The Death of the “Pacifist” Constitution: Japan’s Return to Its Martial Roots

The Japanese Diet’s passage of laws that allow for Japanese military action in support of a “close ally” when attacked represent a violation of Japan’s fundamental law, which (since 1947) has clearly banned the right of the state to go to war, period.

The three constitutional experts called upon by the lawmakers to comment on the issue all attested this.

This Diet members’ action clarifies what ought to be widely understood: there is no connection between formal law in what are fundamentally lawless imperialist states and whatever pretty postulates appear in the law codes of such countries.

In this country, we’ve gotten used to the fact that the U.S. government ignores the constitutional protection against “unreasonable search” through its Stasi-like rifling through our personal communications And we’ve gotten used to the fact that the U.S. executive branch ignores constitutional provisions for the Congressional approval for wars.

So why should it seem unusual that, while the Japanese constitution unequivocally forbids the maintenance of any military at all,  Japan actually has the eighth largest military in the world? And that the Japanese ruling elite is preparing to deploy that illegal military more aggressively?

Let’s not be naïve. Let’s not take seriously those who posture as guardians of legality, standing watch over something they call the “international community.” Such people lie routinely, manipulate fears (about weapons of mass destruction, particularly, since that route of exploiting anxiety has proven unfailingly productive), spew out verbiage like an octopus spurts ink to confuse those who seem threatening, and parse the language of codified consensus to tease out from it deeply skewed interpretations.

Commentators in Japan and elsewhere are united in their conviction that Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has produced a sea change by forcing through his “reinterpretation” of Article 9 in the Japanese constitution. This isn’t just one more of those subtle, incremental steps towards a thorough rewrite of that document so despised by the Japanese far right. It’s a major achievement. A major step backward towards the glorious militarist past!

Some military officers are indeed saying, “We can do anything now”–anything a normal military does anywhere else.

It’s highly disturbing for me, as someone who lived in Japan for years, revisits periodically, is connected by family and friendships and deeply concerned about the future of that beautiful, fragile country. It makes me want to reflect on the military past of that proud nation and how it has shaped the Japan of today.

* * *

Let us start in the sixteenth century, when the first Europeans arrived in Japan, initiating contact, and the first Japanese made their way around the world to Europe.

On March 23, 1585, three nobleman envoys from Japan along with their attendants were greeted in an official ceremony at the Vatican in Rome. The Jesuit mission in Japan, active in that “newly discovered” country since 1549, wanted to impress upon all of Europe its successes in converting hundreds of thousands of Japanese to the Catholic faith. At a time when Protestants were making inroads throughout northern Europe, challenging and weakening the Roman Catholic Church, missionary work in the “newly discovered countries” was extending the reach of the Holy See.

Japan was among the most promising mission fields. Some of its daimyo (“kings” to the Portuguese priests), eager to draw trading galleons to their shores, were willing to convert—for thoroughly worldly reasons—and then command their subjects to do so. (The Portuguese merchants following Church directives notified their Japanese hosts that should they embrace the holy faith, they would receive more visits by the European ships laden with Chinese silks and other precious goods.)

Many religious conversions were insincere or coerced, and when serious persecution commenced in the 1620s, the great majority of converts apostatized. But for a time the Japanese were the darlings of the Roman Catholic Church’s global Counter-Reformation missionary effort.

There was a “racial” aspect to this enthusiastic interaction. The Japanese, wrote Francis Xavier in 1550, are “the best race yet discovered [by Europeans] and I do not think you will find their match among pagan nations.” “The people are white and cultured,” reported the visiting Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano several decades later, and even the common people so “remarkably polite” that “they are superior to other Eastern peoples but also to Europeans as well.” Around 1590 the Portuguese Jesuit Luis Frois opined that the Japanese “in their deportment and manners” excelled the Europeans in so many ways “one is ashamed to tell about it.”

