It’s August, when the Japanese media’s attention turns to peace, or, at least, the absence of war. The anniversaries of the atomic bombings and subsequent surrender occasion print and broadcast discussions of what Japan learned from its bloody mid-century military campaign. For most people the fact that the country has enjoyed stability and prosperity since then is proof that lessons were learned.
But this year reminiscence has taken on greater meaning with the resurgence of the Liberal Democratic Party and its drive to revise Article 9, which prevents Japan from remilitarizing. By coincidence, the press has been covering the visit of filmmaker Oliver Stone and American University historian Peter Kuznick, whose 10-part documentary “The Untold History of the United States” was shown on NHK earlier this year.
Though ostensibly in Japan to promote the series, Stone and Kuznick have been more than willing to comment on Japan’s position vis-a-vis American military power. At the pair’s press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club last week, Stone was vehement in his condemnation of U.S. foreign policy since World War II. Japanese reporters have fixated on his assertion that the atomic bombings were carried out for racist and strategic reasons, and not to save lives, which is the accepted American narrative, but Stone’s main message is that Japan should not join the U.S. in what he characterized as the latter’s mission to make the world safe for American wealth.
Besides, as Kuznick pointed out, Japan already has one of the largest militaries in the world in terms of spending (it ranked fifth in 2012). This money has been used to bolster Japan’s self-defense capabilities, but America wants Japan to eliminate restrictions on the country’s right to participate in collective self-defense, meaning coming to the aid of the U.S. if the U.S. or its “interests” are attacked.
In a recent editorial, the Yomiuri Shimbun summed up the LDP’s position not as caving in to American pressure but rather as owning up to the obligations of a “real country,” as former LDP honcho Ichiro Ozawa used to put it. The Yomiuri was hailing the appointment of Ichiro Komatsu to the post of director-general of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau. Komatsu is in favor of participating in collective self-defense, and his taking charge of the office that interprets the Constitution for the administration is a sign the government is getting serious about moving beyond the “minimum action required for the nation’s self-defense.” Yomiuri approves of the appointment based on the same reasoning the American military has cited since the 1950s in its bid to re-arm Japan, namely that Tokyo must respond to “changes in the security environment” of East Asia.
In other words, Japan must be ready to fend off attacks from North Korea and China. The paper contends that such capabilities are “the right of every country,” though it doesn’t mention attendant responsibilities. Collective self-defense, according to the Yomiuri, “ensures Japan’s peace,” avoiding the stickier but more desirable aim of ensuring peace throughout East Asia, something an offense-capable Japan would undermine, as Stone pointed out.
Though Stone doesn’t deny that North Korea and China have belligerent tendencies, Japan’s position as a beacon of hard-won peace in the region is undeniable despite its occasional nationalistic eruptions and reluctance to come clean on its imperialist past. Besides, if Japan fights alongside the U.S., it is joining the most belligerent power in the world. How many foreign wars has the U.S. fought since 1945? Stone speculated it’s only a matter of time before Japanese soldiers “are being sent home in body bags.”
Komatsu’s appointment means that the LDP hopes to get around the Constitution. Asahi Shimbun recently interviewed Shinichi Kitaoka, the head of the prime minister’s panel on security issues, who says Japan can participate in collective self-defense while still keeping its military capability “to a minimum,” but legal restrictions may already be meaningless. An expert quoted by the Tokyo Shimbun called the recent Red Flag Alaska exercises, in which the Self-Defense Forces provided backup for American B-52s, a violation of Article 9 since B-52s are offensive aircraft.
If there’s any reason to hope that Article 9 remains in tact it’s the fact that it still is. In 2002, NHK aired “Y Iinkai: Kaijo Jieitai Sosetsu,” a documentary (available on-demand) about the Y committee, a group of former Imperial Navy officers who met secretly in 1951 to revive Japan’s navy with the backing of the U.S. The committee despaired that “no one is willing to sacrifice themselves to protect Japan” anymore, without contemplating why that was.
Public sentiment came to the fore after the Japanese coast guard was commandeered by the U.S. for minesweeping duty in the Korean War and a boat was sunk. The coast guard quit the war immediately. Eventually, the Y committee helped form the Marine Self-Defense Forces with all the old navy trappings (prewar military flags, bugles, elitist attitudes) but no offensive capabilities. It was a play version of the Imperial Navy.
“Jieitai to Kenpo: Nichibei no Kobo,” another NHK documentary, aired last week and described the pressure the U.S. brought to bear on Japan at the start of the 1991 Gulf War to provide combat personnel. Japan sent only money thanks to then Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu’s strict interpretation of Article 9. Conservatives in the government groused at the humiliation. Former U.S. Ambassador Michael Armacost, whose main job was apparently getting Japan to remilitarize, said that the U.S. should take advantage of “Japan’s fear of being left out,” but in the end Kaifu acknowledged that the people still had “a strong mistrust of the military.”
There’s no reason to think that feeling has significantly changed. In May, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was asked if he might also revise Article 18, which prohibits “involuntary servitude,” since it could block the institution of a military draft. Abe said no, apparently confident that young Japanese will volunteer in sufficient numbers once the country can wage war again. It all depends on what lessons they’ve learned from history, and not just Japan’s.