A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

The Rise and Decline of Japan’s Culture of Antimilitarism

Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan
A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing : The Rise and Decline of Japan’s Culture of Antimilitarism - Fritz Lodge


In the wake of a World War and under the control of an occupying army, the Japanese people accepted a constitution in 1947 that was unique in composition. The world’s first “Peace Constitution,” Article 9 of Japan’s founding document explicitly prohibits war and the maintenance of a standing army. Despite its imposed nature and numerous attempts by Japan’s conservative elite to alter this stricture, Article 9 has remained untouched due primarily to the efforts of the Japanese peace movement. However, with China’s rise and the popularity of Japan’s nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, calls for a return to military normalcy now seem to dominate those for restraint. This paper traces the rise and fall of the Japanese peace movement, as well as the incremental process of remilitarization, which has accelerated sharply over the last decade. Finally, it investigates the nature of Japanese remilitarization under Shinzo Abe and analyzes its effect on East Asian security and US foreign policy.


On the day Japan surrendered to the Allies, Rear Admiral Tomioka Sadatoshi sought to restrain the tempers of his subordinates by advising patience in the face of adversity. “With the end of World War II,” he argued, “there is sure to be a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the rift Japan can find a chance to regain her feet.”[1] This eerily prophetic statement very nearly came true in the immediate postwar era. Only four years after the war’s end, a “reverse course” in American policy turned the Allied Occupation’s program of demilitarization and democratization on its head. Former military officers and regime officials were released from prison, a former class A war criminal won the country’s premiership in 1955, and the Americans began to insist that Japan rebuild her military in order to balance against the rising Sino-Soviet alliance. In short, all the pieces seemed set for a swift realization of Admiral Sadatoshi’s prediction and the revision of Japan’s much-vaunted “peace constitution.”

However, this did not happen. Instead, a powerful and socially diverse grassroots movement forced the abdication of the Kishi government in 1960 through massive popular protests against the revision of the US-Japan Mutual Security Agreement. Preserving the promise of the Japanese constitution to “…forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes,” this demonstration of a deep and engrained sense of pacifism in Japanese society served to clearly define the political limits of Japanese military expansion for the next 40 years.[2]

Yet in the last 20 years, the influence of this movement has faded. American pressure and ever-more creative interpretations of Article 9’s injunction against the maintenance of military forces have slowly expanded the size and scope of Japan’s self-defense forces. Over the course of the early 2000s, the strength of civilian controls over the military’s independence have significantly eroded, its scope for international deployment under transnational agreements has evolved dramatically, and incremental budget increases have led Japan to maintain the fifth largest defense budget in the world.[3] At the same time, popular support for the peace movement and pacifist political parties has steadily declined.

Today, faced with aggressive Chinese policies like the expansion of an air identification zone over the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu islands in November of 2013, as well as a nuclear-armed North Korea, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “new nationalism” is conflicting with the pacifist traditions of the Japanese constitution.[4] The world’s first and only constitutionally peaceful nation now looks likely to break its long abstinence from the world of war to bare its teeth once more. The question is how the Japanese will define themselves when peace is no longer the cornerstone of their political identity.

The Origins of a Non-Military State

In order to understand the full significance of Japan’s current trend toward remilitarization, it is important to examine the historical context within which Japan’s constitutional pacifism and underlying culture of popular antimilitarism developed. When the victorious Allied Occupation forces first arrived in Japan, they encountered a country devastated by fifteen years of war. Over eight million Japanese were killed or wounded during the war, Japan’s infrastructure and economic production lay in tatters, and two of her cities served painful witness to the dawn of the nuclear age. Indeed, the Japanese word “kyodatsu” – a medical term describing a state of exhaustion, despondence, and despair – aptly describes the shell-shocked psyche of a nation at the end of its rope. This bitter memory of war, and especially of the nuclear holocaust in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is vital to explaining the incredible longevity of Japan’s constitution, and its unique promise to abolish the use of force.

Partial explanation for this longevity lies in the unique set of circumstances that surrounded Japan’s surrender, the management of its occupation, and the development of its peculiar relationship with the United States. Three basic factors can help us to explain the ideological strength and deep institutionalization of antimilitarism in Japanese culture. First is simply the timing of the constitutional drafting process. The Japanese constitution was drafted in 1947 when the full extent of East-West rivalry was not yet apparent. At that time, the threat of future Japanese aggression loomed larger in the minds of US-Asian policy planners than that of Communism, and blanket demilitarization was the order of the day. As a point of contrast, the German Basic Law was drafted in 1948 and 1949, just as Cold War rivalries were ramping to fever pitch in Europe. Consequently, the Basic Law was drafted with inclusion in the new Western Alliance system in mind and offered more leeway for interpretation than the Japanese document. Japan’s constitution was also written and imposed from above by an American military government frustrated with the conservative drafts offered by Prime Minster Shidehara Kijuro’s government.[5] In Thomas Berger’s estimation this illegitimate drafting process ironically instilled a “deep-rooted fear…that democracy was a delicate, alien flower planted in inhospitable soil, and that constitutional revision could cause the fragile blossom of freedom to wither.”[6]