(From the inception of contact, Europeans referred to Japanese as “white” and associated their pale skin color to moral virtue and intellectual understanding. Valignano even opined that the “difference between the Indian [South Asian] and Japanese Christians… itself proves that there is no room for comparison between them, for each of the former was converted from some individual ulterior motive; and since they [the Indians] are blacks, and of small sense, they are subsequently very difficult to improve and turn into good Christians; whereas the Japanese…since they are white and of good understanding and behavior…become very good Christians.”)

Before their Vatican visit, the Japanese had already met with the governor of Portugal, Cardinal Albert, in Lisbon; Philip II in Madrid; Empress Marie of Austria, also in Madrid; and Francesco dei Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in Pisa. (Francesco’s wife Bianco Capello had embraced each one, no doubt delighting in the texture of their silken kimonos). Arriving at the Vatican, cheered on by throngs, a cannon salute, and the tolling of bells, the delegation was greeted by the Portuguese Jesuit and humanist Gaspare Gonsalves who told those assembled:

“The island kingdom of Japan is, it is true, so far away that its name is hardly known and some have even doubted its existence. In spite of this, those who know it set it above all the countries of the East, and compare it to those of the West, in its size, the number of its cities, and its warlike and cultured people.”

Warlike and cultured people! Xavier had written, “Never in my life have I met people who rely so much on their arms…They are very warlike and are always involved in wars…” Even more, perhaps, than the Iberian conquistadores whom Xavier, a Basque from Navarre had probably rubbed shoulders with on occasion. They not only produced the finest swords in the world, excelling the Damascene blades, but they had eagerly embraced the arquebus from the day of its arrival in Japan in 1543. They made design improvements on the European musket and mass-produced it so that there were more firearms in Japan by 1600 than in any European country. (At that time a single Japanese daimyo might have boasted a larger arsenal than the queen of England.)

The Japanese martial tradition had deep roots. The earliest inhabitants of the archipelago (the Jomon, who apparently entered via Siberia) constituted a classless, peaceful society. But by 400 BCE they were joined by the Yayoi people, entering through the Korean Peninsula, bringing with them wet-rice agriculture, metallurgy, class structure, the concept of the state, and a culture of warfare. After the primordial unification of the Japan, which we can refer to as the “Yamato” state (sometime between 350 and 400), the state expanded into southern Kyushu and northeastern Honshu through military force and engaged in conflict on the Korean Peninsula as well. The monumental tombs (kofun) appearing around this period contain ceramic figurines depicting fully armed horse-riding warriors.

The introduction of Buddhism, a belief system that discourages the taking of life, in 538 may have softened the martial tradition. Although local armed uprisings remained quite common, the imperial court centered in Heian (Kyoto) from the late eighth century developed an elegant, peace-loving cultural ethos quite at odds with the culture of the hereditary warriors (samurai) evolving in the boondocks. But from the late twelfth century the samurai emerged as the new ruling class and retained that position until that class was formally abolished in the 1870s.

But back to Rome in 1585. How appropriate it was to greet some of these Christian warriors from the other side of the world, publicly in St. Peter’s! This Vatican visit marked the beginning of a long, tortured East-West love affair. The Portuguese, who monopolized European trade with Japan until the Spanish vessels based in the new colony of the Philippines arrived late in the century, enlisted Japanese samurai to fight Malays in their colony of Batavia in Java (later lost to the Dutch).  The warlike Spanish loved the samurai at first sight, and recruited them as mercenaries for their intended invasion of China and their project for the conquest of Cambodia.

Alas, the love affair began to fall apart in the 1590s, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the great warlord-hegemon of a newly reunified Japan, began to persecute Christians and threatened the Spaniards in their Philippines colony with invasion. (Ironically, the first Christian missionaries to visit Korea arrived with a samurai invasion force numbering over 200,000 in 1592.)

Thereafter, the Tokugawa shoguns in power (from 1600) annihilated the Roman Catholic missions the Vatican had considered so promising. It booted out Spanish and Portuguese traders on the (valid) assumption that they would always try to smuggle in missionaries, and limited their trade with the west to dealings with the Dutch.

