Issues | LAW OF THE LAND

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