On the face of it, Japan’s defence policy doesn’t appear to make much sense. 

Faced with a rising and increasingly militaristic China and a belligerent, unpredictable and now nuclear-armed North Korea, the country maintains just a Self Defence Force, rather than a full service military that one might think a prerequisite for a nation surrounded by such inhospitable neighbours. 

Of course, the SDF is a military in some sense, but it’s a military which is at least nominally wedded to the notion of pacifist self-defence. In other words, it has fighter jets to defend itself, but no bombers to attack its enemies.

The reason for Japan’s present day limited military, is of course, its especially militarised history.  

Until 1945 Japan was one of the most militarised and belligerent states in the world. During the early 20th century the Japanese Empire expanded into China, the Korean peninsula and throughout much of South East Asia, and became infamous for its brutality. 

Then, of course, it was laid low by the twin atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

This history provides both the context and constraint to the defence policy. Japan’s victors imposed upon it a harsh post-war constitution. Article 9 commits the military to a strict policy of self-defence. Even that was a concession; the American General Douglas MacArthur, who spearheaded the defeat of Japan during the war lobbied for Japan to have no military at all.

Japan couldn’t change its constitution, but it was able to change the way it was interpreted.

Japan’s alliances also emerged from the war. It entered into a defence relationship with the United States. The US committed to defending Japan in the event of an attack, lessening the need for Japan to maintain a large military of its own. The United States was able to keep its large post-war deployment in Japan. Now, it has roughly 50,000 troops there, mostly in the the southern islands of Okinawa. 

As time wore on and the threat of resurgent Japanese militarism faded, the country found itself reliant on a one-sided relationship with its ally and protector, the US. While Japan required and demanded the utmost protection, it was unable to contribute to assisting the US in its own military engagements. 

Japan couldn’t change its constitution, but it was able to change the way it was interpreted. In 1991, Japan was faced with the dilemma of not being able to participate in the Gulf War, alongside the US. Nozomu Yoshitomi then a major in the Japanese army told Reuters of the shame he felt watching US soldiers push the Iraqi army back from Kuwait, whilst the Japanese self defence forces build snowmen at a winter festival.

Instead of troops, Japan resolved to commit US$13 billion to the coalition’s military operations. The slow, creeping remilitarisation of Japan had begun. 

In 1992, the country went further, enacting a law allowing it to take part in peacekeeping operations. It was able to dispatch 600 engineers to Cambodia, which was still reeling from the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. 

Japan also saw extremely limited involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. 

But limited deployment is a long, long way from having a full service military. With militarising neighbours on one hand, and disengaged allies like Donald Trump on the other — the obvious question is whether Japan can continue to maintain he illusion of pacific self-defence, whilst obviously remilitarising.

Talk of Article 9’s repeal is incessant. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was re-elected in 2018, has publicly stated the constitution should be reformed, but sources within the Japanese government say Abe will face an uphill battle to change the constitution. Wholesale constitutional reform in Japan is no easier than repealing the second amendment in the US, and would require more than just Abe’s own party to pass. 

There is also the niggling suspicion that Abe’s desire to reform is the manifestation of a latent militarism amongst Japan’s ruling elite, who have never embraced the country’s pacifism. 2018 was the 150th anniversary of the Meiji restoration, when Samurai overthrew the Tokugawa Shogunate and installed the Meiji (or “enlightened”) Emperor. The period coincided with rapid industrialisation and outward expansion, culminating in the surprise defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese war. 

But the anniversary was marked by a notable lack of nostalgia for the Meiji period. The Economist reported few Japanese shared the nostalgia felt by some on the right of Abe’s party. The Second World War still casts a long shadow on Japan’s view of the military.

Reinterpreting the rules

But even without changing the constitution Abe has been able to push the country further down the road to militarisation. In 2015, he shepherded legislation allowing a re-interpretation of Article 9 along the notion of “collective self-defence”. 

By couching the change as a reinterpretation of the constitution, Abe was able to avoid having to amend the document itself. The change allowed Japanese forces to engage more fulsomely with allied forces. For example, Japan cannot possess bomber aircraft itself — they are offensive weapons — but it can use its fighters to defend allied bombers on certain raids. 

Even this change was roundly opposed by the Japanese population. Some polls showed as many as two-thirds of voters opposed the move. 

Japan’s military spending accelerated at pace. It has purchased 147 F-35 fighter jets and converted a ship into something which resembles an aircraft carrier but which is not, owing to the self-defence policy, technically an aircraft carrier. Japan justifies the move saying it needs the non-carrier to defend its far-flung islands. 

The country’s predicament is easy to understand. While it makes a concerted diplomatic effort to keep the United States close, the insecurity of the present administration has underlined the risks of depending too heavily on one power. Japan proudly noted it secured a meeting of its Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera with their American counterparts, Rex Tillerson and James Mattis. But it hasn’t been lost on observers that within a year of that meeting, both Tillerson and Mattis had gone from the US administration. 

And relations with other countries that should be close allies are strained. Like South Korea, Japan faces the constant threat of North Korea and the difficulties of maintaining a defence alliance with the recalcitrant American administration. But officials in Tokyo concede the relationship is strained, tainted by Japan’s reluctance to reopen the settlement paid to Korean comfort women in recognition of atrocities suffered during the war. 

Japan thinks the issue has been resolved and the book is closed. South Korea has other ideas. And all across the region, Japan constantly comes up against the memory of the war. Chinese protests in the wake of the purchase of the disputed Senkaku Islands by the Japanese state, reference the horrors of the war. On all fronts — defensive and diplomatic — Japan is constrained by the memory of the war.

But it will not be forever. As Japan’s ageing population dies, and its region continues to militarise, Governments will find it less and less difficult to relax Article 9 and its interpretation. Its unlikely to be repealed any time soon, but as Japan has already proved, it poses little real barrier to military build-up.  

Thomas Coughlan travelled to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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