(The latter—Protestants content to keep their beliefs to themselves—made it clear they were not Catholics and not interested in proselytizing. They were altogether willing to ingratiate themselves with their hosts by trampling on Roman Catholic religious images and even deploying cannon fire on Catholic peasant rebels if that was the price of doing business in Japan.)

But then—surprisingly—these “warlike” Japanese stepped back from a century and a half of incessant civil warfare. Hideyoshi and his successors in power effectively disarmed the peasantry, collecting their swords and muskets, and corralled the samurai (some seven percent of the population) into castle towns—one per domain, of which there were about 260.

This resulted in what one historical anthropologist has called “the taming of the samurai,” accomplished over the course of the seventeenth century. Peace descended. Japan invaded only one country between 1598 (the de facto end of the Korean war) and the end of the Edo (Tokugawa) period in 1868. This was the Ryukyu kingdom (now Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture), which was attacked by the domain of Satsuma in 1609 and forced to accept tributary status.

From the 1630s Japanese were forbidden to travel abroad, with the exception of a few permitted to visit Korea or the Ryukyu kingdom for trade purposes. Far from being an aggressive country, Japan became withdrawn, engaging in a lively but carefully controlled trade with China, Korea, the Ryukyus and the Netherlands. (The Dutch were the only westerners authorized to trade in Japan until 1859.) Within the country, general peace prevailed; there were no daimyo rebellions against the shoguns’ rule, and no wars between daimyo. While there were always localized peasant rebellions in Japan, some of them repressed with musket fire, there was never a nationwide peasant revolt like that in sixteenth century Germany.

While Europe was ripped apart by the horrific Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), the Pax Tokugawa prevailed in Japan. The warrior class, who were not a vocational category so much as a hereditary status group (including women), lost their martial character and became transformed into pen-pushing bureaucrats as the country entered a sustained period of peace. Under these conditions, the population doubled over the seventeenth century, agricultural production swelled, great cities arose and bourgeois culture flourished.

And so it would remain until the mid-nineteenth century when U.S. gunboats sailed into Edo Bay demanding that Japan open its doors to U.S. trade. British, U.S. and Russian vessels had encroached in Japanese waters for decades, with increasing frequency. Some members of Japan’s long peaceable samurai class called for a forcible response.

In 1808 (during the Napoleonic Wars, which pitted Britain against pro-French Holland) a British naval vessel snuck into Nagasaki harbor sporting the Dutch flag. Its crew kidnapped Dutch traders and fired cannon to intimidate the townspeople. Thereafter a shocked shogunate issued an edict entitled, “Strike against foreign ships without thinking twice,” which obliged the daimyo of coastal domains to fire on unwelcome foreign ships.

Still they came. U.S. warships under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry even entered Edo (Tokyo) Bay itself in 1853, demanding that Japan open its doors to the world economy.

Realistically appraising the situation, the shogunate bowed to pressure, agreeing to establish “treaty ports.” But the economic dislocations produced by Japan’s incorporation into the world economy, and the blow to the regime’s prestige among the people, lead to the violent overthrow of the government during the Boshin War of 1867-1869.

The shogunate was overthrown in this conflict, which took some 8000 lives. A new regime (headed, in theory, by a teenage emperor) focused on learning from the west while resisting further encroachment came to power. This episode is known as the Meiji Restoration.

Burdened though it was by the unequal treaties imposed by the U.S. and other powers, Japan quickly emerged from two centuries of relative isolation to become a global power in its own right. While the status category of samurai was abolished in the 1870s, a new system of military conscription and the national policy of “affluent country, strong army” insured the revival of the long dormant tradition of military aggression.

As early as 1873, just five years into the new Meiji era, the leaders (all of samurai background) planned an invasion of the nearest neighbor, Korea, to force its acceptance of diplomatic and trade ties. The plan was called off (mainly due to western objections). But Japanese gunboat diplomacy mimicking that of the western powers brought Korea to heel in 1876.

