By Travis Cady
On September 17th an uncharacteristic brawl broke out inside the Japanese parliament, the Diet. Ironically, the scuffle was led by politicians seeking to preserve Japan’s status as a purely pacifist nation. The opposition was in response to a new security bill, passed into law on September 19th, that expands Japan’s military discretion abroad. Despite the comic spectacle of politicians climbing over each other and even throwing punches on the parliament floor, the event demonstrates a serious identity crisis within Japan. For the first time since Japan’s postwar government was established nearly 70 years ago the world’s 3rd largest economy has the ability to commit its military troops to fight abroad.
The standing Japanese constitution, signed in 1947 and crafted by the U.S., affirmed Japan as a pacifist nation. Specifically, article 9 states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation…” The new legislation, driven by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is an attempt to roll back the strict interpretation of Article 9 by allowing Japan’s military, the Japanese Self Defense Force, to engage in offensive operations under the notion of “collective self defense.” Japanese forces will now be able to come to the direct aid of its allies even if Japan itself is not directly threatened. From the perspective of Japan’s western allies such a shift seems welcome, but inside Japan the issue of collective defense is highly controversial. The bill is likely to face strong legal challenges to its constitutionality and it could also politically cripple the previously popular Abe administration and his Liberal Democratic Party. Recent polls show that the majority of the Japanese public oppose the new security provisions, and the public protests have been the largest in years.
However, the new security law is in line with an emerging trend of Japan moving away from its postwar ethos. The Abe administration has made a point of shirking off the long and tightly-held guilt of the Japanese for their role in WWII. Abe has garnered significant foreign criticism for visiting the infamous Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to Japanese war dead that also honors many war criminals. Under the Abe administration Japan has also seen an expansion of its own naval capabilities, notably commissioning its first Izumo class helicopter destoyer, the largest Japanese-produced carrier since WWII. The recent capture and execution of Japanese hostage Kenji Goto by ISIS has further emboldened the Abe camp, and the event became a talking point in favor of increasing Japan’s ability to safeguard its citizenry.
These moves are largely a reaction to growing Chinese military buildup and increasing territorial tensions between China and its neighbors. Some fear that a less restricted Japan may exacerbate tensions in the region, while others claim that a less restricted Japan has the potential to check the threat of Chinese expansion. China has already denounced Japan’s move, and given Japan’s Imperial history it doesn’t exactly put its other neighbors at ease either. However, the U.S. is a strong supporter of Japan playing an increased regional security role, a backing that is notable as the U.S. was responsible for Japan’s pacifist constitution in the first place.
Regardless of lingering historical tensions, a more active Japan will not to lead to a resurgence of Japanese expansionism. For more than half a century Japan has been a model international player and has taken its role as a pacifist nation and world economic power seriously. The Japanese people are still keenly aware of Japan’s wartime past, as is made clear by their hesitancy to embrace an expanded military role. Additionally, Japan is hardly the only country to boost its own military capacity. Asian defense spending in general has been on the rise in response to China’s rapid growth.
The new law also has the ability to reinforce Japan’s western alliances, particularly with the U.S. Japan has worked closely with American forces for decades, and being able to actively support its greatest ally and primary security guarantor could keep the alliance strong. Finally, the new laws could also add Japan’s weight to peacekeeping operations and future international coalitions around the world. The threat of increasing territorial disputes with China is, of course, something to watch, but as things stand Japan’s ability and desire to make war are still severely restrained, and its new expanded military role presents significant benefits for regional and world security.
Travis Cady is the managing editor of ExPatt Magazine and a master’s candidate at the Patterson School specializing in International Commerce. He is currently a working as a researcher on global energy security. He previously graduated from the University of Louisville, studying political science and philosophy, and has traveled in both Europe and Asia. His interests include international trade networks, regional security, and diplomatic relations.