The Abe administration has tabled before the Diet a package of legislation to drastically change Japan’s national security policies. The turnaround in the security posture sought by the administration is closely linked to the question of how one evaluates the path that the nation has trodden in the postwar period. As the 70th anniversary of Japan’s 1945 surrender in World War II approaches, we need to think of the meaning of our postwar history together with the path that the nation must follow from now.

When he addressed politicians and citizens in the United States during his visit from late April to early May, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prided himself on the stability and prosperity of Japan’s postwar democracy, and said that they were made possible by the nation’s common values and cooperation with the U.S.

Abe is correct. Japan has realized democracy and prosperity under the Constitution drafted by the U.S.-led occupation forces. But if he were sincere as a politician, he should have immediately protested to the U.S. that the American forces imposed the Constitution on Japan and should have declared that Japan would quickly write a constitution on its own — because he once called the current Constitution “disgraceful” by criticizing ideals expressed by its preamble and has made it his mission to amend the supreme law.

The prime minister, however, has no such nerve and courage. During the visit, he thanked the U.S. for establishing Japan’s postwar democratic system. Back in Japan, he advocates changing the Constitution. Abe is a politician who indeed lacks consistency.

One of the criticisms against Abe’s decision to enable Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense is that Japan might be drawn into wars waged by other countries. In his May 15 press conference, Abe said that history shows how such criticism is off the mark, citing the past debates surrounding the nation’s security treaty with the U.S. Here again, he does not correctly understand Japan’s postwar history.

If Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi — Abe’s revered grandfather — had succeeded in amending the Constitution and creating a full-fledged military for Japan after revising the security treaty with the U.S. in 1960, Japan would likely have been forced to join the U.S. in fighting the war in Vietnam — just like South Korea did. Japan managed to avoid taking part in the war along with the U.S. because fierce protests by citizens who opposed the revision of the security treaty forced Kishi out of office and protected Japan’s postwar constitutional order, dooming his chances of changing the Constitution. In short, Japan managed to avoid sending its troops to Vietnam because of the very existence of the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution — and the U.S. knew it was impossible to demand that Japan do so.

The civic movements of 1960 served as a major lesson for subsequent Liberal Democratic Party-led administrations as well. Both the LDP and the Japanese people as a whole chose not to engage in ideological fight but devote their energy to economic development under democracy and market principles guaranteed by the Constitution, thereby achieving prosperity for the nation.

There is an argument that the security environment surrounding Japan is now different from half a century ago. China’s rise is an undisputable fact. But what Japan should do is to explore its security policy within the framework of individual self-defense. When the Abe administration changed the government’s interpretation of Article 9 last July to pave the way for Japan to engage in collective self-defense, the prime minister explained that the use of force would be limited to the scope necessary to protect the lives and safety of the Japanese people. Now, however, the administration has come up with a new story in putting together the security legislation — that Japan needs to play a more proactive role in the efforts to make international peace.

Under his slogan of “proactive contribution to peace,” the Abe administration is intent on getting Japan to join the U.S. and other allies in their fight against the “enemies of peace” and is ready to take the Self-Defense Forces anywhere in the world on such missions. But history shows that the wars that the U.S. started for the sake of “peace” — ranging from the Vietnam War to the Iraq War — were in fact sheer use of force that lacked a justifiable cause. Supporting the U.S. in such military operations has nothing to do with Japan’s national security.

The world remains awash with military conflicts, which have produced huge numbers of refugees. It should be Japan’s mission to provide humanitarian solutions to the problems confronting these people. Japan, however, does not need to be constantly involved in what is billed as a “war on terrorism.” There will be situations where Japan can better protect its own people and national interests by keeping itself at a distance from futile wars.

Political leaders need to be able to make such high-level judgment when it comes to war. What Abe needs to learn is the cunningness of the Liberal Democratic Party leaders in the old days, who cleverly skirted American demands for more defense roles for Japan by using Article 9 as a shield.

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

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