In the meantime the new Japanese government dispatched a naval expedition to Taiwan, to punish tribesmen on that island for the killing of 54 shipwrecked Japanese and Ryukyuan fishermen. Qing China claimed sovereignty over the island (just as Beijing continues to this day to insists that Taiwan is and has always been a part of China). After slaughtering dozens, Japan forced China to pay it damages and recognize Japanese sovereignty over the Kingdom of the Ryukyus (Okinawa).

Following multiple armed interventions in Korea, Japanese forces engaged the Chinese army in Korea in 1894. After Chinese forces intervened in the country (at the request of its king) to suppress a peasant rebellion, Japan invoked its treaty right to dispatch forces as well. The latter provoked a skirmish with the Chinese, and all-out war followed. It enveloped the Korean Peninsula, southern Manchuria, and Taiwan. A victorious Japan demanded and received Taiwan as well as the Liaodong Peninsula in Manchuria as war booty.

But diplomatic intervention by Russia, Germany, and France prevented Tokyo from swallowing Liaodong and produced smoldering resentment within Japan against the tsarist empire. This resentment intensified after Russia itself acquired concessions in Liaodong soon after thwarting the Japanese effort.

In 1900 when the Boxer peasant rebels besieged the foreign embassies in Beijing, Japan joined the western powers in suppressing the uprising. The Japanese deployment was the only Asian contingent in the multinational force, and met with praise from the westerners, the British in particular, for its professionalism. Suddenly the darling of British imperialism, Japan signed the Anglo-Japanese Naval Treaty in 1902—as the British dropped the onerous clauses of the unequal treaty the U.K. had contracted with Japan in the 1850s.

Suddenly British intellectuals were talking about the obvious resemblances between the two island nations—their monarchical, hierarchical, eminently polite  societies; their maritime and feudal heritages; their proud martial traditions. It just made sense for the two to align, especially given the common concern with Russia’s expanding role in Asia.

Russia had secured concessions from China on Liaodong after blocking Japan’s acquisition of the peninsula in 1895. Japan attacked in 1904 and as its army fanned out across Manchuria its navy destroyed the Russian Baltic Fleet in the Tsushima Strait the following year. Russia was forced to sue for peace.  It was a stunning defeat for the tsarist empire, the first such victory of an Asian power over a European power in modern times, and the cause of much nationalist pride in Japan. It brought Korea (officially annexed in 1910) into the Japanese empire, along with Russian holdings in Manchuria and the southern half of the large island of Sakhalin.

World War I would seem to have had little to do with Japan. But citing a clause of the Anglo-Japanese Naval Treaty, which called upon Japan to take Britain’s part when the latter was at war with a third party, Tokyo attacked the German concession of Shandong in China, seized it for itself and also seized German possessions in the South Pacific including some of the Samoan islands. By 1918 the Japanese Empire had acquired by military force territory from the subarctic to Polynesia. All within a half-century of the Meiji Restoration.

A very martial country indeed! Very impressive. But the Brits and Yankees were both getting anxious. Both wanted unlimited access to the vast China market, and Japan had displayed in the course of World War I a disturbing penchant to behave exactly like western imperialists. It had imposed the insufferable “21 Demands” on China, which London and Washington had intervened to soften. Britain allowed the Anglo-Japanese treaty to expire, claiming that postwar multilateral agreements such as the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 rendered it irrelevant.

Meanwhile the Japanese regime, responding to hardening racist anti-Japanese immigration policies in the U.S. and elsewhere, and craving Lebensraum outside its borders for its swelling population, pondered ways to expand the realm in northeast Asia.

Japan occupied all of Manchuria in 1931—more due to willful actions by rogue military units than as a result of calculated policy—and added the state of “Manchukuo” to the empire. The Manchurian Incident spelled the collapse of the League of Nations as the Japanese delegation stormed out following the League’s condemnation of its actions. All-out war in China followed in 1937, and a secret war with the Soviets on the Manchurian-Mongolian border raged in 1939. (In the latter Japanese forces were soundly trounced; Tokyo agreed to a non-aggression treaty with the USSR two years later.)

