Seventy years after World War II ended, should we be thinking about war or about peace?

World War I, in its day, was called “the war to end all wars.” It was not. Would World War II be? Two nations, in its aftermath, went pacifist. Japan was one, Article 9 of its postwar Constitution declaring, “The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

Costa Rica was the other. On Dec. 1, 1948, this tiny Central American country’s president, Jose Figueres Ferrer— having himself seized power in a blood-soaked military coup — sledgehammered a hole through a stone wall at military headquarters to symbolize a radical reorientation of national priorities: Militarism out, pacifism in. Brute power had had its day. Let pacified power rule. Military headquarters, Figueres announced, would be converted into an art museum.

Nice place, Costa Rica. Not rich, with a poverty rate estimated at 23 percent, but enviably happy (happiest country in the world, according to the Happy Planet Index, which ranks Japan 45th), and admirably green (a quarter of its land area is legally protected against industrial encroachment).

To this day it has no army, navy or air force. Visiting foreign dignitaries are greeted not by military parades but by smiling schoolchildren clad in the visitors’ national colors.

Japan’s pacifism is made of sterner stuff. Maybe it had to be. Japan’s population is 127 million; Costa Rica’s is 4.5 million. Japan’s economy is a behemoth; Costa Rica’s is not. Among Japan’s close neighbors are a rising superpower and an erratic — possibly insane, if countries can be so designated — nuclear power, neither friendly. Costa Rica faces no comparable threats.

Was postwar Japan ever more than nominally pacifist? “Land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained,” says Article 9. The Self-Defense Forces and their state-of-the-art weaponry, backed by a substantial American military presence, seem to mock that pious vow. The fact remains, however, that Japan’s military has operated under constitutional and legal restraints that hobble no other sovereign nation’s armed forces. Whether those restraints qualify as pacifism is an open question. Certainly they do not by Costa Rica’s standards. A better question might be: Can Costa Rica’s standards be made universal?

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, since taking office in December 2012, has made no secret of his intention to steer Japan in the opposite direction. Last July he reinterpreted Article 9 to mean that Japan can engage in “collective self-defense” — the defense of an ally when Japan itself is not under attack. This was consistent with a pledge he’d made the previous September to the United Nations General Assembly. Japan, he said, “will newly bear the flag of proactive contribution to peace.”

Thus was born “proactive pacifism” — expanded interaction under fewer restrictions with more nations’ armed forces in more far-flung international conflicts — raising, inevitably, the question: How much “proactivity” can pacifism bear without slowly, imperceptibly (if not rapidly) evolving into its opposite — namely, militarism?

Writing in the Feb. 6, 2014, issue of the Nikkei Asian Review, scholar and diplomat Shinichi Kitaoka contrasts proactive pacifism with “passive pacifism, which posits that the less militarized Japan is, the more peaceful the world becomes. … But,” he adds, “Japan is now a major power, regarded as important by other countries in the world. Simply doing no wrong is no longer sufficient.”

This seems to bid farewell to illusions befitting a more innocent time, if there ever was such a time. Kitaoka was writing months before the world, and Japan with it, turned the corner represented by the advent of the renegade jihadi group calling itself Islamic State.

The group’s lightning seizure of a large swath of territory in Iraq and Syria caught the world off guard. Horror followed shock. Slaughter, torture and other mockeries of civilized mores may be nothing new, but the defiant ghastliness with which Islamic State seasons its outrages — in the name of pious submission to the will of God — suggested, to many, a descent into evil so deep as to make “passive pacifism” look innocent indeed.

The monthly Sapio, in its commentary on the Islamic State affair and Japan’s response to it, invokes the “dirty hands” metaphor. Japan floundered, in its view, because it shrinks from “dirtying its hands.” France, by contrast, in rescuing its own hostage from Islamic State, did whatever had to be done — whatever that was (the means used to secure the journalist hostage’s release have not been made public and apparently are not known even to the freed hostage).

Sapio deplores Japan’s excessive moral anguish — reflected, it finds, in media coverage that blamed the executions of two Japanese hostages on proactive pacifism. See what it leads to, the chorus ran: victim — guilty; perpetrator — innocent.

Then there’s the opposite view, also flourishing: Japan must revise its Constitution — in effect, de-pacify it — to equip it to deal with the likes of Islamic State, the world’s latest symbol of unsavory but inescapable reality. Sapio convicts both sides of the same offense: exploiting the incident to advance their own political agendas.

Sapio’s leanings are not dovish — rather the contrary: It wants Japan strong against whatever may threaten it — specifically, China and North Korea. Japan is strong, it says; its Self-Defense Forces, though one-tenth the size of China’s People’s Liberation Army, have an overwhelming technological advantage that would be decisive should push come to shove. More important still, it says, is soft power, which Japan has and China does not. Just ask the hordes of Chinese tourists who sightsee, shop and return home with happy tales of traditional Japanese hospitality. Can the government’s evil-empire narrative stand up against such glowing testimony? It hasn’t withered yet, but maybe its end is in sight.

Soft power. There’s a beautiful example of what Japan can boast in that regard in an Asahi Shimbun report last month from Aleppo, Syria. Aleppo University is 5 km from the front lines in the Syrian civil war, and 40 km from territory now ruled by Islamic State. The university dorm has been turned into a refugee center — a most uncomfortable one, with 40,000 people crammed into accommodations meant for 10,000. There’s little electricity, not much safe drinking water and no privacy.

The university hosts a facility called the Japan Center. It was established in 1995 and is highly popular. Students and local residents study Japanese, origami, calligraphy. At a calligraphy lesson attended by Asahi’s reporter the students pen the characters for tomodachi (friend). One student lays down his brush and tells the reporter, “There’s not much beauty in Syria these days. Doing calligraphy, I somehow feel that I’m in touch with beauty.”

Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.