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Under Abe, Japan reconnects with the world of harm

Is the nation ready to vie alongside U.S. in businesses that involve hurting other people?

by Colin P.A. Jones

Special To The Japan Times

On July 1, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet passed a resolution “reinterpreting” Japan’s famous no-war Constitution to permit collective self-defense activities that had previously been deemed impermissible.

This semantic fiat is part of a wave of change, a trend towards open acceptance of militarism that brings with it a new normal: Japanese companies exporting weapons, and military service being celebrated through the time-tested mediums of manga characters and cute girls in uniforms. Even the History Channel here has been running propaganda, thinly disguised as documentaries, glorifying each branch of the Self-Defense Forces. It’s all a bit depressing.

I like to think I get Japan’s difficult geopolitical situation: an economy heavily dependent on imports and exports, a declining population, proximity to an increasingly aggressive China and a consistently crazy North Korea, all bundled together with a complex alliance with the United States. In fact, Abe probably deserves grudging praise for trying to get his people to think more about national security, even if his principal vehicle for doing so is based on a nonsensical view of how constitutions work.

It would still be tragic, though, if the process destroyed what I think is one of the truly great things about Japan: the fact that so little of its economy and society is devoted to harming other people. And by “harm” I do not mean discrimination, “micro-aggression,” exploitation, carbon dioxide emissions, leaky nuclear reactors, corruption or any of the other myriad dangerous or damaging social problems that are often byproducts of economic activity. I mean something much more basic: deliberately killing or injuring people, depriving them of freedom, destroying their families or their homes, or threatening to do any of these things — intentional, traumatic physical harm.

One of the disturbing things about the United States today is how much of the nation’s economy, not to mention its collective self-worth, seems rooted in activities directly or indirectly devoted to causing harm to other people. This would include the entire military-industrial complex, an increasingly militarized system of civil law enforcement, an increasingly corporatized prison system and the constitutionally protected market for privately owned firearms (or at least those designed to be pointed at people rather than animals or inanimate objects).

More than half of federal discretionary spending goes to the U.S. military. The federal and state governments spend tens of billions of dollars more a year to keep more than 2 million people in cages, despite many of them being nonviolent offenders.

Outside the sphere of government, the pervasiveness of guns has not only made the school shooting an iconic form of American tragedy, but has probably rendered the militarization of the police inevitable. Delivering a search or arrest warrant in the same fashion as taking down a Taliban compound is only prudent if every house might be occupied by someone clutching an AK-47. To open up one of the nation’s many gun magazines is to look into a society that apparently spends a lot of time thinking about — and justifying — the possibility of killing other people.


To be fair, the United States is a much larger, much more complex society than Japan, with more crime and social problems to boot. It also plays a much larger role in managing the global economic, financial and military order.

Moreover, it would be foolish to ignore Thomas Hobbes’ observation that without government, everyone would be at war with everyone and life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Thus, nobody should begrudge a lawfully constituted government the authority and means to lock up or even hurt or kill people when absolutely necessary, not to mention the ability to occasionally bomb a foreign foe into submission. Harming people can be a legitimate government function: Armed forces, guns and prisons are all necessary evils to protect society, and I have no issue with those who choose to play a role in such protection.

At the same time, however, I can’t help being cynical about the amount of protection America apparently needs these days, in the same way that I am cynical about whether Japan really needs to hunt whales, build a bullet train across Shikoku or have nothing but angular concreted rivers. This cynicism is based in part on what may actually be naivete: an assumption that once they have satisfied their own basic needs, most people want to do good — to come home from work at the end of the day feeling that they accomplished something positive for the world.

The problem is when what constitutes “doing good” becomes self-defining and institutionalized. If you work for an institution that tells you society will be bettered by lining the coastline with concrete, the easiest thing to do is accept that. If the people you work for tell you that detaining people indefinitely in harsh conditions helps protect the nation or that obliterating a particular target will save lives, then reflecting on that justification may just be extra work.

Throw money into the mix and there is a clear moral hazard when the financial security of you and your family depends on your willingness to harm others. After all, what kind of a person would you be if you were just in it for the money — you must be doing it for some higher purpose, right? And if what you are doing is both good and pays the rent, then doing more of it is probably even better. This is doubtless part of the logic that resulted in the blanketing of Japanese landscapes with concrete and the world with U.S. military bases.

For you to be doing good, it also helps if the people you are harming are “bad” foreign combatants, potential terrorists or at least criminals of some sort. It is easier to harm “bad” people than fellow human beings. Here American law obliges with a wildly expansive definition of terrorism, as well as so many criminal offenses at the federal level alone that it is thought to be impossible to even count them. In his 2009 book “Three Felonies a Day,” defense lawyer Harvey Silvergate suggests that so many things are federal crimes now that virtually every American is a potential felon.