U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, constrained somewhat by popular isolationist sentiment, condemned Japanese aggression in China, proclaimed a “moral embargo” on Japan, and gradually applied more trade sanctions. Following the Japanese advance into the French colony of Vietnam in 1940 (in theory, pursuant to an agreement with the regime in Nazi-occupied France) U.S. sanctions tightened. The U.S. froze Japanese assets in U.S. banks and cut off the supply of oil.

Washington demanded that Tokyo withdraw its troops in China to their prewar positions in the north, and renounce its membership in the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, as a condition for the restoration of normal trade ties. The Japanese leaders, headed by Tojo Hideki, concluded that this would be politically impossible. (The public had been whipped into the sort of pro-war fever that so commonly infects modern capitalist-imperialist countries. Any announcement of such a capitulation to the U.S. would have produced mass outrage with unpredictable consequences.)

So the leadership, with only a year’s stockpile of the petroleum needed for the war effort, chose another course: the capture of the oil fields of the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). But that meant knocking out U.S. and British military bases in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya, and Hawai’i. This was done, rapidly and efficiently. In December 1941 the die was cast.

Four years later, Tokyo and Osaka were fire-bombed wastelands and Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuked lunar-like landscapes.

The Japanese leadership did not surrender to the Allies because of the atomic bombing attacks. (These were in fact no more horrific than the conventional bombing that had fried over 100,000 in Tokyo on March 9, 1945.) The entry of the (hitherto neutral) Soviet Union into the war on August 8, 1941, the prospect of a Soviet occupation in the north, the division of the country and the possibility of a communist-led revolution, persuaded the leadership that surrender to the U.S. was the best option. Once occupied by U.S. forces, the Japanese people were obliged (in 1947) to accept a new constitution authored by foreigners that renounced the long history of martial culture described above.

And so a new era began.

* * *

Article 9 of the Japanese constitution is unequivocal: “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.

“In order 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.”

Paradoxically, this foreign-authored constitution has—due especially to that article—become for millions of Japanese a fiercely defended national treasure. No one resists amendments to this document more fiercely than Japanese communists.

But U.S. leaders themselves having imposed the “pacifist” constitution on Japan began to change their minds shortly after its ratification by the Diet. The objective of the occupier as of 1947 was to disarm Japan in perpetuity, if not to return an industrial powerhouse to the status of an agrarian backwater. China was slated to become the U.S.’s great ally in East Asia, home of its bases, and limitless market for its goods.

Alas, a communist-led revolution upset all these plans. After 1949, as Washington’s politicians puzzled over “who lost China?” they re-conceptualized the role of Japan as a reconstructed newfound ally.

With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the U.S. pressured Japanese Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru to send troops to join what was portrayed as a UN effort against the communist North. Yoshida shrewdly replied that this wasn’t possible under the (U.S.-authored) Japanese constitution. (Yoshida was a firm anti-Communist, which is why the Occupation regime liked him so much; but he did not want to devote scarce resources to remilitarization at that time.)

As it happened, Japanese industry contributed heavily to the war effort, and Japan’s postwar revival was indebted to U.S. “special procurements” (war-related expenditures in Japan).  Yoshida called these  “a gift from the gods”.  In 1948 the Japanese GDP was only at 55% its 1936 level; by 1953 it was at 155% of that level. Not “generous aid” from the U.S. but war-related spending by the U.S. produced Japan’s postwar recovery.

Under U.S. pressure Tokyo created an incipient war machine in 1950: a “National Police Reserve” of 75,000. This grew to 110,000 by 1952, following the end of the Occupation. On the same day that Japan regained sovereignty (April 28, 1952), Tokyo signed a  “security treaty” with the U.S. legitimating the ongoing presence of tens of thousands of U.S. troops (who were among other things authorized to suppress any domestic disturbances). In July 1954 these “police” were reconstituted as land, sea and air “Self-Defense Forces.” Today they number around 250,000 active duty personnel.