A second major factor in the initial development of Japanese antimilitarism was a combination of distance and leadership. Japan was much farther from the eye of US policy planners than the primary Cold War battleground of Eastern Europe. Although the rising Sino-Soviet threat in the Pacific was a worry, it took the invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950 to snap the attention of foreign policy heavyweights like Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and his successor John Foster Dulles, to Japan’s role in Asian security.[7] Until this point, the office of Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) General Douglas MacArthur enjoyed a wide mandate to shape Occupation policy and, to the chagrin of his superiors in Washington, MacArthur proved highly resistant to rearming the peaceful new democracy he had worked so hard to build.[8] On the Japanese side, then-Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru was of much the same mind. “Profoundly suspicious of members of the now-defunct Japanese imperial military forces,” Yoshida recognized the rising threat of Communism but feared the economic and political consequences of allowing Japan to rearm and be drawn into military confrontations abroad.[9] Invoking the image of Japan as a chōnin kokka, or “merchant nation,” Yoshida believed that maintaining a pacifist role in international affairs, while sheltering under the blanket of US security guarantees, would leave the country time to lick its wounds and rebuild as an economic power.[10] Loosely termed the “Yoshida Doctrine,” this vision of a neutral, pacifist, and economically resurgent Japan, closely aligned with Western security policy, came to define a political center that Keiko Hirata calls the ‘mercantilist’ camp, in Japanese politics.[11] This existence of Japanese and American leaders committed to preventing the renewal of militarism, combined with Japan’s partial insulation from the maneuvers of initial Cold War strategy, helped to institutionalize the notion of a “peaceful state” in the early postwar years.

The third and perhaps most important circumstance that shaped the development of Japanese antimilitarism is the way in which Japan dealt with the guilt and pain of its wartime role. Unlike Germany, where the revealed extent of Nazi atrocities horrified the nation and engrained a deep sense of social guilt and self-recrimination, Berger attests that “…in Japanese historiography, the military was usually singled out as the chief villain responsible for leading Japan into a disastrous war against the West, conveniently ignoring the role played by civilian leaders.”[12] For the most part, this was a result of SCAP’s decision to retain the emperor and governing political establishment largely intact. Many members of this elite had been heavily involved in the war effort and even those who had lobbied for peace, like Yoshida Shigeru and Ishibashi Tanzan, were more interested in rebuilding the country than assigning war guilt. This was an interest overwhelmingly shared by Japan’s exhausted population, so Japan’s ruling elite encouraged the narrative of a peaceful nation lamentably hoodwinked by the machinations of a perfidious military cabal. As a result, over 117,000 former military officers were banned from political office during the postwar purge but only 2,000 Japanese businessmen and 2% of the hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats investigated were censured.[13]

Accompanying this narrative of a military clique gone rogue was the widely held belief across Japan’s political spectrum that the country had, at least in part, been forced into war by the racist and imperialist policies of Western powers in Asia. Specifically, the American oil embargo of 1941, which was designed to encourage a more moderate Japanese foreign policy but instead convinced Japan’s leaders that America would stop at nothing to curtail her growth. This resentment of American imperialism was violently reinforced by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thus, rather than engage in a process of national introspection, much of Japanese society “…felt doubly victimized. First by the West, which they felt had cynically refused to respect Japan’s right to defend its legitimate interests… [and also] by their own military for having dragged them into a war that rationally could only end in tragedy.”[14] On the one hand, this narrative of national victimization played beautifully into the hands of the former army officers and regime officials who sought to sanitize their role in the war and stage a return to politics during the 1950s. However, that reading of history also managed to instill a virulent antimilitarism in Japanese society which, activated by bitter war memories, the issue of nuclear armament, and the aggravation of continued US military presence on the island, would enjoy an unparalleled ability to mobilize popular sentiment for decades to come.

Defending the Peaceful State: Development of the Japanese Peace Movement

Much as it was the desire of Yoshida and his fellow centrists to minimize Japan’s involvement in international disputes, this antimilitarist sentiment would soon be put to the test. By 1949, US policymakers had decided that building a bulwark against Communism trumped the democratization mission in Japan and thousands of former army officers and regime officials – including class A war criminals like future Prime Minister, Nobosuke Kishi – began their return to the political arena. The outbreak of the Korean War in June of 1950 only added fuel to this fire, and Prime Minister Yoshida’s government was soon put under enormous pressure to rearm and take its place in the United States’ vision for an East Asian security bloc. Indeed, John Foster Dulles made Japan’s rearmament an explicit condition of the country’s return to independence and participation in a mutual security pact during his trip there in January of 1951. In the end, Yoshida’s dogged resistance stymied US plans for full rearmament, but he was still forced to order the creation of a 75,000 man “National Police Reserve” (Keisatsu Yobitai) – an early precursor to the Japan Self Defense Forces – and agree to the continuation of US bases in Japan and Okinawa in order to receive post-independence protection under the US-Japan Mutual Security Pact.[15]


