Photo by Moritz Hager
Asia-Pacific / Japan

The Darkest Day: The Domestic Politics of Defense and Nationalism in Japan

On July 1st, 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Cabinet approved a highly controversial reinterpretation of the Japanese Constitution; specifically of Article 9, which prohibits the formation of a military and restricts the use of force solely to self-defense. Under the recent revision, Japan has now extended this right to include using force to defend any of its allies under attack, garnering widespread domestic and international criticism. This constitutional reinterpretation not only represents a major shift from the pacifist stance the country has held for over 65 years, but also threatens to upset the fragile balance of power in East Asia. According to the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s national newspapers, “July 1 will be remembered as the darkest day in the history of Japan’s constitutionalism.”

Dating back to the late 19th century, this history of constitutionalism has been a tumultuous one to say the least. From 1890 to 1945, Japan ratified its first constitution, began adopting democratic ideals, devolved into a brutal militaristic empire, and engaged in five major wars. Following its defeat in the Second World War, Japan found itself decimated economically, militarily, and politically and was subsequently occupied by Allied forces. The occupation force was led and manned largely by the United States, which sought to rebuild the war-torn country as a democratic bulwark against communism. Thus, the old constitution was revoked and a new one modeled after Western counterparts was cobbled together by American military officers and Japanese policymakers.

Although their input was fairly limited, Japanese representatives managed to add the highly controversial Article 9, which “forever renounc[ed] war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. To accomplish [this] aim… land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” With the Cold War looming on the horizon, leading Japanese policymakers were determined to avoid being caught in a conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union and instead focus on economic growth.

Sixty-seven years later, Japan now ranks as the world’s third largest economy and the specter of the Cold War no longer dominates the international political arena. However, the continued rise of China has prompted major changes in Japanese defense policy over the last three years. Despite the constitutional restrictions on “war potential,” the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) now have the fifth largest defense budget in the world, amounting to more than $53 billion USD. As part of his foreign policy initiative entitled “Proactive Pacifism”, Prime Minister Abe is planning to increase budgets by a further $11.7 billion USD in order to procure a veritable shopping list of attack submarines, anti-missile destroyers, surveillance drones, and fighter planes. This form of aggressive spending represents a sharp contrast to the decade prior to 2013 in which defense expenditures steadily decreased by 3.56% whereas the 2014 defense budget promises to be the largest in the nation’s history.

The acquisition of arms and material is only half the challenge of reintroducing the military as a state institution in Japan. The second and more daunting challenge is to sway public opinion in favor of this revisionist agenda. Currently, more than 63% of the public opposes the recent changes to Article 9, more than double the 29% who do support it. Although Abe and his Cabinet successfully passed the motion, disregarding public sentiments has taken a significant toll on his approval ratings, which fell by 9 percentage points from mid-June to mid-July. This visceral reaction by the general public has forced Abe to slow down the dangerously ambitious timetable he proposed in his 2014 New Year’s Address to amend Article 9 before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. After all, Abe’s first term as Prime Minister ended with his resignation in 2007 when the public turned against him due to his hawkish policies and a series of political scandals.

As a stopgap measure to simultaneously reverse the downward spiral of approval ratings while marshaling greater support for amending the constitution, Prime Minister Abe reshuffled his Cabinet on September 3rd, 2014. In a gesture to female voters, Abe more than doubled the number of women in his Cabinet to five, placing them at key ministries and boosting his approval ratings to a more respectable 50%. Regardless of these demographic changes, it is clear that the agenda has remained the same, if not become more extremist. Calling this Cabinet “the most conservative of the postwar era,” The Diplomat found that all 19 members “defined a ‘normal’ Japan as one not simply maintaining an active military, but one that rejects individual liberties, the separation of religion and the state, and Imperial Japan’s wartime culpability.” The nationalist sentiments of these high-level ministers have alarmed many regional powers such as South Korea and China and have stoked tensions in an increasingly volatile region.

So, why is Prime Minister Abe willing to risk so much to amend Article 9 and, ultimately, re-establish the Japanese military? To answer this question, it is necessary to first understand the mentality of the ultraconservative faction and their perception of Japan in the international community. At its most fundamental level, this faction believes that Japan has been forced by the West to endure the humiliating status of “semi-sovereignty.” They believe that the country has been punished far too long for actions taken more than 60 years ago and that their ancestors were not war criminals, but martyrs. This perspective has seeped throughout the political establishment with politicians continually revising textbooks to exclude Japanese war crimes and culpability in the Second World War. In spite of these revisionist efforts, the lack of a military acts as a constant reminder of their past actions and re-establishing the institution is to erase the crimes of the past, allowing them to move to a supposedly more “normal” Japan.

Since its inclusion in the constitution nearly seven decades ago, the issue of Article 9 has been constantly bandied about by a conservative minority and a pacifist majority. However, the external threat of an evermore aggressive China has catalyzed the debate in favor of the war hawks. In less than three years, Shinzo Abe’s ultraconservative administration has justified the increase of defense expenditures, the adoption of an aggressive new foreign policy of “Proactive Pacifism” and the reinterpretation of the country’s founding document. With dogma and ideology currently prevailing over pragmatism, the Japanese militant effort to gear up for war will have profound and unpredictable consequences in the region and the world. Simply put by Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe, “Japan’s spirit is approaching the most dangerous stage over the past 100 years.”