A Japan Defense Agency was established in 1954—but not as a military, mind you! Just as “defense forces.” At least that is the official line. But would not any “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential” be unconstitutional? In response to repeated efforts by citizens’ groups to deem them such, the Japanese Supreme Court (under documented U.S. pressure) has ruled that a decision on their legality is a matter for the Diet to decide and falls outside its purview.

Step by step, factions within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP, whose creation was midwifed by the CIA in 1955, and has held power from that point with only brief interruptions in 1993-4 and 2009-12) have campaigned for the abolition of Article 9 and the reemergence of Japan as a “normal country” with a normal, legitimatized military like those deployed by other imperialist countries.

But the Japanese people have not been on board the program. Local and national protests against the U.S. base in Uchinada, Ishikawa prefecture, in the 1950s (where U.S. troops had been trained before deployment in Korea) forced the base’s closure in 1957. Protests at a U.S. base in Tokyo in 1957 resulted in the arrest of seven people charged with trespassing. They were found not guilty by the Tokyo High Court on the grounds that the very existence of the base violated the constitution. (The Supreme Court overruled the lower court’s decision after the Chief Justice exchanged messages with the U.S. ambassador.)

The irradiation of 23 Japanese fisherman, and the death of one, as the result of a U.S. nuclear test in the Marshall Islands in 1954, fueled Japan’s anti-nuclear and anti-military movement. When Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke worked to push through a bill in the Diet renewing the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty in 1960, over seven million rallied in opposition. Public opinion was overwhelmingly opposed to the security treaty.

But Kishi rammed it through in the wee hours of morning, after having dissenting legislators evicted. So great was the public outrage that Tokyo had to inform President Dwight Eisenhower, who had planned to visit Japan to sign the document, that Japanese security forces could not guarantee his safety.

This prime minister had been detained by Allied forces and held in Sugamo Prison on suspicion of Class A war crimes. He had been Minister of Munitions under Prime Minister Tojo Hideki and one of Tojo’s closest allies. He had spoken in support of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was deeply involved in the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Koreans in mines and factories during the war. He escaped prosecution due to the intervention of the fiercely anti-communist “American Council on Japan” who felt that he would influence Japanese politics in a “pro-American” direction.

Kishi Nobusuke also happens to be the beloved grandfather of the current Japanese prime minister, Abe Shinzo. Abe, widely regarded as a hawk of his grandfather’s ilk, has recently stated (on the anniversary of the end of the Second World War) that Japanese should not have to keep apologizing about the past.

During the Vietnam War, Japanese public opinion was overwhelmingly antiwar, and critical of the manifest racism underlying that conflict. But again, Japanese industry profited enormously from war-related contracts. The Japanese economy was growing by leaps and bounds in the 1960s, surpassing West Germany to become the world’s third largest economy by 1970. Although Japan produced a vigorous New Left comparable to those of the U.S. and Europe, the people were unable to wrench the country away from the alliance with U.S. imperialism.

Throughout, rightist forces campaigned to whittle away Article 9 and reinstate Japan on its historical path of glorified militarism. The Education Ministry, typically headed by the most reactionary and anti-intellectual LDP politicians (like Fujio Masayuki, who in 1986 called the Nanjing Massacre a fabrication and claimed that Japan colonized Korea at the Koreans’ request), has step-by-step restored nationalistic content to the required “moral education” segment of the high school curriculum; required schools to fly the solar disk flag and force faculty and students to sing the imperial anthem; and approved for public school use history textbooks that prettify or whitewash Japan’s war record.

Meanwhile the prime minister’s office has relentlessly tested the limits of the reinterpretation of Article 9. In 1981, Prime Minister Suzuki Zenko  provoked a storm of criticism when he suggested that the Maritime Self Defense Forces be allowed to defend Japanese shipping up to 1000 nautical miles from Japan. Two years later, Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro (a soul-mate of his contemporaries Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl) provoked further criticism when he allowed the military (“self-defense”) budget to exceed the traditional one percent of GDP limit—just to test the waters, and see how the public would react. He also sparked outrage when he addressed the U.S. Congress describing Japan as “unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Pacific” serving U.S. needs.