More worrying than this first abrogation of the spirit of Article 9, however, was the formation of a new right wing political grouping, which Berger terms “right idealism,” that condemned the pre-war militarists as foolhardy but advocated the revision of Article 9 and a return to the national pride and more centralized authority of the Meiji period.[16] This grouping found its center in the flood of nearly 200,000 former regime officials, including prominent conservative politicians like Hatoyama Ichiro and Nobosuke Kishi, who were “de-purged” and allowed to return to active public life in the period between 1951 and 1952. As a result of their release, nearly 42% of the seats in the first post-Occupation Diet election held in October 1952 were won by former “purgees.”[17] This developing faction of right idealists took issue with Yoshida, Hayato Ikeda, Miyazawa Kiichi, and others of the mercantilist bent. They saw independence as a chance to rebuild a strong, proud, and militarily potent Japan like that of the prewar Meiji period. For Saburo Ienaga, a prominent educator and activist against textbook censorship in Japan, “it even seemed for a while that the clock would be turned back to the military norms taught in prewar Japan.”[18]

Despite this, the mercantilist position held throughout most of the 1950s. For conservative-leaning politicians on the Left, Yoshida’s argument that Japan needed US help and cooperation to rebuild its still-weak economy was enough to convince them that the goal of Cold War neutrality should be postponed. At the same time, many right-leaning politicians, sympathetic to rearmament, saw dire warning in the violent anti-American and anti-rearmament “Bloody May Day” protests of May 1, 1952, which took place in response to concessions of the San Francisco peace treaty.[19] However, after the formation of a unified “Liberal Democratic Party” (LDP) from the different conservative parties in 1955, the right idealist camp managed to wrest control from Yoshida and the centrists. Under the leadership of Prime Ministers Hatoyama and Kishi, the right idealists “tried the lay the groundwork for a major expansion of the armed forces, a reversal of some of the more liberal reforms of the American Occupation…and a fostering of national pride.”[20] Yet few in the right idealist camp could foresee the intense popular reaction these moves would evince.

Anpo Toso: 1960 and the Rise of the Japanese Peace Movement

Prefaced by strong trade union opposition to the “Police Duties Law” of 1958, the true extent of popular opposition to rearmament became apparent in 1960 when the Kishi government’s attempt to negotiate a revision of the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty sparked some of the largest mass protests in Japanese history.[21] The proposed revisions granted, among other things, greater concessions to the Americans on base issues and allowed the use of those bases to launch combat operations unrelated to the defense of Japan. In return, the Kishi government negotiated greater independence to pursue its program of remilitarization, as well as an explicit commitment from the US to defend Japan in the case of attack.[22] Affronted by the gall of a former war criminal negotiating unpopular concessions to an unpopular superpower, with the aim of rearming a nation only recently devastated by war, protesters gathered in their hundreds of thousands to besiege the Diet building and demand a rejection of the treaty revisions. Representing a loose conglomeration of established Socialist and Communist parties, trade and labor unions like the Sohyo federation, and powerful new grassroots movements like the anti-nuclear Gensuikyō (Japan Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs), the “anti-security treaty struggle” (Anpo Toso) was the most spectacular display yet of the existence of a widespread and powerful “peace movement” in Japan.

Though the revisions did pass in the end, the ferocity of the Anpo Toso protests forced President Eisenhower to cancel his planned trip to Japan and triggered a rout of LDP centrists, which led to the fall of the Kishi government. This step too far towards a militarist past had touched a raw nerve in Japan’s political consciousness. Fueled by still-recent war memories, and focused by the ongoing insult of an unapologetic US military presence on the islands, the multi-faceted peace movement that thronged the streets in 1960 may, according to Totten and Kawakami, “be considered…the greatest grass roots movement in Japanese history.”[23]Somehow, this loosely organized peace movement was able to demonstrate a durable ability to mobilize popular action and political will in the protest of a wide range of security issues.[24]Especially after episodes like the “Bikini Islands” accident of 1954, in which fishermen on board the trawler Luck Dragon #5 were accidentally irradiated by American nuclear testing in the pacific, organizations like the anti-nuclear Gensuikyō were able to mobilize and maintain steady popular support on a wide range of antimilitary initiatives.[25] Indeed, the combined role of such grassroots political movements proved instrumental in giving the opposition 40% of the popular vote in the November 1963 election.[26]

What Japanese conservatives and US security planners learned from these experiences is that there was a clear political red line on the issue of military rearmament in Japan. The double victimization encouraged by Japan’s postwar narrative had worked too well. Deep resentment of American imperialism and its nuclear legacy, combined with a fundamental distrust of the Japanese military, had imbued the postwar generation with a powerful instinct towards antimilitarism.[27] This confirmation of public resistance to remilitarization prompted a return to the mercantilist center and established a legislative pattern whereby LDP centrists would defect in support of the opposition if they smelled any hint of rebellion against the Yoshida doctrine.[28] The centrist Hiyato Ikeda replaced Kishi in 1960 and, through till the 1990s, successive prime ministers were forced to renounce any intention to revise the constitution on threat of filibuster by the then-powerful Japan Socialist Party (JSP). Indeed, so toxic were the topics of constitutional revision and the Self-Defense Forces that “security policy…became a ‘holy issue’ that neither LDP nor the JSP wanted to raise in the Diet.” [29] When leaders did try to raise security issues in the public sphere they often faced a firestorm of opposition, as Prime Minister Nakasone found in his failed attempt to encourage nationalist sentiment and raise the defense-spending rate above 1% of GNP in 1986.

