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Wrong path to full sovereignty

by Jiro Yamaguchi

Last month Japan marked the first anniversary of its August 1945 surrender in World War II since the Abe administration made a Cabinet decision in July to enable the country to engage in collective self-defense.

Nearly 70 years have passed and this year many elderly people who experienced the war spoke about the increasing difficulty in passing their experience of its cruelties on to younger generations. At the same time, a sense of humiliation over Japan’s defeat in the war and frustration with the nation’s postwar pacifism have been handed down from generation to generation.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the flag bearer of people with such sentiments. He inherited the deep-seated grudge against the postwar political system held by his grandfather, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, and effectively rewrote Article 9 of the Constitution — the symbol of the postwar regime — with the July 1 Cabinet decision.

Two types of actors were the driving force behind this change — right-wing politicians and Foreign Ministry bureaucrats. Both of them have long harbored a sense of inferiority or humiliation that Article 9 imposed upon Japan a handicap of being unable to use military force in the international community and thus led the nation to be dismissed as a semi-sovereign state.

This raises a serious question. Would Japan become a full-fledged sovereign state once the restrictions of Article 9 have been lifted? A fully sovereign state should be defined as one that sets its own goals, chooses effective means to achieve them and has the capacity to autonomously carry them out.

As we look back on the path taken by Japan in its postwar years, we realize that those right-wing politicians and Foreign Ministry bureaucrats who advocated for Japan becoming a full-fledged sovereign state have given up on the efforts to have Japan develop the necessary independent capacities. Thus they have kept Japan a semi-sovereign state.

If Japan had a full-fledged national leader, that leader would, for example, take the initiative in difficult talks with the United States to reduce the burden on Okinawa, which continues to shoulder the bulk of the cost of maintaining the Japan-U.S. security alliance.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama fell from power because he, while on a quest for Japan to become a fully sovereign state, lacked the capacity to achieve his goal.

When the dispute over the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma was rocking the Hatoyama administration in February 2010, I had a chance to discuss the issue with then U.S. Ambassador John Roos.

Roos said that although he could have told the Hatoyama administration that it would still be bound by an agreement that Japan’s previous administration had reached with the U.S., he did not do so.

He said that since Japan is a democracy, the U.S. would be ready to listen if the new administration chosen by the people was willing to make a new proposal, noting that the ball was still in Japan’s court.

A full-fledged national leader is someone who has the ability to make a case on behalf of his or her country and drive that ball into the court of its negotiating partner — irrespective of the extent to which the goal will in fact be achieved.

Both right-wing politicians and Foreign Ministry bureaucrats, however, utilized every possible means to prevent the Hatoyama administration from pressing its own case with the U.S. They kept Japan in the position of a semi-sovereign state while imaginarily advocating that Japan become a full-fledged sovereign state.

The decision to change the government’s long-standing interpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution may lift some of the restrictions on Japan’s use of military force. But Japan will not become a full-fledged sovereign state as long as it has a leader at its helm who cannot think autonomously and cannot press Japan’s case.

The Abe administration might rather find itself cornered amid the contradictory pressures inside and outside of the country over its exercise of the right to collective self-defense because it employed an illogical explanation at home to justify its constitutional reinterpretation — that the Cabinet decision will not change Japan’s pacifist principles,

Will Japan ever be able to become a full-fledged sovereign state given its security alliance with the U.S.?

That would not be impossible, given the example of the achievement of the administration of Willy Brandt, who, as chancellor of then West Germany at the forefront of the NATO alliance during the Cold War, pursued its own New Eastern Policy of improving ties with the Soviet bloc countries.

For that to happen, Japan needs to settle war-related issues with its Asian neighbors in real terms while keeping stable relations with the U.S. This is almost impossible for Abe, given his revisionist views, or for any other Liberal Democratic Party administration.

What is humiliating for me as a Japanese is not Article 9 of the Constitution but the presence of half-fledged politicians who make an empty claims that they are full-fledged statesmen.

Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University in Tokyo.

  • 151E

    Amen. It has always baffled me how those who clearly resent the postwar political order thrust on Japan can then be so painfully obsequious towards the Americans. I suppose they are simply, by some combination of nature and nurture, sycophantic to those in power.

    • Tando

      The solution to this seeming contradiction is, that the LDP was created with substantial US funds in the age of anti communism. Abes grandfather Nobusuke Kishi mutated from war criminal to founder of the LDP and prime minister. Now the US probably regrets to have restricted Japan that much with its pacifist constitution and wants it to take a more active role in financing American wars. Anti-Chinese provocations, like Ishiharas drive to buy the Senkaku Islands, are very helpful to forward this aim.