During the first Gulf War in 1991, Tokyo (necessarily) declined to send troops to the war theater. This drew fire from U.S. congressmen clueless about the constitutional issue who complained that Japanese were receiving cheap oil from the Middle East secured by U.S. military action. Some even threatened to withdraw U.S. troops from Japan (whose upkeep then as now is paid for by Japanese taxpayers) if Japan did not contribute to the attack on Saddam Hussein. (A ranking member of the Self-Defense Forces in a rare show of frankness publicly stated that if the U.S. wanted to withdraw, the Japanese would just say goodbye; after all, the Japanese had never asked for their presence in the first place.)

In the end Tokyo paid the U.S. $ 13 billion as its contribution to the war effort that forced Iraqi forces out of Iraq. (Arab states compensated Washington to the tune of $ 36 billion, while Germany paid $ 5 billion.) LDP leaders treated this as a matter of shame; “checkbook diplomacy,” they declared, should be replaced with an actual commitment of boots on the ground.

So in 1992 the Diet passed a law allowing Self Defense Forces to be deployed in UN “peace keeping operations” (PKO) alongside other international forces. It was an important first step, a psychological hurdle mounted. Since then, the SDF have in fact served duty in Cambodia, Mozambique, East Timor, the Golan Heights, Haiti and South Sudan.

The next natural step for the remilitarization campaign was the dispatch of a Navy tanker and destroyer to waters off Pakistan in late 2001 to assist the U.S. in the Afghan War. (These waters are of course far more distant than the 1000 nautical mile limit for SDF actions as envisioned by Suzuki Zenko.) This was a highly unpopular mission, terminated in compliance with a campaign promise by the newly elected prime minister Hatoyama Yukio in 2009.

Japan as a U.S. client state never expresses a firm difference of opinion with Washington on any international issue. (It is at least as deferential to Washington as Warsaw ever was to Moscow.) It is slavishly obedient. In 2003 as George W. Bush embarked on his war based on lies against Iraq, Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro (unlike the leaders of Germany and France) declared his full support and even committed 600 Japanese troops to the effort.

This was a major breakthrough for the Japanese militarists. The Japanese forces were not, of course, deployed in combat, hobbled as they were by that tiresome Article 9. But they could construct a castle at Samawah, in southern Iraq, replete such with homey amenities as a karaoke bar and massage parlor, whence they could venture out each morning—necessarily accompanied by Dutch forces authorized to actually kill people—to do “humanitarian” work like water purification and road construction. (As if the Iraqi people couldn’t do that themselves.) Two-thirds of Japanese polled opposed the mission, many no doubt seeing it for what it was: just another step towards violating Article 9 and normalizing international military deployment.

Koizumi’s successor Abe Shinzo—again, the proud grandson of the Kishi Nobusuke mentioned above—reconfigured the military establishment to create a Ministry of Defense with its headquarters in Tokyo’s Shinjuku. Its head, the Minister of Defense, now serves in the cabinet.  In 2009, while another hawk, Aso Taro, having renewed the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean authorized the Maritime SDF to dispatch destroyers to the Somali coast to protect not just Japanese but others from pirates. Since then there have even been Japanese sailors stationed in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa—a very long way from home.

Much closer to home lay some uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea which the Chinese, who have visited them for over six hundred years, call Daioyutai. The Japanese term, invented in the 1870s, is Senkaku. Whoever owns them owns 21,000 square miles of fisheries and petroleum reserves so they are not unimportant. China (as well as Taiwan) claim them on very well-established historical grounds. Tokyo claims them on what it claims—very plausibly—are internationally recognized legal grounds.

