Is the Sun Setting on Japan’s Pacifism?

Although modern Japan consists of four main islands, plus the tropical outpost of Okinawa, the Japanese once controlled Taiwan, Korea, Manchuria (northeastern China), and parts of mainland China. Imperialist Japan ultimately saw its downfall after defeat in World War II, and a seven-year American occupation followed. Perhaps the longest-lasting and most influential result of the occupation was the installment of an American-authored democratic Constitution. Included was Article 9, denouncing war and prohibiting the Japanese from maintaining a standing army. However, emerging security challenges and President Trump’s recent comments about the U.S. military relationship with Japan are prompting discussion to alter Article 9 to legitimize the Japanese Self Defense Forces and make a bolder statement on Japanese military intentions.

Initially, the 1947 American-implemented Constitution included Article 9 to promote international peace and assurance that Japan would never turn to war. The Constitution also made changes to the government structure by reducing the power of the Emperor to a ceremonial role and adopting more rights for women, including the right to vote. To compensate for the lack of military power and maintain a stronghold in Asia, the U.S. and Japan signed a bilateral security alliance in 1951, allowing U.S. troops to remain on Japanese soil, promising U.S. involvement in wars that threatened Japan. In 1954, it was determined that the Japanese could maintain enough military power to defend themselves, resulting in the creation of the Self Defense Forces that currently boasts 240,000 members and a $50 billion annual budget [2]. 

The U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty still stands today, much to the chagrin of President Donald Trump, who has recently complained that the agreement is “unfair [1]” and one-sided. His comments suggest that Japan is free-riding on the alliance and needs to uphold more on their end of the bargain. Conveniently, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has been lobbying for many years for Article 9 to be revised and potentially repealed. President Trump’s comments may resonate with Japanese hawks who have been fighting for Article 9 revision for a while [3].

Public opinion surrounding a constitutional amendment is mixed. A Japanese poll from April, 2019, found that 45% of the Japanese public is in favor of revising Article 9, but nearly 47% saw no need. However, 56% of the group in favor of amending the Constitution cited new security threats as the need for change [4]. Some of these threats include North Korean aggression and the rise of China.

Japan is feeling increasingly threatened by North Korea’s growing nuclear program. Over the past few decades, North Korea has continued developing a variety of weapons with nuclear capabilities, testing them on routes that fly over Japan or land in Japanese waters. Prime Minister Abe has condemned these tests, recently encouraging leaders of other Asian nations to hold North Korea accountable for their actions by enforcing U.N. sanctions, since Japan argues these tests are in clear violation of U.N. Security Council policy [5]. With North Korea being an unpredictable neighbor, Japan may use this as motivation to change Article 9, developing nuclear weapons or other means to increase their retaliatory capability to act as a deterrent against the “hermit kingdom.” 

Even more threatening to the Japanese is China’s rapid rise, specifically their military. In September, Tokyo’s annual defense report cited China as a higher threat to Japanese security than North Korea and Russia. This rating is due to China’s rapid increase in militarization under President Xi JiPing. It was announced earlier this year that China would increase its military spending by 7.5%, resulting in a $177.6 billion defense budget. Although this is a slower growth rate than prior years, experts warn that military expansion will not necessarily decrease [6]. The Japanese also point to increased deployment of Chinese “air and sea assets in the Western Pacific and through the Tsushima Strait into the Sea of Japan with greater frequency” as another reason for concern [7].

These new threats, combined with American wariness of the defense treaty, may push more Japanese in favor of amending Article 9 of the Constitution. If the current defense treaty remains intact, then a change in Article 9 would be “largely symbolic,” satisfying Japanese conservatives who see the American-authored Constitution as a “humiliating reminder of defeat” [8]. With America’s protection, and nuclear umbrella, Japan may be content with their SDF power. However, if America hypothetically leaves the defense treaty, North Korea’s unpredictability and China’s rise will pressure Japan to increase its military capacity, for example, developing limited-strike capability. 

With increasing threats from North Korea and China, Japan may find itself re-examining the Constitution that helped reshape the defeated nation after WWII. While the general public is not necessarily ready for constitutional amendment, increasing threats from neighbors could change public opinion. Only time will tell if a new era of militarism will soon begin in Japan.

[1] https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/us-japan-security-alliance

[2] https://www.militarytimes.com/2019/07/30/why-did-trump-attack-the-us-japan-security-alliance/

[3] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-japan-usa-security-analysis/trumps-criticism-of-us-japan-security-pact-could-be-headache-for-abe-idUSKCN1TW1XH

[4] https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/04/11/national/politics-diplomacy/poll-shows-54-oppose-revision-japans-pacifist-constitution/#.XcMRAy3MyYV

[5] https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/11/04/national/asean-related-summit-abe-condemns-north-koreas-missile-launches/#.XcM7Dy3MyYV

[6] https://www.cnbc.com/2019/03/05/china-defense-budget-slowing-growth-in-2019-military-spending-.html

[7] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-japan-defence/japan-lists-china-as-bigger-threat-than-nuclear-armed-north-korea-idUSKBN1WC051[8] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-06-25/all-about-the-u-s-japan-defense-treaty-irking-trump-quicktake

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Edie Ellison

EDIE ELLISON is a senior from Carmel, California, studying Political Science. You can catch her in the JKB studying Japanese or in the HFAC practice rooms playing the violin or viola. Edie enjoys running, trying new Trader Joe’s products, and sharing her opinions on sparkling water. After graduating in April, Edie hopes to gain some work experience in the political field before pursuing a graduate degree.

Edie Ellison

EDIE ELLISON is a senior from Carmel, California, studying Political Science. You can catch her in the JKB studying Japanese or in the HFAC practice rooms playing the violin or viola. Edie enjoys running, trying new Trader Joe’s products, and sharing her opinions on sparkling water. After graduating in April, Edie hopes to gain some work experience in the political field before pursuing a graduate degree.

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