Exports, and Japan’s Quest to Be ‘One of the Good Guys’

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Proactive Pacifism, Arms Exports, and Japan’s Quest to Be ‘One of the Good Guys’

The Kishida administration’s decision to export advanced fighter jets is part of a long evolution in Japan’s understanding of what it means to be a peaceful nation.

Proactive Pacifism, Arms Exports, and Japan’s Quest to Be ‘One of the Good Guys’

An artist’s concept image of the sixth-generation fighter jet that is being developed jointly by Japan, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

Credit: Japanese Ministry of Defense

Japanese pacifism runs deep. It is embedded in the Japanese Constitution. War-renouncing Article 9 is perhaps the best-known example, but pacifism is present from the outset of the document. The very first sentence of the preamble castigates “the horrors of war” and espouses the benefits of “peaceful cooperation with all nations.”

Depending on the perspective, these principles have either guided or constrained Japan’s foreign and defense policy since the promulgation of the Constitution in 1947. It is a core part of postwar Japanese national identity – a value held dear by most Japanese, who credit Article 9 with having kept their country safe even as debate over amending it continues. 

But pacifism is neither easy to define nor straightforward to uphold. Is pacifism merely opposition to war, or does it involve, as late Prime Minister Abe Shinzo said, making a “proactive contribution to peace”? To what  extent should Japan be proactive in contributing to peace? These are important questions with ramifications for how Japan will conduct its foreign policy in the coming decades. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, continued instability in the Middle East, and an increasingly aggressive China have made all of these questions even more urgent and have accelerated internal debate and policy change in Japan on the role it should play in ensuring global peace. This is a debate that touches on the very soul of the nation. What is the best way for Japan to be “one of the good guys” on the global stage?

This debate has become apparent again with the recent decision by the Kishida administration to pursue exports of next-generation fighter jets that will be co-developed with Italy and the United Kingdom. This has caused consternation about a perceived erosion of Japan’s pacifist principles. It also follows a similar decision in December to loosen restrictions more broadly on arms exports, with critics arguing that the government has moved too quickly without engaging in national-level discussions. 

That this raises eyebrows is understandable – surely products solely designed to conduct violence are incompatible with pacifism? However, Japan’s journey to this position has been complex and the reasoning behind the policy shift is more committed to Japan’s pacifist principles than it first appears. 

Si Vis Pacem…

One Japanese diplomat described Japan’s unenviable geographical position between China, Russia, and North Korea, and lamented what he calls the gap between the reality and the ideal. These comments are a powerful representation of the dilemma at the heart of the matter. Japanese policy must strike a balance between dealing with the situation it faces and the ideals it wants to uphold. Japan simply happens to have a particularly difficult geopolitical reality to deal with and particularly high ideals to strive for. 

To uphold the commitment to peace if not pacifism per se, Japan has increasingly practiced a defense policy in line with the Latin adage si vis pacem, para bellum: “if you desire peace, prepare for war.”

Japan’s defense policy is generally regarded as having a defensive realist posture. Defensive realism essentially entails moderation and reservation as means to attain security, opposing the power maximization understanding of international relations espoused by offensive realism. The upshot of this for Japan has been a focus on alliance-building and a steady but still limited expansion of Japan’s own defense spending and military capabilities.

New initiatives, such as Official Security Assistance modeled on development aid and the push for rapprochement with South Korea, further demonstrate Japan’s commitment to defensive realism. These approaches have allowed Japan to square the circle of upholding the pacifist principle of being a war-renouncing, peaceful nation while ensuring its national security through minimum deterrence. 

Arms exports can serve as an extension of these other efforts. Strict rules govern Japan’s arms exports and defense equipment transfers, but these rules have restricted the nation’s ability to help friends in need. For example, while it has pledged generously to Ukraine in terms of non-lethal aid, Japan cannot provide lethal military equipment due to restrictions on the export of arms to parties involved in conflict. This contrasts greatly to nations in similar positions such as South Korea, which has given significant amounts of materiel to assist Ukraine’s cause despite a similar legal restriction.

A lift on the ban on exports to parties engaged in conflict is unlikely in the short term, but where Japanese arms exports can help is in ensuring peace through deterrence for both Japan itself and for the recipient country, ensuring that friendly nations are able to effectively defend themselves if they come under attack. In line with the defensive realist posture, this commitment to minimum deterrence for itself and others to ensure peace is a means to bridge Japan’s commitment to pacifist principles with national security needs. By helping friendly countries prepare for war, Japan will help to ensure peace through deterrence against mutual threats.

Japan’s “One of the Good Guys” Policy

“Even if those U.S. Forces on duty to protect Japan are attacked, we cannot do anything, we will not do anything, unless Japan itself is attacked. That has been Japan’s position to date. Does this really make sense?” Abe asked this question in 2015 after permitting the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to engage in collective self-defense. 

The question strikes at the ethical dilemma at the core of absolute pacifism: if a friend is being attacked, is it morally right to stand idly by?

This question is more prescient than ever for Japan, and the question can be applied to conflicts or potential conflicts across the world. Should Japan abandon Ukraine to Russian tyranny? Should it abandon Taiwan in the event of an attack? The ethical dilemma forces an answer to these questions and lays bare the contradiction that pacifism does not necessarily serve the aim of peace

Japan’s allies have long wished for it to be more active in global security, and students of Japanese politics will know the ramifications of the criticism of Japan’s previous “checkbook diplomacy” stemming back as far as the Gulf War.

Japan has long sought to be seen as, and indeed to become, one of the “good guys” in global security. It wants to project an image as a responsible and reliable partner, still committed to the ideal of peace, but also taking active steps to contribute to it. Where the phrase “drunk on peace” was once essential to the Japanese security vernacular, the country now wishes to show that it has sobered up. 

Arms exports – limited and controlled – are an effective means to achieve this end, providing a meaningful contribution to global security and more thoroughly integrating Japan into security architectures with friendly nations. Exports are still subject to stringent restrictions; they cannot go to parties involved in conflicts, and they can only go to countries with which Japan has licensing agreements for domestic manufacturing. 

With the fighter jets, even more stringent restrictions will be in place, with each individual export decision requiring Cabinet approval and restricted only to countries with which Japan has defense pacts. Moreover, the technological complexity of fighter jets will mean that Japan and its allies will maintain a high degree of control over supply and maintenance. 

The risks of exporting arms are minimal and the security and reputational benefits are high for Japan and others in ensuring stable deterrence and keeping conflict at bay. By ensuring that its allies can maintain minimum deterrence and defend themselves, Japan will proactively contribute to peace both for itself and others and actively embody the identity of “one of the good guys” in the international community by helping those under threat. 

An Issue at the Core of the Nation’s Soul

Debates continue on how Japan should practice pacifism, and the issue remains divisive among the voting public, but what is beyond doubt is that interpretations have already evolved significantly. Arms exports are the latest in a long string of evolutions that have made Japan a more prominent security player. 

It is important that Japan’s security policy be continuously tested against its pacifist heart, but similar questions were asked over previous changes; they were asked in relation to peacekeeping in the 1990s, to humanitarian assistance to Iraq in the 2000s, and to collective self-defense in the 2010s. They will undoubtedly continue to be asked far into the coming decades. 

For Japan, the question of whether pacifism leads to peace is crucial to the nation’s desired identity. Absolute pacifism is incompatible with the desire to be “one of the good guys” in global security, but the ideal of peace can still be upheld even without it, and the ideal of peace increasingly outweighs the ideal of pacifism. Only the implementation has changed; Japan’s identity as a peace-loving nation is as strong as ever, only now it takes a more active role in ensuring others can also benefit from peace.