Between their nation’s vast law-enforcement infrastructure and its unparalleled global military presence, it seems that a lot of American thinking is necessarily devoted to conduct that may ultimately harm others. Again, some of this is doubtless necessary to preserve civil society; that does not mean all of it is, however, particularly given how much money there is to be made in designing and selling better killing devices and keeping prisons full.


Thanks to their country’s pacifist Constitution, the Japanese people have enjoyed several decades of not having to justify invasions, airstrikes or other such activities that harm other people. The Self-Defense Forces have long been equipped with standard military hardware designed to kill people and make things explode, yet because the Constitution has until recently limited their use to real, honest-to-goodness self-defense scenarios (as opposed to the “they might have had WMD [weapons of mass destruction]” kind), the instances in which Japanese people have had to envision using this military infrastructure to cause harm have been correspondingly limited. Few Japanese have had to sit down and think about how to use a drone to blow up people on the other side of the world because it was constitutionally impermissible — or, at least, until Shinzo Abe got appointed prime minister.

Similarly, Japanese police have not been militarized like their American counterparts and rarely draw their firearms. Even the traditional martial arts have for the most part been converted into benign sports, and most Japanese people seem content to rely on their government and society itself to protect them from harm, rather than personal assault rifles or handguns.

For all its many faults, Japan’s criminal justice system has yet to adopt the “lock them up and throw away the key” approach to punishment that now prevails in the United States, driven in part by private prisons operated under contracts that guarantee they do not stay empty. While a certain amount of harm is involved in Japan’s system of coercing confessions, suspended sentences remain common. No prison is a nice place, but those in Japan are still focused on rehabilitation rather than retribution; prisoners work and learn skills that will serve them after release, particularly first offenders and others considered redeemable.

Although it still has the death penalty — like some U.S. states — Japan does not have life imprisonment. The harshest penalty in the Japanese penal code after death is “imprisonment for an indefinite term,” an undefined sentence designed to encourage better behavior from even serious offenders by giving them the hope of release.

Yet the trend in Japan seems to be towards increasing severity, driven in part by the media and victims’ rights advocates. Legislation in the past 10 years has made it easier to punish more people — including minor offenders as young as 14 — more severely for a wider range of crimes, including harsh penalties for negligent driving. At the same time, privately managed correctional facilities have started to make an appearance. Perhaps this is unavoidable, but it suggests more Japanese people will have to think about — and profit from — depriving others of their freedom.

With the green-lighting of weapons exports, more of Japan’s engineers will doubtless turn their energies to devices that kill people, and more of Japan Inc. will seek to profit from products intended to harm. More Japanese people and more Japanese institutions will turn to the task of justifying to themselves and the rest of society why it is necessary — good, even — for other people to be harmed. And now that Abe has his used interpretive mumbo jumbo to reinterpret the charter to allow Japan send its troops into harm’s way abroad, perhaps more Japanese people will learn to embrace the brave new world of figuring out how to harm people in other countries.

A lot of nonsense gets written about Japanese uniqueness, yet I would venture that the postwar Constitution has helped create a fairly rare society in which very few people need to think about or justify hurting others. One wonders if this deeply peaceful aspect of Japanese society is something Abe really wants to alter, or if people like him will even notice the changes they are causing until it is too late.

Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. Law of the Land appears in print on the second Thursday Community Page of the month. Comments and ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Gary Belcher

    I agree that Japan avoided building a strong military, mostly, though, because the U.S. taxpayer has provided Japan’s defense needs. This was dictated to them by U.S. politicians wanting campaign donations from American defense industries, by Japanese politicians who saw the free-ride defense benefits, and by the American military, whose officers could have cushy assignments in Japan. I say, the U.S. out of Japan, or make the Japanese pay $100 billion a year for us to stay. The average American pays 10x as much in taxes for defense as compared to a Japanese person. As a U.S. taxpayer, I’m sick of paying for the defense of wealthy countries like Japan, South Korea, and Germany. Most Americans don’t have a clue about how they are being fleeced.

  • Steve Jackman

    Colin, you have picked a very short time frame of post WW2 Japan to make your case. One cannot base such observations on a mere sixty years of a country’s history, which goes back hundreds or thousands of years. Were you to pick a slightly longer time frame going back to the two World Wars, your premise would not stand. Within this context, sixty years is a mere blip.

    Secondly, it’s important to realize that Japan’s short sixty year-long pacifism was not its own choice, but was imposed in it by the U.S.

    • ekxon2 .

      Great observation and comment. I totally agree.

    • Mark Makino

      It is tempting but inaccurate to think of a nation as an entity with lasting traits and memory. However long we imagine the history of a nation to be, and whatever actually happened during that time, the salient point for this article is what the current population believes about itself and its history. Japanese history may have been violent, but the current population doesn’t seem to see it that way, as often-heard myths about Japan’s uniquely cooperative and harmonious past would indicate. Given that cultural context Abe’s open endorsement of violent confrontation constitutes a large change for Japan.

