Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is advancing a long-held goal of the country's right wing: to undo the constitutional restrictions preventing the expansion of its military for a “newly reborn Japan.”
The move is largely seen as an attempt to seize upon increasing tensions with a rising China and a Korean peninsula rattled by the incessant threats of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Any move toward further militarizing the country's military — called the Self-Defense Forces, SDF — threatens to upend the regional balance of forces, provoking the ire of Japan's neighbors. Some fear that by scrapping the country's pacifist Constitution, the country could become tangled in overseas conflicts as Japanese ruling elites move to secure their interests abroad.
Imposed in 1947 following the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan, Article 9 of the U.S.-drafted Constitution embraced a pacifistic tone, renouncing the use of war or threats of force to settle international disputes. It also outlaws the maintenance of the country's land, sea and air forces.
The document was an attempt by occupying Allied forces to prevent the country from directing its still-formidable industrial base toward reassembling a war machine that waged aggressive campaigns across Asia. The campaign claimed well over 10 million civilian lives as the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy committed war crimes, including genocide, in pursuit of expansionist attempts to conquer the region.
Nevertheless, Japan remained a trusted partner of the U.S. throughout the Cold War, housing vast amounts of U.S. bases and war materiel throughout the latter half of the century. Despite the country's ostensible pacifism, Japan's military currently retains over 227,000 personnel and enjoys an arsenal stocked with various high-tech weapons.
Last Wednesday, during a celebration of the Constitution's 70th anniversary, Japan's prime minister announced his goal of revising the mandate and making “explicit the status” of the Japanese military. The proposed revision, which Abe claims is in line with his generation's mission to finally make the SDF “constitutional,” would come into force in 2020.
The announcement, which rattled observers across the Asia-Pacific region and within Japan itself, is just the latest step in the march toward remilitarization championed by Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, LDP.
Citing an exaggerated and hyped-up “threat” from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and China, the right-wing LDP urged the Abe administration in March to introduce the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD. The party also urged the government to introduce shore-based Aegis missile defense systems while also urging them to take the unprecedented step of acquiring weapons able to strike overseas targets. At the time, Abe noted his Cabinet's intention to “grasp (the) proposal firmly.”
Japan's military buildup and policies have already rendered the supposed “self-defense” nature of the Article 9 military to be a running joke. In March, Japan's second helicoptercarrier destroyer entered service: the JS Kaga, named after a World War II-era Japanese Imperial Navy aircraft carrier with the same name. Officially designated as a helicopter destroyer, the ship is capable of carrying V-22 Osprey vertical take-off and landing aircraft and can also accommodate F-35A Lightning II jets. The Izumo class carrier is larger than many of the aircraft carriers maintained by other countries' armed forces.
On May 1, the JS Izumo helped escort a U.S. Navy supplier ship to the DPRK without parliamentary approval, assisting U.S. aggression toward Pyongyang despite Japan not facing any imminent threat requiring self-defense measures.
The Japanese armed forces have also acquired unmanned aerial systems, amphibious assault vessels, a radar station near the disputed Diayou or Senkaku Islands and is planning to build a three-tier ballistic missile defense system that includes U.S. Patriot missiles.
The U.S. has long supported successive Japanese governments with arms sales and political support, a policy reaffirmed by a hawkish Trump administration intent on enhancing the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region alongside a strong ally such as Japan.
Abe, along with 40 percent of lawmakers sitting in the Japanese Diet, or parliament, adheres to the belligerent ideology of Nippon Kaigi, or Japan Conference, an ultra-nationalist group known for extolling and attempting to rehabilitate the bloody policies of the Empire of Japan. The group represents the most aggressive layers of the Japanese capitalist class, counting in its ranks prominent businessmen, bureaucrats, academics and ultra-right lawmakers.
For Nippon Kaigi, the “occupiers' Constitution” keeps Japan's “legs and hands bound” and restricts the country's international role to what it calls “humiliating apology diplomacy,” enshrining the disastrous humiliation of abject defeat that Imperial Japanese policies culminated in.
According to a 2014 report by the U.S. Congress, Nippon Kaigi believes “Japan should be applauded for liberating much of East Asia from Western colonial powers, that the 1946-1948 Tokyo War Crimes tribunals were illegitimate, and that the killings by Imperial Japanese troops during the 1937 ‘Nanjing massacre’ were exaggerated or fabricated.”
The Japanese population remains split on the proposed revision, with a recent opinion poll by the Mainichi Shimbun showing that 48 percent of voters support an amended Constitution, an increase from the 42 percent who supported the measure last year.
In a Tuesday article in leading Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, the paper's editorial board denounced Abe's proposal as “a dangerous political goal” that would fundamentally alter the country's anti-war character. Most Japanese citizens remain scarred by the devastation of the Second World War and hope to preserve the prosperity the country has enjoyed since the adoption of the pacifist document.
“If Abe is intent on reviving militarization, the tension in Northeast Asia would only be aggravated,” Chinese state-owned daily Global Times wrote Monday, adding that constitutional changes would send the country “down an entirely different path than the postwar peaceful development Japan had intended to pursue.”
“In that case, contradictions between China and Japan would significantly intensify in the Asia-Pacific region. Thus, China should be vigilant toward Japan's moves.”