Japan has taken a giant leap forward in its return to the status of a major military power. In September, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party secured parliamentary approval for new laws to allow Japan to deploy forces overseas. The laws are the latest in a series of interpretations of the Japanese constitution which have progressively eased restrictions on Japanese military activity.
Article 9 of the post-war constitution was originally conceived as a blanket prohibition on Japan having any military forces, even for self-defence. Part of the rationale was punitive, but there were many Japanese who wished post-war Japan to become a model pacifist society reflecting the antimilitarist vision of the 1920s epitomized by the Kellogg-Briand Pact which renounced war. The article, however, was the subject of so much debate and re-writing that it left the prohibition on forces murkier than US Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur had intended.
A plain reading of Article 9 would appear to leave no room for ambiguity:
(1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, 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.
(2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
But necessity has been the mother of invention. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, the United States redeployed troops stationed in Japan to Korea leaving Japan without defences. In consequence, MacArthur ordered the creation of a 75,000-strong National Police Force (NPF) and supplied it with US army surplus equipment. To maintain the fiction that the NPF was not a military force, military equipment was accorded civilian names. Tanks, for instance, were designated “special vehicles”. Two years later, a National Safety Agency (NSA) was set up to supervise the NPF. In 1954, the NPF became the Japan Self-Defence Forces and the NSA became the Japan Defence Agency.
All this was controversial, with both Japanese pacifists and some foreign observers objecting to what appeared to be a flouting of the constitution. But the Supreme Court of Japan upheld the changes, siding with the argument that the term “war potential” in Article 9(2) meant forces capable of conducting war on others and prohibited only forces exceeding the requirements for self-defence. In the years that followed, Japanese governments were never able to summon either the will or the parliamentary means to actually amend Article 9, but further interpretations continued to widen the scope of permitted military activity. In 2007, the Japan Defence Agency was formally accorded the rank of a ministry. By then, the defence budget exceeded $41 billion and Japan had one of the most powerful military forces in the world.
Except that the forces were still not permitted to engage in “collective” self-defence, i.e. to come to the aid of an ally, or to deploy overseas. Under the US-Japan defence treaty, for instance, the US has been obliged to help defend Japan but Japan was prohibited from helping to defend the United States. Nor was Japan allowed to participate in a UN-authorized multinational force. In 2014, the Abe government introduced a battery of laws to lift these restrictions and in 2015 it used its majorities in both houses of parliament to secure passage of the enabling legislation. Three conditions attach to the deployment of forces overseas: Japan’s survival must be at stake, there is no alternative, and the forces employed must be the minimum necessary.
There are Asians who still harbour a good deal of animosity towards the Japanese, notably the Chinese whose animosity the government of Beijing has encouraged, who object to the “re-militarization” of Japan. There are also many Japanese who fear their country getting dragged into foreign wars. The heated debate in parliament and the street demonstrations prior to passage of the legislation reflected public opinion which appears to be 2:1 against the changes. In the final analysis, however, a democratic Japan that “can say yes” to becoming a full participant in the maintenance of international peace and security represents a welcome addition to the forces for good in the world.