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The Country Behind the History: Why Japan’s Military Makes Sense

October 23, 2015
About one month ago, Japan upended the legislation that reigned in their war crimes of the past. The image of a peaceful Japan filled with respectfully industrious people unconcerned by international politics was forever changed by the political powerhouse Shinzo Abe. While the United States slept, Abe and the Diet he has largely been routing into reformist shape passed a series of new laws allowing the Self-Defense Forces of Japan to engage in international conflict.

Japan: Haunted by Its Past

The guttural, visceral reaction of the international community is an expected barrage on Abe; Newsweek[1] and the New York Times[2] have immediately tied what they called “Abe’s militarism” to his imperial grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi. At the end of the Second World War, Kishi was tried for the war crimes committed by the Japanese Empire during conflict,[3] and was directly held responsible for much of the sprawling militaristic vision of the nation. In this light, Abe seems a subtle Putin pushing the agenda of a bygone age. But this is at best a paranoid lense through which to view recent developments; Abe should rather be seen as a man trying to keep pace with a changing international legal system in the increasingly multipolar world.

Immediately after World War II, Japan was de-militarized at the behest of General MacArthur on the premise that no tragedies like those witnessed on the Pacific front should ever come to pass again. Very quickly, however, this became an issue given the interests of the Soviet Union and, later, China, in the region. As a result, the Japaense Self-Defense force was created to provide defensive aid to Japan.[4]

Global Military Spending 
Global military spending, 2004-2013. Source: Economist

In the present day, a crucial misunderstanding is taking place: the Japanese people are no longer the militarists they were with the oligarchic industrialization-touting families upending traditional values. The Centre for International Governance Innovation wrote in 2014 that there was “no prospect” of a return to these values, as the Constitution has created a robustly accountable democracy (perhaps an enviable one) that would culturally deter leaders from outright militarization.[5] An article in Survival: Global Politics and Strategy echoes this sentiment, stating that Abe’s policy is hardly militaristic to the point of concern.[6]. If anything, the Asia-Pacific region would become more stable with a more powerful Japan, particularly because the country could serve as a U.S.-aligned counterweight to the China and its geopolitical rise. Like many modern controversies in international politics, the issue is of image rather than of substance when it comes to constitutional debate. In fact, according to a graphic from the Economist,[7] the size of Japan’s military has been decreasing over the past few years. Furthermore, it is ranked 102nd in the world for military spending as a share of GDP.[8] These are not the numbers of a militarist nation.

Opening a New Chapter for Japan in the 21st Century

What few may come to realize is that Japan’s move was inevitable; the world has been moving towards the international norm of collective self-defense for many years now. The United Nations has famously been pushing the boundaries of the definition of “peacekeeping” since the 1991 Brahimi Report,[9] which declared that self-defense does not mean that one cannot pre-empt possible enemy offensives. Without this installation, the UN member states would find constantly themselves in the midst of armed conflicts, refraining from taking action due to fears of transgressing boundaries.[10] Recently, the UN went even further and established an outright offensive mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[11] Questions of efficacy are beyond the scope of this discussion, but one clear point is not: self-defense in a world so interconnected that idle non-state actors pose as much a threat as neighboring nations cannot be just responding to threats. Shinzo Abe may have had a militarist grandfather, but he also has an extremely strong dedication to his nation’s interests.

The UN Charter itself claims that all nations have a right to collective self-defense. In an age separated from World War II by a deep sobriety about the nature of nuclear weapons and the heavy costs of wars, the impetus for militarism in any nation is dubious without a strong cultural undercurrent, which Japan does not have by any measure.[12] The question of Abe’s policy becomes whether or not the new Japan, the economic superpower, ought to have the same rights as other nations. But, more importantly, recognizing that Abe’s supposed “militarism” is really bound to his treaties with the United States[13] provides a newfound context. This becomes critical to the interpretation of the bills, furthermore, because “collective self-defense” on the part of Japan becomes tied to US and Western interests. Suddenly, Abe’s affront to history becomes an affirmation of his commitment to support his allies, a story that few have been willing to tell.

Modernization is difficult for countries whose worldwide public image is tarnished by history. Looking at the modern geopolitical landscape, however, requires that one considers current needs and modern cultural understandings to make effective decisions in international policy. Thanks to the work of Shinzo Abe Japan has done this. It is now time to support his decision, which could give support to a rise in legitimate multilateral coalitions and important humanitarian and political efforts around the world.


References:


  [1] Bill Powell, “How Shinzo Abe Became Postwar Japan’s Most Consequential Leader,” Newsweek, September 29, 2015.

  [2] Jonathan Soble, “Japan Parliament Approves Overseas Combat Role for Japanese Military,” The New York Times, Sept. 18, 2015. 

  [3] Hayashi, Yuka, “For Japan’s Shinzo Abe, Unfinished Family Business,” The Wall Street Journal, December 11, 2014.

  [4] Marcus, Jonathan, “Japan’s (self) Defense Forces,” BBC, July 16, 2015.

  [5] Welch, David A., “The Dangerous False Fear of Japanese Militarism,” Centre for International Global Innovation, October 4, 2014.

  [6] Choong, William, “Defence and Japan’s Constitutional Debate,” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 59 (2015): 173.

  [7] R.L.W. and L.P., “Arms and the Man,” The Economist, April 15, 2014.

  [8] “Japan,” The CIA World Factbook, Last Modified 2012.

  [9] Durand, Lauren, “How Did the Brahimi Report Improve the Effectiveness of UN Peacekeeping Operations?” University of Queensland, October 2011. 

  [10] Boot, Max, “Paving the Road to Hell: the Failure of UN Peacekeeping,” Foreign Affairs, March 2000. 

  [11] Raghavan, Sudarshan, “In Volatile Congo, a New UN Force With Teeth,” The Washington Post, November 2, 2013. 

  [12] “Japan’s Peaceful Self-Defense,” The Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2015. 

  [13] Tatsumi, Yuki and Mengjia Wen, “Don’t Expect Too Much of Japan’s Defense Reforms,” The Diplomat, October 9, 2015. 

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