    • zer0_0zor0

      Apparently, yo have little knowledge of Japanese history, which, at any rate, is irrelevant in this context.

    • Lamashtar

      “it’s important to realize that Japan’s short sixty year-long pacifism was not its own choice, but was imposed on it by the U.S.”

      Not true. It was Japanese prime minister Kijuro Shidehara who wanted to dedicate the new Japan to never war again. The USA sees pacifism as insane, and no other conquered nation has been forced to adopt such clauses. The US has spent a great deal of time begging Japan and Germany to take more aggressive steps in the world, even seeking closer alliances with Vietnam and Russia in friendly periods.

    • Demosthenes

      Yes. Somehow, I don’t think Japan will miss its pacifist attitude of the past sixty years. I don’t know what leads me to that conclusion – hmm… maybe it’s all the blood and sword slashing anime, ‘cool’ yakuza films, WW2 glorification films and period dramas I’ve seen come out of Japan since the war ended…

  • Erik

    One observation/question:
    “I have no truck with…” actually means “I won’t have anything to do with…” When you said “Armed forces, guns and prisons are all necessary evils to protect society, and I have no truck with those who choose to play a role in such protection.”, did you really mean that you won’t have anything to do with them? I suspect the opposite…

  • Brian Mapleton

    If I analyzed your report, I would say your article is all about, what I call “a global dialectic”. According to history, Japan was discovered by an Ancient Chinese explorer about 2000 years ago. Like Australia and North America, people were shipped over to Japan to begin settlement and as the centuries passed by, Japan is now a advance country with an incredibly large population. Yet, the size and magnitude of the population is a big problem to Japan and I think the same problem is faced by China. Westerners are scared that the Chinese will invade their land and take over their government but a war against the U.S. and its allies is unthinkable but (Japan) you can keep your Prime Minister!

    • Lamashtar

      You’re leaving out the Ainu.

  • Tom

    Japan has been anually paying the US a huge amount of money for it’s forces to stay in Japan.
    Plus for each world-wide campeign the US, NATO and United Nations commits to, it has always been it’s biggest funder.
    The huge expense it pays is because it does not have a formal army.
    Japanese cannot be able to pay for everything since its economy is not as strong as before.
    Since it has been funding everything, even though Japan has enjoyed a peaceful post WW2 era, it has not ignored world affairs and contributed to it.
    Abe is just trying to make Japan into a normal country that can attend to world affairs like every other country in the world, insted of being forced to pay for it.

  • Yamatosenkan

    Most people would agree that Japan’s pacifism is a nice thing (to summarize your long article). The problem is: how do you remain pacifist with neighbors like China and North Korea?

    • ekxon2 .

      Do what the Germans did. And China and Korea will become Japan’s friends much like France and Britain became Germany’s friends.

      • Yamatosenkan

        I assume you mean apologizing and paying reparations for WW2 crimes. Well, Japan did so many times, and it didn’t help. In the 1970′s both China and South Korea agreed to basically put the past behind, but now the Chinese communist party needs an enemy to justify their dictatorship. They have infected their youth with anti-Japanese propaganda. As a result the young Chinese are much more anti-Japanese than their grandparents were.

        So no, I don’t think making friendship is in Japanese hands by now.

      • ekxon2 .

        While It is true that Japan apologized numerous times, it is also true that Japan contradicted their apologies by statements or actions multiple times.

        Just to give you a few examples:

        On October 26, 2006, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s apology was followed on the same day by a group of 80 Japanese lawmakers’ visit to the Yasukuni Shrine.

        Two years after the apology, Abe denied that the Imperial Japanese military had forced comfort women into sexual slavery branding those women prostitutes instead.

        Some statements that antagonized many include “there is no definitive answer either in the academia or in the international community on what constitutes aggression.” and the claim that the “Class A war criminals are not war criminals under the Japanese laws.”

        No wonder the many apologies made by Japan did not help as you have lamented. In the eyes of victim nations, the Japanese apologies do not contain an ounce of sincerity.

        Learn from Germany! And the world will be much better.

  • CommentUSA

    “One of the disturbing things about the United States today is how much
    of the nation’s economy, not to mention its collective self-worth, seems
    rooted in activities directly or indirectly devoted to causing harm to
    other people” – Sigh… distorted, naive, liberal academia knows no international boundary.

    • Mycos

      “Neither conceptually nor empirically does there appear to be any grounds for distinguishing authoritarianism and conservative personality – except that the former may be regarded as a somewhat more particular case of the latter.” (Wilson, G. 1973. The Psychology of Conservatism. New York: Academic Press.)

