On April 30, the Asahi Shimbun reported on the results of a Cabinet Office survey of public opinion regarding the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). The telephone survey was conducted between Feb. 16 and 26, with 1,657 of the 3,000 people contacted replying. Overall, 84.9 percent of respondents indicated they had a “favorable impression” of the SDF. That was the most favorable response in the occasional survey’s more than 35-year history. In 1972, only 58.9 percent of respondents were well disposed toward those who defend the homeland.

Implied in this result is an astounding reality: Japan’s postwar allergy to matters smacking of militarism has been overcome. In this respect, Japan has finally become a “normal’ country, able to pose and threaten with the best of them.

How did this change come about; and why shouldn’t Japan have an army like other countries, particularly some in the region that are not averse to striking the odd threatening pose toward Japan?

To answer these questions we must go back exactly half a century, to 1956.

That was a watershed year, culturally, economically and politically. In 1956, for example, the English word “date” entered the Japanese language (as deto), signaling an increasingly westernized approach to this activity. Yujiro Ishihara, the actor who was to become the symbol of postwar youth (he was a cross between James Dean and Elvis Presley), made his film debut in two films, “Kurutta Kajitsu (Crazed Fruit)” and “Taiyo no Kisetsu (Season of the Sun).” Yujiro’s brother Shintaro, then a famous author who wrote the novel on which “Season of the Sun” was based, and now governor of Tokyo, sported the cool-fringe “Shintaro cut.” Tokyo and Hakata (in Fukuoka, northern Kyushu) were linked by a night train express. The wartime devastation of infrastructure was a thing of the past; the era of accelerated growth was about to begin. At the same time, Japan was admitted into the United Nations.

Affirmation of transition

In 1956, too, University of Tokyo Professor Yoshio Nakano published a landmark article in the February issue of Bungei Shunju, stating: “Mohaya sengo de wa nai (The postwar era is finally over).” This all-important affirmation of transition was reinforced by a government white paper that, in similar words, officially heralded the end of the war’s traumatic aftermath.

What was meant by the declaration of the end of the postwar era? It meant that Japan was ready to rejoin the family of independent nations under the newly formed Liberal Democratic Party. But it definitely did not mean that the aversion to things military was in any way diminished, since the vast majority of Japanese were still revolted by their country’s imperialist crimes and were determined to keep well away from direct belligerency. If the SDF was tolerated in the 1950s and ’60s, it was due to its role in disaster relief, particularly in cleaning up after typhoons.

The person who made the SDF acceptable to the public was Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who was in power from 1982 to 1987. Toward the very end of his rule — in what he no doubt saw as its crowning glory — Nakasone bolstered the SDF by pushing defense spending above the 1 percent of GDP ceiling that the Japanese people had previously insisted, by widely recognized consensus, was not to be breached. The increased spending became public policy; and by the time Nakasone left office, public opinion had come around to the belief that Japan needed to defend itself more aggressively.

At that time, however, more than three out of four Japanese who had a favorable impression of the SDF still based their views on the role of the forces in disaster relief.

Today Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s skillful couching of the SDF role in Iraq as “humanitarian aid in a non-combat zone” has masked the aggressive element of the troop dispatch and so made it more palatable to Japanese public taste. Koizumi has, by clever design, enhanced the “Nakasone doctrine.”

The change in Japanese people’s attitude indicated by last month’s Cabinet Office survey took root, therefore, nearly 20 years ago. The thoroughness of the public’s transformation from being dogmatic anti-militarists in the 1950s and ’60s, to grudging realists in the ’80s and ’90s, and to garden-variety patriots today, can be seen even more sharply in the response of those recently surveyed to the necessity of introducing a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Japan. That more than half were in favor of BMD would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

Little open debate

This brings me to my second question. What’s the fuss? Why shouldn’t Japan have armed forces like everyone else?

Some Asian governments, particularly those of China and the two Koreas, will point out the danger of such a thing, harping on the insincerity of successive Japanese apologies for wartime crimes.

But the real problem lies with the Japanese people themselves.

Were sabers to begin to rattle loudly across the Sea of Japan, there would be little open debate in this country about what to do. Dissident voices in Japan lack the bureaucratic and institutional vehicles to carry them to the public and make them heard. The last five decades under almost-exclusive LDP rule have done precious little to create an atmosphere of genuine political debate. In fact, it has been in the party’s interests to consistently stifle public participation in matters political.

Years ago, Nakasone’s Cabinet took the decision to blow out the 1 percent ceiling in a cabal-like middle-of-the-night session. It was presented to the public as a fait accompli. Politicians know that Japanese opposition is debilitated by just such faits accomplis. Once a decision is made, people in Japan are expected to rally around the “winner,” dampen any resistance they might still harbor and keep their mouths shut.

Japanese may admire silent, stoic dissenters; they do not tolerate well a “loser” who stands vociferously on principle.

The Japanese people, thanks to this deliberate LDP policy executed by Nakasone and refined by Koizumi, have accepted the need for a proactive, alerted defense. But the last 20 years have done nothing to bolster and refine the democratic processes in society that could prevent a newly empowered military from once again overstepping its bounds. If you have a full-fledged military under civilian control, then those civilian decision makers need to be controlled themselves by a populace aware of its democratic rights and knowledgeable about how to exercise them.

The postwar era in Japan — with its deeply felt aversion to militarism — is over. The question is: If push came to shove, who would stop it from being an interwar era presaging something unimaginable — even compared with the horrors of the last war?

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