Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to modify Japan’s self-defense laws, which are almost certain to become law this year, has provoked a new round of concerns that Japanese militarism -- dormant since the Second World War -- may be returning. The change would allow the Japanese military to come to the aid of allied countries, such as the United States, that are under attack, formally extending Japan’s military capabilities beyond self defense, for the first time after nearly seven decades.
But while Abe’s proposal marks a formal shift away from Japan’s commitment to pacifism, the prime minister was quick to downplay the possibility that the new law will make Japan likelier to go to war. At a press conference, Abe told reporters that belligerence would not happen.
“We will not use force for the sole purpose of defending another country,” he said.
Not everyone is convinced. In China’s state-run People’s Daily, an editorial criticized the shift as a sign of a “re-emergent fascism” and warned that it could destabilize the Asia-Pacific region.
“It's up to Japan to explain clearly to its neighbors why it is doing this, and why this is good for regional and global security,” the editorial said.
Following its surrender in World War II, Japan agreed to a U.S.-drafted constitution that prohibited its military from engaging in operations aside from self-defense, and an alliance formalized with the United States in 1960 has underpinned Japanese foreign policy in the decades since. But China’s increasing military strength -- and Beijing’s corresponding assertiveness in pursuing territorial claims on its maritime periphery -- has shifted the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region.
China and Japan are currently embroiled in a dispute over the Senkaku Islands (called “Diaoyu” in China), an archipelago thought to contain significant energy resources in its surrounding waters. In 2012, Shintaro Ishihara, a right-wing governor of Tokyo, angered Beijing by agreeing to purchase the islands from a private Japanese citizen. (Ultimately, the national Japanese government bought the islands instead -- but this failed to mollify China). The following year, China established an air-defense identification zone (ADIZ) requiring aircraft to notify the Chinese military when flying near the islands. A provocation on either side risks military conflict, one that would also involve the United States, which is bound by treaty to defend Japan.
Any revision in Japan’s constitution, then, is bound to heighten tension. But Abe’s constitutional shift does not alter the balance of power in the region. According to Sheila Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, the reinterpretation allows for greater efficiency and coordination between the United States and Japan in the event something happens.
And despite China’s official condemnation, Abe’s signal likely comes as little surprise in Beijing, which has never, due in part to historical factors, taken Japanese pacifism for granted.
“China has not been persuaded that Japan’s constitutional debate would get into the way of alliance cooperation [with the United States],” she said.
Abe’s persistence in altering Japan’s constitution reflects a gradual move away from the postwar alignment in East Asia. Pacifism is hardly dead in Japan -- thousands protested the proposal on Monday and Tuesday in Tokyo, with one man even setting himself on fire. But the era in which each Japanese government accepts the military limits of its constitution now appears to be over.
“Japan is experiencing a security renaissance,” Andrew L. Oros, director of international studies at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, told the New York Times.