      “Conservatism is not the doctrine of the intellectual elite or of the more intelligent segments of the population, but the reverse. By every measure available to us, conservative beliefs are found most frequently among the uninformed, the poorly educated, and the less intelligent.” (McClosky, H. (1958). Conservatism and personality. American Political Science Review, 52, 27-45

  • Jonjon Taka

    Thomas Hobbes claim that life would be nasty, short and brutish is just his opinion and shouldn’t be used as fact. Doing this has justified imperialism and colonialism and a society based on distrust. As the great anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss once said, society is based on low but solid ground. As for Japan, it’s a different type of society akin to what you see in the emerging collaborative economy: a society based on trust and your reputation capital.

  • Gerard White

    Have I got this right? Japan is going to spend trillions of yen and send young men to fight and die for the country that dropped two nuclear bombs on it?
    Does the Japanese public support this? Would the money not be better spent building homes for those people who lost theirs as a result of the March 2011 combined tsunami and Fukushima disaters? Perhaps providing physiological support for those poor souls still living in school gymnasiums and other temporary accommodation.
    Rounding up and sending homeless men, to clear top soil around Fukushima is a uniquely sadistic and cruel way to treat those at the bottom rung of societies ladder. I know the Japanese show great stoicism, but they are also capable of equal compassion.
    Whilst the Japanese traditionally are meek, the younger generation are intelligent and perfectly capable of rising up against this great injustice.
    Japans aging population may not have the strength, and are too set in their ways, but is the young who will be sent to die.

    Which of America’s wars of the past 50 years, does Abe suppose Japan should have spent its treasure and sent the young to die? Vietnam to Napalm children? Cambodia to drop 500Lb “Daisy Cutters” on unarmed villages? Perhaps the first Gulf War where we slaughtered, the forces of Saddam Hussein, where the only coalition forces killed were by “friendly fire” of the Americans of course. The pointless war in Afghanistan? The 2nd Iraq war which has led to the current mess in the Middle East.

    Does anyone want to send their children to die for some barren rocks sold privately for $21,000,000. Would it not have been better to have sold them on the open market to the highest bidder than to shed a drop of blood?

    And that idiotic right wing Shintaro Ishihara who famously wrote a book in 1988 “The Japan that can say NO” which led to the collapse of property prices, share prices and stagflation from which Japan has yet to recover, if he likes the Islands so much, the Japanese people should ostracize and banish him to those far flung rocks.

  • zer0_0zor0

    An excellent an timely article (rare for JT these days).

    I would draw attention to the statement

    it seems that a lot of American thinking is necessarily devoted to conduct that may ultimately harm others

    in accessing the trend under the Abe administration.

  • Lamashtar

    Agreed. If Japan takes over defense in East Asia, the US won’t be the one sticking its nose in. Arguably, the Japanese and Australians would be better able to judge aggression. This gives both of them more independence from US policy while simultaneously increasing their importance in US councils.

  • http://jonreinsch.wordpress.com/ Jon Reinsch

    This article provides a uniquely illuminating perspective on the issue of collective self-defense, and I hope it will be translated into Japanese.

  • zer0_0zor0

    There’s a paradigmatic difference between accommodating a limited force as a deterrence on the one hand and “reinterpreting” a pacifist Constitution so that you can become an arms dealer and possible engage in hostilities abroad directly.

  • PowerPeninsula

    Year 2020, will be very bad year for Japan.

  • PowerPeninsula

    Face the reality……….. USA don’t have money protect Asia…………… Asking Japan to help is clear sign bigger problems to come from USA………….

  • zer0_0zor0

    There’s a paradigmatic difference between accommodating a limited force as a deterrence on the one hand and “reinterpreting” a pacifist Constitution so that you can become an arms dealer and possibly
    engage in hostilities abroad directly.

  • JB

    Dr. Jones, I love reading your work. Not only it is always well-written, being a non-Japanese resident in Japan, I really echo your sentiments. In particular to the last paragraph of this article, which is what I feared most regarding this “reinterpretation”. After talking to a variety of my Japanese friends here, I wondered if they really understand the magnitude of change it can cause the society of what Abe is about to do. Unfortunately for the case of many Japanese that I know, their attitudes in regards to world or even views of their society in where it stands in the world is limited and insulated. As you have depicted in your article how it is like in the US, the Japanese may have some ideas on that, but not in reflecting to their own country. After having living in Japan long enough, I discovered the “what ifs” concept is not spoken directly in their language and consequently, with its culture. I am so afraid Japan will change into a “threatened” state which the US has adopted since 911, knowing that the culture itself is not conducive to fight against what they don’t believe in, but rather adapt themselves to whatever situation it becomes to be. I feel sadden to think the Japanese people will have to suffer again on something they didn’t ask for because of their political ambition to stay economically competitive.