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Japan’s military normalization

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Soon after the Islamic State’s brutal murder in January of Japanese hostages Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for the country’s “biggest reform” of its military posture since the end of World War II.

Abe wants Japan to become a “normal” country again, with the capacity to defend its interests and citizens wherever they are threatened. But how should his government go about it?

Even for a Japanese public that still generally supports their country’s post-war pacifism, the hostage crisis was unsettling, not least because it highlighted Japan’s military impotence.

Unlike Jordan, which was able to consider a rescue mission for its own hostage and launch a powerful military response after he was killed, Japan’s Constitution left it no options for rescue or retaliation.

Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, which was adopted in 1947 under U.S. occupation, prohibits the country from maintaining armed forces or using force to settle international conflicts. Although interpretations of Article 9 have liberalized over the years, and Japan now maintains a very capable self-defense force, constitutional constraints continue to impair Japan’s military capabilities and posture considerably.

To be sure, Japan’s treaty alliance with the United States provides for its security. But the risks that Japan faces — including an increasingly assertive China, a nuclear North Korea and the Islamic State group, which has threatened to murder Japanese citizens abroad — have raised legitimate questions about whether the country needs greater latitude to defend itself.

This could be achieved in several ways. For example, Japan could simply continue to increase the defense budget, reinterpret the existing Constitution and strengthen collective security; the capacity of Japanese special forces could be expanded; or Article 9 could be repealed altogether by a vote in both houses of the Diet, followed by a national referendum. Regardless of the specific route taken, Japan deserves to be able to protect its territory and population, just like any other country.

But any boost in its military capabilities will meet strong opposition, particularly from China and the Koreas, which continue to insist that Japan’s alliance with the U.S. provides it with all the security it needs. Moreover, they argue that Japan has yet to come fully to terms with its colonial and wartime record.

Japan has indeed benefited enormously from U.S. protection. But there can be no guarantee that the U.S. will continue to defend Japan’s interests indefinitely, particularly in any clash with China. Questions, justified or not, about America’s ability to retain its dominant position in Asia’s security architecture in the medium to long term — together with the rise of isolationist sentiment within the U.S. — have spurred its regional allies and partners, including stalwart friends like Australia, to hedge their strategic bets. It is only logical that Japan would share such concerns.

Likewise, though Japan’s behavior before and during World War II was undeniably atrocious, its record since 1945 — including championing the United Nations and other multilateral institutions and providing guidance and assistance to developing countries — has been exemplary.

It strains credulity to argue, as China and North Korea have, that a normalized Japan would threaten regional stability any more than China’s massive military buildup and territorial aggression, or North Korea’s bellicosity and nuclear weapons, already do. It is more likely that a normalized Japan would enhance regional security by playing an important role in the balance-of-power system that China is steadily advancing with its unilateral behavior.

Nonetheless, if Japan chooses to move toward military normalization, it must demonstrate more convincingly that it has come to terms with its history — or risk seeing that effort undermined unnecessarily. Although Japan has made significant efforts to atone for its past — by issuing repeated apologies, for example, and providing development assistance — revisionism and insensitivity by some of its leaders lately have revived historical tensions with its neighbors. That should stop.

For starters, Japan’s leaders should either forswear visits to controversial Yasukuni Shrine, or find a way to have the souls of the 14 Class A war criminals that it honors moved elsewhere.

Likewise, instead of refuting claims about the extent of sexual slavery during the war, Japan’s government should build a monument in central Tokyo — possibly even on the Imperial Palace grounds — commemorating the “comfort women” from Korea and elsewhere who were forced to provide sexual services to the Japanese Imperial Army. The authorities could even establish an annual conference to bring together world leaders to find ways to help protect women in conflict zones.

Finally, rather than protesting the way Japan’s WWII activities are described in U.S. textbooks or squabbling over the number of people murdered during the Nanjing massacre, Japan should seek to help its own citizens understand and process their country’s wartime record.

Other countries, particularly China, may have strong domestic political motives for their anti-Japanese propaganda, but Japan’s more sensitive treatment of its history could at least stop adding fuel to the fire.

Japan’s achievements since the end of WWII — including its enormous contribution to global peace and security — count for a lot. But unless Japan makes sensitive treatment of its history a cornerstone of its effort to change its military posture, the past could well become an impediment to a more secure future.

Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow of the Atlantic Council and author of “Genesis Code,” served on the U.S. National Security Council and in the U.S. State Department during the Clinton administration. © 2015 Project Syndicate

  • johnniewhite

    Mr Metzl’s view seems to represent that of the US administration. But Japan cannot accept it without first debating on the following points:

    (1) its interpretation of Japan’s behaviour before 1945 as “undeniably atrocious”. How was the USA then? Was it not that the USA tricked Japan to fight the war? Please do not ignore the significance of the 1941 Hull note. How would you assess the Hiroshima/Nagasaki and the Great Tokyo Raid? Were they not “undeniably atrocious”?

    (2) Yasukuni and Class A criminal issue was made by Asahi Shimbun, which was manipulated by CCP as political card. As a Japananese, we ask everyone to study Japanese religion first, and not judge us from their cultural standpoint. All war deads are equal in the eyes of Japanese; they are sacred and ultimately peaceful. Our emperor cannot pray for the war dead at Yasukuni Shrine because of this disturbing noise coming from China. One must be cautious whatever a message of Japan bashing is issued by CCP — it is always a political amunition to cover up something, be it the fresh territorial claims in East China Sea, South China Sea, or domestic problems such as corruptions and riots.

    • GBR48

      The fire-bombing of Japanese cities and the two Atomic bomb detonations were unquestionably war crimes, but America’s failure to recognise that has no bearing upon Japan coming to terms with its own historical behaviour.

      Japan needs to look to Germany for a model of a nation that came to terms with its past, to permit itself and the whole of Asia a more secure future.

      Or to put it another way, just man-up and get it over with. The equivalent of a visit to the dentist by Japan’s political leaders. Show more courage than Washington do over the issue of the A-bombs and the fire-bombing, and then reap the economic and diplomatic rewards.

    • batbrewer

      > “Our emperor cannot pray for the war dead at Yasukuni Shrine because of this disturbing noise coming from China.”

      Not true. The emperor does not *want* to visit Yasukuni. Hirohito stopped going in 1978 after he learned that class A war criminals had been enshrined there, and the present emperor has continued his father’s policy of not visiting. The present emperor is also widely known to have anti-nationalist views.

    • Hendrix

      You have a very warped view of history and its because of people like you that japan is perpetuating its bad image in the world as war crimes deniers, drop the deluded right wing backward mindset and do us all a favour.

  • Nancy Snow

    “But any boost in its military capabilities will meet strong opposition,
    particularly from China and the Koreas, which continue to insist that
    Japan’s alliance with the U.S. provides it with all the security it
    needs.” Can we please stop presuming that opposition to Japan’s remilitarization begins and ends with its neighbors? It implies that this opposition is a nation-serving propaganda campaign. Opposition to constitutional changes that turn defense into offense pervades among the Japanese people.