Japanese Pacifism is Dead

The Japanese people just voted to abandon pacifism, and nobody cares.

by Jack Stebbing

Japan just held an election in which incumbent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) were easily re-elected, winning a massive two-thirds majority in Japan’s National Diet. This election served as a crossroads for the future of Japan, with opposition parties uniting in a campaign against the LDP. They sought to capitalize on a series of nepotism and corruption scandals that had sunk Abe’s approval ratings as low as 20% in July. Despite this, the LDP soared above their opponents and won a colossal victory that can be attributed to two issues pressing the people of Japan today: the threat of North Korea and Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. 

For 70 years, Japan has been a nation that has upheld pacifism and diplomacy. The 1947 pacifist constitution formally renounced war as a means of settling international disputes, and barred the creation of an army, navy, air force, or any other force that could be used to wage war. By design, it forced Japan to approach international relations through a multilateral system based on agreements between states. With no military capacity to defend itself, Japan was forced to work towards establishing good relations with its neighbors to dissuade conflict; and seek friends abroad to secure allies in collective defense agreements. 

Thus, it seems only natural that Japan, one of North Korea’s closest neighbors, has been extremely concerned by the launching of nuclear-capable missiles originating from the volatile rogue state. The Japanese public’s concern over North Korea has been of such a magnitude that the missile launches, nuclear tests, and the Japanese government’s response to them caused Abe’s approval ratings to spike up to 50 percent. The threat posed by North Korea drove the Japanese public to rally behind Abe, and he clearly took notice of itHis response to the newest batch of North Korea’s antics has taken a drastically different tone from the past. Rather than sticking to the usual rhetoric, Abe went a step further and stated his intention to amend the Japanese constitution to do away with Article 9 and the restrictions it places on Japan’s capacity to defend itself. The amending process for the Japanese constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote in the National Diet, and the recent election has given the LDP the required majority. With a 2020 deadline on the proposed amendment to the constitution set by the Japanese government, a remilitarized Japan appears to be on the horizon. 

A remilitarized Japan would completely revamp the politics of East Asia. The entire East Asian status quo has been built on the post-war disarmament of Japan by the United States after its belligerency in the Second World War, and the legacy left by Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. China’s rise from being the puppet of various imperial powers to the second most powerful nation in the world was in many ways made possible by the United States declawing its former rival and conqueror. With a militarily resurgent Japan, the dominance of China might be checked. However, despite its enormous military potential and hawkish past, Japan isn’t about to return to its militaristic roots. A nation that has practised pacifism for seven decades, and is economically reliant on its neighbors, isn’t about to attempt to recreate its long-lost empire. Regardless, the mere presence of a legitimized Japanese military with the ability to project force beyond the trappings of self-defence is enough to completely upend geopolitics in East Asia. 

While a Japanese remilitarization would certainly revolutionize the status quo of East Asia and the Pacific, it might not work out in Japan’s favor. The situation there has been heating up in recent years, especially as China expands its claims in the South China Sea. A remilitarized Japan would undoubtedly lead to an increase in tensions, as many countries in the region struggle to confront the sudden military expansion of the third largest economy in the world. The introduction of a new, powerful military force befitting the world’s third largest economy would sway the military status quo in Japan’s, and be extension the United States’, favor. For countries like China and North Korea, who view a Japanese remilitarization as a threat, their reactions would undoubtedly be to attempt to maximize their own security by expanding their own military capabilities. It would likely trigger a localized arms race as China, and to a lesser extent North Korea, attempt to match this, potentially paving the way to future conflict. Japan’s entry into the fray of foreign affairs with both the carrot and the stick as options for the first time in generations may, at least in the short term, serve as a destabilizing factor in the region. In the long term, it’s impossible to say with certainty how state actors would react to Japan asserting itself in such a manner, and what the new East Asian status quo might look like. 

At this point, it seems inevitable that Japan will amend its constitution and rid itself of Article 9. Whether the remilitarization of Japan will act as a turning point in Japanese foreign policy, or merely serve as a nation reasserting its sovereignty over its own constitution remains to be seen. It may well be that this is merely meant to serve as a largely symbolic gesture. Japan has had de facto armed forces for decades, and this would see them legitimized as a proper military. Conversely, it may also be the end of a Japan that opted for diplomacy, and only diplomacy, as the means to resolve its quarrels with its fellow nation-states. However, it must be remembered that even thought it has been over 70 years since Japan adopted its pacifist constitution, the Japanese did not renounce warfare and the means to wage it without good reason.

Jack Stebbing is a second year International Relations Student at the University of Western Ontario. He has served as a columnist for The General Assembly since its start in October 2017. His interests include military history, irredentism, and their impacts on modern international relations and conflicts. He can be reached at jstebbin@uwo.ca.