* * *

But (again) doesn’t the Japanese government’s obvious disdain for Japan’s own constitution make us question what “law” has to do with it anyway?

Tokyo says that when it asserted its ownership over the four rocks in the East China Sea (which no Japanese were even aware of in the fifteenth century when the Chinese mapped, visited, and named them) in 1895 they were uninhabited, hence available for anyone’s taking. They were in western legalese “terra nullius” or uninhabited lands. No matter that the greatest Japanese geographer, Hayashi Shihei, had produced a comprehensive map in 1785 indicating that the islands were Chinese. No matter that the Japanese foreign minister, Inoue Kaoru, had rejected a plea for annexation from the governor of Okinawa in 1885 on the grounds that the islands belonged to China.

All that matters is that when rising Japan defeated China in 1895 and impressed the western powers, asserting ownership of these islands in the course of the war (before acquiring adjacent Taiwan itself as a colony), the predatory imperialist powers accepted Japan’s claim. How legitimating! Ever since Japan has had “law” on its side. So what does history have to do with it? (Seriously. I have heard a Japanese diplomat put it in precisely these terms.)

But this islands dispute is actually more complicated, even from the legalistic point of view. In the Cairo Declaration of 1943, wartime victors Roosevelt, Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek declared that, following its unconditional surrender,  “Japan shall be stripped of all the territories it has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa and the Pescadores which shall be restored to the Republic of China.” This demand was reiterated at Potsdam by Truman, Churchill and Stalin. In defeat Tokyo conceded the loss of these possessions.

But the status of the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands remained unclear. They came under the U.S. Ryukyu occupation zone, which was separate from the zone comprising the Japanese main islands. (Since Japan had annexed the Ryukyus in the 1870s the Occupation authorities were not sure whether or not to treat them as part of Japan or as a potential independent state.) The U.S. could, in 1945, when China was led by the united front between Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang and the communists, assigned the disputed islands back to China with the stroke of a pen. Instead they retained them within the bounds of Okinawa Prefecture.

In 1972 the U.S. “returned” the Ryukyu islands to Japanese sovereignty (while retaining, indeed insisting on, the right to station 25,000 troops on bases on Okinawa). The Diaoyutai islands reverted with the whole package and now Tokyo assumes that if blows were to come between it and Beijing over this island claim issue, the U.S. will take its part. After some hedging the U.S. has in fact stated clearly that the security treaty between the U.S. and Japan covers these disputed islands.

This is a major triumph for Kishi Nobusuke’s grandson. As he steers Japan towards the status of a “normal” global power, able to bully other nations like the U.S. does—-able to expand Japan’s influence throughout Greater East Asia (unapologetically)—-he can count on the Yankees to have his back. He has restored Japan to the ranks of the white, civilized nations. He is nurturing those warlike roots. Everything’s back on track, just like it was before these annoying pacifist decades.

But this time the “warlike and cultured people” stand astride a fading U.S. empire trying to “pivot” towards the South and East China Seas confronting an inexorably rising China. This China so far proceeds cautiously in pressing its claims, territorial and otherwise. Kishi’s grandson in contrast is a hothead whose vision of military revival—tapping into the gangster-neofascist right that’s always there on the fringes of Japanese politics—-could produce something very ugly, pretty soon.

The Japanese government’s outright purchase of the Daioyu/Senkaku islands from a private owner in September 2012 (which was actually opposed by Washington as an unnecessary provocation of China) may in time be viewed as the beginning of a new stage of confrontation.

The pattern in retrospect is very clear. Step by step the militarists have gained ground in Japan. They scored a big victory last week. The Japanese constitution of 1947 means nothing. Hachiman (the god of war) is smiling. Back to normal, the norm of two millennia. The samurai are back in the saddle, heading for the battlefield, with the stars and stripes alongside the imperial solar disc flag waving in the background.

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Over one hundred thousand Japanese demonstrated outside the Diet last week as the LPD and its partners enacted the pro-war laws. They need the world’s solidarity. This piece is a small contribution towards that.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: