Japan: from Pacifism to “Collective Self Defense”

February 26, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

In 2014, Japan has seen some major shake-ups regarding its military philosophy, its national ideals, and even its constitution. The conservative government, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has begun moving the country away from its peaceful roots and towards a more offensive-minded utilization of its military. Here’s everything to know about Japan’s move towards “Collective Self Defense.”

Peace at any price

Ever since the end of WWII, Japan has wrestled with how to best protect itself while simultaneously avoiding armed conflict. The desire for peace above all else, along with the wish to avoid making past mistakes, led to the adoption of an anti-war, pacifist constitution that has remained in place for almost 70 years. This constitution not only assuaged the world that Japan was a changed country, it prevented its own government from continuing down a familiar and precarious road—one that once led it to try and conquer much of Asia. Of course, peace at any price came with a cost that might now be too expensive to pay. Japan’s pacifist thinking, while noble in spirit, has opened up the door to some real-world threats.

Article 9

After the end of WWII, the United States had occupied Japan. It’s with oversight from the U.S. government that Japan drafted Article 9, an amendment to their constitution stating that, in effect, the country would forever avoid war and forgo maintaining a military. In the early post-war years Japan’s new pacifist ideology proved tenable if sometimes tenuous. By the late 40s China was under communist rule, which created new tensions in the region. Also, the start of the Korean War caused Japan’s biggest ally in the region, the United States, to pull all their troops from the country and move them into Korea. This left Japan particularly vulnerable, and the country realized that they could no longer depend wholly on allies.

The solution was to circumvent Article 9 in way creative enough to adhere to the letter of the clause while still achieving the desired goal. The result was the creation of the Japanese Self Defense Forces in 1954. On paper the JSDF was a “national police force,” but in reality it was a standing military as robust as any army. Japan reasoned that this change was in keeping with the spirit of the amendment because nowhere did Aritcle 9 say Japan couldn’t defend itself; it merely said it couldn’t actively pursue war.

Shifting tides

For decades, JSDF provided all the self-defense Japan needed. However, technology soon shifted the military paradigm in the region, and once again Japan found itself vulnerable. In recent years countries such as North Korea have developed long-range military capabilities. Combine this with China’s growing influence in the region and the U.S. government’s waning influence, and it is clear Japan is no longer safe merely sitting on the sidelines.

The path to change

Japan’s recent change looking to use the right of collective self-defense is not without precedent, or so argued current Prime Minister Abe in 2014. The Abe government realized that Japan’s status as an isolationist country was not only untenable, but wasn’t wholly based in reality. After all, for many years the U.S. needed Japan’s support in the battle against communism. This is what led to revisions in the U.S.-Japanese peace alliance over the years. Also, Japan’s participating in U.N. peacekeeping missions and the aide they offered during the Iraq war further buttressed the notion that Japan was rarely, if ever, totally at peace.

But Abe continues to have a much harder task at hand than the legislation towards changing constitutional interpretation of so-called “collective self-defense” in following pacifism philosophy – convincing his countrymen. Pacifism isn’t merely a buzzword in Japan; it is an ideology that has taken root in the hearts and minds of Japanese citizens over the course of many decades. The Japanese wreaked havoc (and in turn had havoc wreaked on them) during WWII. Renouncing war altogether helped the Japanese people reconcile their past. And codifying this renunciation in its constitution became a source of national pride. However, not a few Japanese people are unfortunately deceived in malicious interpretation and message by China and South Korea, both claim that Japan has an intention to return to the militaristic nation. It’s proving to be an uphill battle.

Crafting the message

On July 1st, 2014, the Abe government reinterpreted Article 9 yet again and allowed Japan to use military force when aiding its allies. Abe cited common arguments often used in the past: the revision of the U.S.-Japanese alliance in 1960, the necessity for Japan to protect itself from increasing global threats, etc. But despite this strategy there is still popular opposition to the Abe government’s more nationalistic policies, with more than half the country opposing such measures. But there is a more telling statistic that says 84% of Japanese citizens feel the issue hasn’t been properly communicated. And when put in the context of beefing up the U.S.-Japanese alliance, the issue enjoys much broader support among the populous.

The reason many peace-loving Japanese citizens can get behind this idea is simple and complex all at the same time. Without the ability to come to the aid of besieged U.S. forces in the region, there’s no guarantee the U.S., with its ever dwindling influence, will commit to supporting Japan in the event they are attacked. For example, if Japan does nothing while North Korea strikes an American vessel in Asian waters, why would the U.S. assist in defending the Senkaku Islands against Chinese threats?

The near future

Despite changes already taking place, the issue is far from resolved. What will likely swing popular support for good is whether or not the Japanese believe the reinterpretation of Article 9 is truly a peace-keeping measure, as the Abe government suggests, or that it represents the more nefarious goal of returning Japan to its pre-war, nationalistic fervor and setting the stage for unwarranted military operations, as the errant propaganda by China and South Korea. The success or failure depends on how well Shinzo Abe communicates his motives, whatever they may be.