Over the objections of the majority of Japanese citizens, and despite bitter protests and strong resistance from opposition parties, Japan’s legislature passed new security laws which will permit Japan’s military to participate in conflicts overseas. A victory for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the legislation flies in the face of Japan’s pacifist constitution and will bind the country to a dangerous and unnecessary path toward remilitarization.
Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, adopted in 1947 during the Allied occupation, states “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes” and that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” Abe and proponents of the legislation argue that the new laws have sufficient safeguards to limit Japanese military engagements, such as only allowing military action to defend allies, only when all peaceful options have been attempted, and only if not undertaking military action would threaten “the lives and survival of the Japanese nation.”
However, these new laws clearly contradict Article 9, which explicitly bans “the threat or use of force.” There are no exceptions granted in Article 9. Indeed, multiple surveys have found that more than 90 percent of constitutional experts believe Abe’s new laws violate Japan’s constitution. Furthermore, the restrictions are meaningless if Japanese leaders simply choose to interpret any military action as a last resort and as necessary to protect Japan. Such instances are common in world affairs: George W. Bush frequently claimed invading Iraq in 2003 was his “last option” and necessary for world security.
Abe claims the laws are necessary to attend to potential threats from China and North Korea. If anything, the new laws will only alienate Japan’s neighbors and increase the potential for conflict. There is still widespread resentment for Japan’s actions during World War II in countries such as China, North Korea, and South Korea. Abe in particular has incensed Japan’s neighbors by refusing to offer his own apology for World War II on the 70th anniversary of end of that war, as well as for visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese war criminals are honored. Clearly, antagonizing one’s neighbors with a greater military role is not a wise move when they are still angry.
While the “rise of China” certainly presents challenges for the region, there is no evidence China wants to attack Japan. In fact, both China and Japan benefit more from mutual peaceful relations through trade and investment than they would from conflict. China and Japan are the world’s second and third largest economies by nominal GDP, respectively, and both are significant trading partners with each other. The territorial dispute between the two countries over a group of islands in the East China Sea, referred to as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, carries the potential for conflict. However, precisely what is not needed in this instance is increased militarization from either side. Japan’s new security laws create a more hostile environment in which both China and Japan will now have to navigate, heightening distrust and creating a more dangerous climate. The territorial dispute between the countries could now become more volatile as a result.
Potential threats to Japan from North Korea are even less of a problem. First, North Korea is primarily concerned about its adversarial relationships with South Korea and the United States. Japan is a secondary concern for North Korea. Second, North Korea poses no realistic threat to Japan. Despite bellicose rhetoric from North Korean leaders, North Korea knows it could not win a war with South Korea, Japan, and the United States. Its nuclear program is cause for concern, but there is little chance North Korea would use them to strike Japan, as North Korea would be instantly obliterated by the United States.
Abe’s legislation has been welcomed by the United States, which would like to see its Asian allies increase their military role in the face of U.S. budget constraints. In addition, there is the seeming contradiction between Japan’s pacifist constitution and the reality on the ground today: despite Article 9’s prohibition on maintaining “land, sea, and air forces,” Japan has its own military, the Self-Defense Forces, and Japan is subject to several U.S. military bases and more than 40,000 U.S. military personnel stationed there.
However, the fact that there are contradictions between the Article 9 ideals and Japanese policies today does not mean that the ideals should be changed, but rather the policies. Rather than choosing between continued U.S. military “protection” and independent remilitarization, Japan can make a third choice: become a model for the world to emulate by fully committing itself to peace. Japan should vigorously defend Article 9 by scaling back its military, follow the lead of protestors in Okinawa by shutting down U.S. military bases and ending the U.S.-Japan “alliance,” and reallocate its increasing military budget towards social needs. These moves would not only inspire the world, but make the region much safer by fostering better relations with Japan’s neighbors. They would also remove any pretext for provocative actions by China or North Korea.
After Japan’s defeat in World War II, it became one of the world’s most peaceful countries, and remains so today. It would be a tragedy for Japan to reverse course and undo all the progress that has been made.