Of course this doesn’t mean that changes weren’t made to Japanese security policy in the decades following 1960. A process of slow, incremental alterations to defense policy calledkiseijijitsu no tsumiage evolved, whereby areas of consensus on defense between the mercantilist center and the right idealists were quietly advanced without debate or discussion through the Diet. For instance, only one year after Nakasone’s failed bid to fatten the defense budget, defense spending did actually increase to over 1% of GNP through the administrative instrument of the 1978 Guidelines for US-Japanese Defense Cooperation.[30] However, at each step forward civilian authorities were careful to place strict civilian safeguards on the defense establishment.

As Peter Katzenstein observed in 1996, “in its purely domestic aspect, the military is subordinated to economics and politics. To this end the ministries of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), International Trade and Industry (MITI), and Finance (MOF) have penetrated the Defense Agency (JDA).”[31] In fact, the JDA filled a number of its senior roles with members of other ministries so the security departments of each civilian ministry enjoyed a wide scope for intervention in military affairs. And, when dealing with transnational issues, centrists were careful to lock any expansion of the military’s international role into the existing hierarchy of allied partners in order to curtail the JSDF’s scope for independent action. Even this role as, what one Japanese foreign policy analyst called “a piece of furniture that any modern house or nation has, a chair for the American visitor to sit on,” often represented the Japanese military’s greatest opportunity for political clout.[32] Domestically, the JSDF and JDA traditionally remained strictly separated from the political leadership by overlapping layers of civilian bureaucracy. Similarly, in the arena of public opinion, a deep suspicion of the JSDF and its motives has traditionally defined the relationship of media and the general population with Japan’s defense establishment. Indeed, according to one comparative study run in the 1970s, Japanese dailies devoted nearly three times as much space to disarmament issues as international papers like the New York Times.[33]

Land of the Rising Sun: From Pacifism to Remilitarization

However, these dynamics are rapidly changing. In 1985, Prime Minister Nakasone’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine – where a number of Japanese war criminals are interred – helped spark widespread public and political opposition to his rule. Yet annual visits by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi until the end of his term in 2006 sat much easier with the domestic audience, even as they enraged former victims of Japan’s military conquests in Asia.[34] More recently, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the shrine in December of last year provoked a similarly apathetic response at home, amidst outrage abroad. This shift in the domestic significance of Yasukuni shrine helps mark a pointed decline in the strength and cohesion of the Japanese peace movement as a political force. A decline mirrored in the building inertia behind Japan’s incremental process of remilitarization.

There are several reasons for this weakening of the peace movement and of the anti-armament, “pacifist” bloc that gained ascendance in the period after 1960.[35] First among them is the generational aspect of this social phenomenon. The sentiment of antimilitarism, instilled by early Occupation policy and a postwar narrative of national victimhood, was most powerfully reinforced by vivid personal memories of either the war itself, or the difficult path to recovery in its aftermath. By the 1990s, this generation began to age out of the political scene and, today, most Japanese are too young to be influenced by a personal experience of the war.

This would not make much difference if the Japanese education system had been trained to teach the atrocities of World War II as honestly and self-effacingly as the German system does today. However, educators like professor Saburo Ienaga have observed “an increasing pro-military slant in education” throughout the 1980s and 90s, a troubling trend accompanied by “the rebirth of popular veneration for the emperor…and an increase in authoritarianism, evidenced by the government forcing schools to display the Hinomaru (“Sun Flag”) and students to sing “Kimigayo” (official anthem of the Empire of Japan) as the national anthem.”[36] This long process of sanitizing war guilt from education and resurrecting a positive narrative of the military, most notable in the Ministry of Education’s constant revision of the official textbooks, has continued to the present day and has left new generations with little concept of the misery that Japan’s fifteen-year “Pacific War” inflicted.[37] Consequently, the strongest pillar of Japanese peace sentiment has a generational half-life that is almost up. At the same time, the so-called “realignment of US force posture in Japan” has, through deals like the 2009 relocation of 9,000 marines to US bases in Guam, reduced the US military’s visible presence on Japan’s main islands in recent years, thereby diminishing their political role as a focal point for popular opposition.[38]

Finally, the rise of China as an economic juggernaut and burgeoning military power over the past two decades has increasingly lent legitimacy to right idealists’ argument that a realistic Japanese security policy relies on strengthening the US alliance with greater “burden-sharing” and eventually revising the constitution to allow the creation of an internationally competitive military. As Kuni Miyake of Tokyo’s Canon Institute for Global Studies puts it: “Before Abe and the new era we were day-dreaming. We thought we could follow pacifism, not threaten anybody, have no army, and the world would leave us alone. [Now] people are aware that prayers for peace are not enough.”[39] Miyake’s view meshes with the overwhelmingly negative popular perception of China, which currently enjoys a 94% disapproval rating in Japan.[40]Worryingly, it also dovetails the viewpoint of a new “nationalist” faction in Japanese politics that has gained prominence recently, especially among Japanese youth, with a conservative and highly jingoistic message focused on historical recidivism and the need to restore Japanese pride in its armed forces and Imperial past.[41]

These fundamental shifts in the makeup of Japanese society and its immediate security environment, combined with the disintegration of support for pacifist political organizations like the Japan Socialist Party (JSP), have left pacifism as a political force largely absent from the present security debate. This state of affairs is underlined by the fact that only 30 members of the 2008 Diet could be called pacifists, a dramatic reduction from nearly 150 pacifist members in the 1960s.[42]

Kiseijijitsu No Tsumiage: Incremental Remilitarization Since 1976

In contrast to the present weakness of Japanese pacifism, the accumulation of incremental military expansions since the late 1970s has already managed to stretch the interpretation of Article 9 and quietly build a large military establishment in the form of the JSDF and the JDA – reorganized into the Ministry of Defense (MOD) in 2007. Japan’s first real military doctrine, articulated in the 1976 National Defense Program Outline (NDPO), advocated only enough rearmament to survive attack until American help arrived.[43] However, even this small measure helped lay the groundwork for a succession of further changes to Japan’s security policy.[44] Following intense US pressure to stop “freeriding” and shoulder a share of the security burden in the 1980s, Japan began to play with the constitutional definition of “self-defense” to include some issues of “collective-defense,” which bolstered the legitimacy of US security cooperation and helped convince opposition parties to at least partially accept the JSDF’s legality.[45] After 1990, this process accelerated. The new Peace Cooperation Law allowed the first international dispatch of JSDF peacekeepers to Cambodia in 1992.[46] While, in 1999, the Diet passed legislation to implement 1997 Guidelines for US-Japan Cooperation, again expanding the international “collective security” role of the JSDF.[47]

Building on these incremental changes, the government of maverick Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi “embarked upon a rapid, even radical, development of its security policy…between April 2001 and September 2006.”[48] In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 the charismatic, lion-haired Prime Minister was able to push through shocking new defense and security measures. These included the dispatch of Maritime Self Defense Forces (MSDF) to support coalition forces in the Indian Ocean, the revision of national defense guidelines to encourage international military deployment capabilities in 2004, and even the commitment of ground and air elements of the JSDF to assist coalition forces on non-combat reconstruction missions in Iraq.[49]

Such reforms in the role of Japan’s security forces during this period were also accompanied by a startling erosion in the strength of civilian controls over the JSDF and JDA (later MOD). To a certain extent, this was the result of bureaucratic infighting between the JSDF, JDA, and civilian bodies like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) over control of defense policy.[50]However, after a scandal concerning MSDF’s misreporting of fuel usage in 2003, improving the operational efficiency of the JSDF became a priority. This sentiment culminated in the Ministry of Defense Reform Council’s report of 2008, which recommended more frequent and direct meetings between the prime minister, cabinet secretary, and military officials from the JSDF and the Ministry of Defense.[51] Implemented in December of 2008, this seemingly innocuous reform represented an unprecedented shift in the way that Japan’s political leaders could deal with the defense community, cutting out the civilian middleman and allowing Japan’s military establishment far more political influence and independence in its actions.

Surprisingly, these pro-military and pro-American policies failed to inflame Japanese public opinion as the actions of Nakasone and Kishi had in the past. According to a 2005 Nikkei telephone poll, 54% of respondents even supported the revision of the constitution and 44% continued to support the Koizumi government.[52] This popular ambivalence to policies that promoted both military rearmament and the near-complete subordination of Japanese security policy to the desires of the Bush administration seemed to indicate the death of political antimilitarism in Japan. To many, Japan looked poised to establish itself as a more “normal” regional military power, especially as Kishi Nobosuke’s markedly right-wing grandson, Shinzō Abe, prepared to succeed Koizumi in 2006. However, much like his grandfather, Abe quickly alienated the electorate and the political opposition by trying to move too far too fast towards a return to military normalization. His “forceful promotion of constitutional revision and his decision not to collaborate but to compete with the opposition parties” had the adverse effect of making the “Japanese electorate more cautious toward constitutional reform” and lost him the premiership in 2007.[53] By 2008, Abe’s rule had led popular support for constitutional revision to fall by nearly 18 points to 36.2%.[54]

The Prodigal Grandson Returns

This episode seems to have taught Abe an important political lesson. Antimilitarist sentiment is not entirely dead in Japanese society and, if they wish to reshape Japan as a military power, conservative politicians must come at the issue sideways, backed by strong popular and parliamentary support. This is one prism through which to view Abe’s triumphant and improbable return to the premiership in 2012, after a landslide LDP victory over the Democratic Party of Japan. Though he was previously slowed by ill health, the new Abe is energetic, charismatic, and an active presence on traditional and social media platforms.[55]More importantly, his return to power came with a radical “three arrows” plan, which advocated a series of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and structural economic reform policies designed to restart the long-stalled Japanese economic engine.[56] Though the second and third “arrows” of his plan have yet to fully materialize, the increased monetary base encouraged by “Abenomics” has already led to a depreciation of the Yen, a bump in Japanese exports, and a roughly 65% rise in the Nikkei Index since November of 2012.[57] As a result, Abe currently enjoys a 57% approval rating according to an October 2013 Asahi Shimbun Opinion poll.[58]

Predictably, Prime Minister Abe has been quick to ride in a tranche of ambitious new security policies on the wave of his new popularity. Pointing to a series of recent Chinese provocations in the Senkaku-Diaoyu contested islands dispute and the continued threat of nuclear North Korea’s ballistic missile capability, Abe has set out to expand nearly every area of Japan’s defense policy. Supported by a majority in both houses of parliament, the Abe government raised the military budget for the first time in 11 years by 0.7% to roughly $46 billion dollars.[59]In line with this increase, Japan has put in orders for advanced weapons systems, such as the F-35 stealth fighter jet – previously considered too offense-oriented for defense deployment – and has ramped up participation in joint military exercises with the US and other allies.[60] In addition, the Abe government signed a new bilateral security agreement with the United States in October 2013, which will expand Japan’s role in the alliance and specifically included a commitment to create a US-style National Security Council.[61] Finally, the cabinet ordered a study of the defense guidelines last year, which is expected to recommend further widening the interpretation of Article 9 to include the right to “collective self-defense” when it is released this April.[62]

What Does Shinzo Abe’s Japan Look Like?

Building on 66 years of effort, Shinzo Abe now appears only steps away from finally realizing the conservative dream of reforming Japan’s American-imposed constitution and restoring the threat of hard power to the nation’s diplomatic arsenal. To his American counterparts in the Obama administration, Abe’s new assertiveness seems just the trick to take some of the pressure off Obama’s lukewarm “rebalance to Asia” policy. While, in domestic political terms, Abe’s steps toward a redefinition of Article 9 aren’t radical enough to stir much opposition. AsThe Diplomat’s John Traphagan points out, “Japan has already interpreted itself so far away from the meaning of Article 9 that it is in pretty clear violation of its own constitution,” what matter a few more tinkers?[63] All this need not be a bad thing. Given that China has posed the country with what Richard Samuels, a Japanese security expert at MIT, calls “the first militarized challenge that Japan has seen since the war,” there seems no logical reason why Japan should not build up its defense.

However, the ideological and political form that Japanese remilitarization is currently taking should raise warning flags for Japanese and US security interests. First, the recent rise to prominence of a new Japanese nationalism that advocates rapid remilitarization, the acquisition of nuclear weapons, and a far more aggressive stance toward China, is a dangerous accompaniment to Japan’s remilitarization. This group is represented in politicians like former Tokyo Governor, Shintaro Ishihara, whose attempt to buy the Senkaku islands in 2012 forced the Japanese government to nationalize them, triggering a tense standoff with China. According to The Daily Beast’s Kathryn Ibata-Arens, “Ishihara and his ilk are gaining popularity within the Japanese electorate, including a young generation of disenfranchised men” who are still feeling the economic pain the last decade.[64] Recently merged with Hashimoto’s “Japan Restoration Party,” Ishihara and his “Rising Sun” party now carry a disturbing weight in Japan’s parliament.[65] To be sure, Mr. Abe’s governing coalition currently relies on the relatively pacifist New Komeito party for support. However, the new influence of Japan’s nationalists in parliament could give Abe a conservative majority to tap in the event of a falling out with New Komeito over an amendment to Article 9.

So far, Abe has been careful to keep his distance from the kind of overtly nationalist rhetoric that he knows could alienate the general electorate. Nevertheless, he has embraced widespread xenophobia aroused by the islands dispute as a chance to appeal to these new nationalists through tough talk on China. Expressing concerns that “China is attempting to change the status quo by force,” Abe cautioned in October of last year that, “if China opts to take that path, it won’t be able to emerge peacefully.”[66] Barbed statements like these, combined with the blunt symbolism of including island-invasion scenarios in Japan’s military training exercises with US Marines last spring, are clear attempts to signal a much more assertive Japanese security policy to the world. However, such provocative moves also underline an attempt to build domestic support for remilitarization through the medium of nationalist sentiments aroused by the dispute with China.

This leads to a second danger. That Abe’s efforts to play up the China dispute on the home front, combined with his controversial international image as a military hardliner in the mold of his grandfather, might drag the US into a deeper political, or even military, confrontation with China than it intends. So far, Abe has refrained from revisiting inflammatory statements on the innocence of Japanese class A war criminals or his ridiculous first-term claim that the 200,000 “comfort women” – women forced into sexual service by Japanese Imperial forces – serviced Japanese soldiers “voluntarily.”[67] However, his visit to Japanese war dead at Yasukuni shrine, just after the establishment of China’s air identification zone over Senkaku-Diaoyu, is a worrying sign. Prime Minister Abe is barely one year into his term and these issues are extremely sensitive in formerly occupied countries of Imperial Japan’s “Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.” Any move on his part toward recidivist rhetoric concerning Japan’s war role has the potential to further inflame public opinion in both China and South Korea, a key US ally in the region. Furthermore, if Abe’s economic plans fail to deliver real change, he may turn to intentional provocation in order to squeeze domestic support from heightened tensions with China. Ironically, where Japanese pacifists once protested closer security cooperation with the US out of fear that Japan would be dragged into Cold War conflicts, it is now a more assertive and unpredictable Japan that threatens to pull America into unwanted disputes.

As things stand, we can only speculate as to how these relationships will develop and whether such fears are justified. What is not speculation is that Japan has come out of its shell as a regional player, and that the decades-long right-wing quest for constitutional reform and the “normalization” of Japan’s military is very near to fruition. What is worrying about this transition is not that it is happening; Japan has a right to provide for its own protection and probably should have reformed its constitution a long time ago. The issue is the flawed historical process that has led us to this point. In the decades of struggle between Right and Left over the issue of security and rearmament, Japanese society has never truly faced the realities of its own war guilt in either national education or public debate. The narrative of postwar victimhood at the hands of the Imperial military and Western powers managed to slow the process of remilitarization for a time, but it also allowed the same conservative right-wing elite that had supported Imperial Japan’s aggressive cultural exceptionalism and rabid militarism to survive and thrive in Japanese political society. To a great extent, the ideological (and genetic) descendants of this elite have defined the pro-militarization camp in Japan’s security debate since the end of the Occupation. Consequently, Japan’s choice in this debate has historically been a maximalist one between reviving the military institutions that caused the war, or maintaining the ideals of the peace constitution. Over the last few decades, that fundamental choice has simply been sidelined by the incremental expansion of these military institutions. However, until Japan faces its war guilt and engages in honest and public debate over the place of the military in Japanese society, it will never truly be a “normal” state with a “normal” military.

Notes & References

  1. Ikuhiko, Hata, “The Post War Period in Retrospect,” Japan Echo, Issue 11, (1984), 13-14.
  2. Article 9, The Constitution of Japan,http://www.kantei.go.jp/foreign/constitution_and_government_of_japan/constitution_e.html.
  3. The SIPRI Yearbook, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, (April, 2013),http://books.sipri.org/product_info?c_product_id=458#.
  4. Tisdall, Simon, “Is Shinzo Abe’s ‘New Nationalism’ a Throwback to Japanese Imperialism?”, The Guardian, (November 27, 2013), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/27/japan-new-nationalism-imperialism-shinzo-abe.
  5. Berger, Thomas U., Cultures of Antimilitarism: National Security in Germany and Japan, (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 31.
  6. Ibid, 32.
  7. Schaller, Michael, Altered States: The United States and Japan Since the Occupation, (The Oxford University Press, 1997), 30-31.
  8. Ibid, 26.
  9. Berger, Cultures of Antimilitarism, 34.
  10. Shuichi, Wada, “Article Nine of the Japanese Constitution and Security Policy: Realism Versus Idealism in Japan Since the Second World War,” Japan Forum, (22: 3-4), 409.
  11. For a review of the literature defining ideological segmentation in Japanese politics see Hirata, Keiko, “Who Shapes the National Security Debate? Divergent Interpretations of Japan’s Security Role,” Asian Affairs: An American Review, (35: 3), 124-127.
  12. Berger, Cultures of Antimilitarism, 29-30.
  13. Ibid, 27.
  14. Berger, Thomas U., “From Sword to Chrysanthemum: Japan’s Culture of Anti-militarism,” International Security, Vol. 17, No. 4, (Spring, 1993), 135-136.
  15. Shuichi, “Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution and Security Policy,” 409-410.
  16. Berger, “From Sword to Chrysanthemum.” 137-138. Also see Hirata, “Who Shapes the National Security Debate?” 142-143. She splits the “right idealists” into two groups termed “normalists” and “nationalists.”
  17. Schaller, Altered States, 38.
  18. Ienaga, Saburo, “The Glorification of War in Japanese Education,” International Security, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Winter, 1993-1994), 117.
  19. Dower, Embracing Defeat, Epilogue.
  20. Berger, “From Sword to Chrysanthemum, ”140-141.
  21. Gibson, Ian, “Japan’s Peace Actors and Their Sociopolitical Origins,” Peace and Conflict Review, Vol. 7, Issue 1, (Fall, 2012), 7.
  22. Hook, Glenn D., “The Erosion of Anti-Militaristic Principles in Contemporary Japan”, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 25, No. 4, (December, 1988), 383.
  23. Totten, George O, and Kawakami, Tamio, “Gensuikyō and the Peace Movement in Japan,” Asian Survey, Vol. 4, No. 5 (May, 1964), 839.
  24. Ibid, 840.
  25. Ibid, 834.
  26. Ibid, 833.
  27. Takeshi, Igarashi, “Peace-Making and Party Politics: The Formation of the Domestic Foreign Policy System in Postwar Japan,” Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2, (Summer, 1985), 355-356.
  28. Berger, “Sword to Chrysanthemum,” 141.
  29. Shuichi, “Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution and Security Policy,” 418.
  30. Berger, “Sword to Chrysanthemum,” 142.
  31. Katzenstein, Peter J., Cultural Norms and National Security: Police and Military in Postwar Japan, (Cornell University Press, 1996), 100.
  32. Bobrow, Davis B., “Playing for Safety,” Japan Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1, (January-March), 37.
  33. Okimoto, Daniel I., “Ideas, Intellectuals, and Institutions: National Security and the Question of Nuclear Armament in Japan,” (University of Michigan PhD Dissertation, 1978), 466.
  34. Faiola, Anthony, “Koizumi Stirs Anger with War Shrine Visit,” The Washington Post, (August 15, 2006),http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/08/14/AR2006081401425.html.
  35. Hirata, “Divergent Interpretations”, 129-136.
  36. Ienaga, “Glorification of War in Japanese Education,” 133. The “Kimigayo” is the Japanese national anthem and was one of the symbols of the Japanese Empire during World War II. After the war it was abandoned and has only recently reinstated as the official national anthem by the “Act on National Flag and Anthem” in 1999.
  37. Ibid, 124-132 for a summary of Ienaga’s dispute with the MOE’s textbook censors.
  38. “The Japan-US Security Arrangements,” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, (July, 2012),http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/n-america/us/security/arrange.html. Though it should be noted that Okinawans retain a deep popular resentment of the US military presence on the island.
  39. Quoted in Tisdall, Simon, The Guardian, (November 27, 2013),http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/27/japan-new-nationalism-imperialism-shinzo-abe.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Hirata, “Divergent Interpretations,” 142-143.
  42. Ibid, 136.
  43. Mochizuki, Mike, “Japan’s Search for Strategy,” International Security, Vol. 8, No. 3, (Winter, 1983-1984), 156.
  44. Hook, “Erosion of Anti-Military Principles,” 383-384.
  45. Ibid, 386-387.
  46. Shenon, Philip, “Japan’s New Troop Role in Cambodia,” The New York Times, (September 27, 1992),http://www.nytimes.com/1992/09/27/world/japan-s-new-troop-role-in-cambodia.html.
  47. Shuichi, “Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution and Security Policy,” 419.
  48. Hughes, Christopher W., Japan’s Remilitarisation, (Routledge, 2009), 11.
  49. Ibid, 11-12.
  50. Ibid, 55-58.
  51. Ibid, 58-59 and 60-61.
  52. Nikkei Regular Telephone Opinion Poll, The Mansfeld Asian Opinion Poll Database, (April, 2005),http://www.mansfieldfdn.org/backup/polls/2005/poll-05-8.htm.
  53. Shuichi, “Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution and Security Policy,” 423-424.
  54. 2008 Yomiuri Shimbun poll quoted in Shuichi, “Article 9, 424.
  55. “Why Did Prime Minister Abe Shinzo Resign? Crippling Diarrhea,” Japan Probe,http://www.japanprobe.com/2008/01/12/why-did-prime-minister-abe-shinzo-resign-crippling-diarrhea/.
  56. Hayashi, Yuka, “In Quest for Japan’s Revival, Abe Secures his Own Comeback,” The Wall Street Journal, (Updated July 22, 2013), http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324783204578619293878667764.
  57. Ranasinghe, Dhara, “Verdict on Abenomics, One Year On,” CNBC, (October 30, 2013).
  58. Asahi Shimbun Opinion Poll, The Mansfeld Asian Opinion Poll Database, (October 5 and 6, 2013),http://mansfieldfdn.org/program/research-education-and-communication/asian-opinion-poll-database/listofpolls/2013-polls/asahi-shimbun-regular-public-opinion-poll-10713/.
  59. Hayashi, Yuka “Japan Raises Alarm Over Defense,” The Wall Street Journal, (July 9, 2013),http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323823004578594703681295448.
  60. Fackler, Martin “Japan Shifts From Pacifism as Anxiety in the Region Rises,” The New York Times, (April 1, 2013),http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/02/world/asia/japan-shifting-further-away-from-pacifism.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1.
  61. Steinhauerr, Jennifer and Martin Fackler, “US and Japan Agree to Broaden Military Alliance,” The New York Times,(October 3, 2013), http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/04/world/asia/japan-and-us-agree-to-broaden-military-alliance.html?pagewanted=1&emc=eta1.
  62. “A Collective US-Japan Defense,” The Wall Street Journal, (February 5, 2014),http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304680904579364302718785842.
  63. Traphagan, John W., “Revising the Japanese Constitution,” The Diplomat, (May 17, 2013),http://thediplomat.com/2013/05/revising-the-japanese-constitution/.
  64. Ibata-Arens, Kathryn, “Why Japan’s Right Turn Could be Trouble for the US,” The Daily Beast, (December 16, 2012), http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/12/16/why-japan-s-right-turn-could-be-trouble-for-the-u-s.html.
  65. “Parties of Ishihara, Hashimoto Announce Merger,” The Asahi Shimbun, (November 17, 2012),https://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/politics/AJ201211170060.
  66. Saul, Heather, “Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Says Country is Ready to be More Assertive Against China”, (October 26, 2013), http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/japanese-prime-minister-shinzo-abe-says-country-is-ready-to-be-more-assertive-against-china-8905978.html.
  67. “Shinzo Abe’s Double Talk,” The Washington Post, (March, 2007), http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/23/AR2007032301640.html?sub=new.