In what is being described as a “landmark shift” in Japan’s defense posture, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration authorized a reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution Tuesday. The new understanding of the article allows for Japan’s defense forces to mobilize overseas in “collective self-defense” of the country’s allies. The decision does not appear to be a popular one, as 55 percent of Japanese surveyed by Japan’s Kyodo News last weekend opposed it.
Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which was implemented in 1947, is a renunciation of war, reading:
Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
Past interpretation has limited Japan’s armed forces to self-defense and police action, all strictly within Japanese borders. The new interpretation considers limited extra-national military action in defense of allied and Japanese interests. Abe has attempted to assure his people that only minimal force will be used and only if threats to an ally truly threaten Japan and Japanese citizens and there is no alternate recourse. The prime minister has also promised that this would not result in Japanese armed forces joining with allied coalitions like the United States-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The new interpretation is expected to be met with commendation by American leaders as the U.S. cuts its own defense budget and calls for Japan to step up its security role in the west Pacific. The move is not popular with the Chinese, who see Japan as adversarial, or with South Koreans, whose memory of World War II is fresh.
Abe’s administration has faced criticism for what older Japanese citizens–fearful of a resurgent, militarized, imperial Japan and valuing the country’s post-war pacifism—see as rearmament and aggression in response to the growing Chinese tiger to the west. Sunday, an unidentified Japanese man in his fifties or sixties attempted self-immolation in Tokyo after protesting the Article 9 proposal.
That attempted suicide, in a manner reminiscent of the pacifist protests of Vietnamese monks, created a striking parallel to another high-profile suicide in post-war Japanese history. Yukio Mishima, widely considered one of the most important Japanese authors of the past century, committed seppuku, the ritual suicide linked to the Japanese martial tradition of Bushido, after failing to spark a military coup in November of 1970 as an act of service to the emperor.
Sunday’s suicide attempt and Mishima’s seppuku illustrate the extreme wings of Japanese politics under the constitution that General MacArthur and his staff created with the country’s pacifist post-World War II leaders. On the one hand is fear of Japanese imperialism and the violence of war, and on the other sits national pride and memories of former glory, catalyzed by fear of Chinese ascendency.
The United States has tied itself to Japan, by crafting its constitution and maintaining a massive military presence and economic partnership. The author Antoine de Saint Exupéry wrote in his novella The Little Prince, “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” Whether in wisdom or in folly, America has tamed Japan and must consider what that means as Abe’s administration alters the country’s course.