The haiden (hall of worship) at Yasukuni Shrine, Chiyoda, Tokyo. Credit: Lemon Loco Gifts
The haiden (hall of worship) at Yasukuni Shrine, Chiyoda, Tokyo. Credit: Lemon Loco Gifts

Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, technically does not have a standing military. Japan’s Constitution (which came into effect after its defeat in 1945) bound its people to ‘forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.’ No land, sea, or air forces, ‘as well as other war potential’, would ever be maintained, and Japan’s ‘right of belligerency’ was repudiated. Left in its place were the Self-Defense Forces (JSDF), capable of protecting the home islands and providing disaster relief and internal order.

The Japanese people broadly accepted the principle of national pacifism, and such sentiment has endured up to the present day. Japan is a nuclear-capable power yet continues to renounce any moves to weaponise its nuclear industry as part of its pacifist commitment. In 2015, only 11% of Japanese surveyed by Gallup said they would take up arms for their country. Since the war, Japanese commitment to anti-militarism and to realise the mistakes that facilitated Japan’s devastation in 1945 have been sincere and enduring. Recent commemorations of the 76th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings have only reinforced this sentiment. But in today’s changing security environment, strict pacifism is a problem.

Japan’s defence environment

Last month’s Japanese Defence Paper acknowledges now that China is its main peer competitor. The Chinese threat differs in key respects from that posed to Japan by the USSR, Japan’s primary Cold War competitor. Despite the fact that Japan and the USSR never signed a peace treaty after 1945, Soviet provocations against Japan consisted more of aerial overflights and troop movements around areas it already held (such as the Kurile Islands) rather than aggressive expansionism. Chinese actions have been far more brazen, aggressively pressing home claims to Japanese territories like the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Mandarin). Japanese defence sources note that in 2010, there were 31 scrambles against Chinese infractions into Japanese airspace. In 2018, there were 638, an increase of nearly 2000%. Increases in Chinese maritime infractions have been even more stark: in 2010, 46 Chinese Coast Guard vessels had illegally entered the waters around the Senkakus, in 2020 the figure rose to 1,161.

This is not just a Japanese problem – in other areas of the South China Sea and the Pacific, Chinese naval, paramilitary, and civilian forces have been deployed to construct man-made islands to coerce other Asian nations to abandon their rights to nearby island territories under the constant pressures these artificial bases are able to sustain. China has come into conflict with Indonesia over the Natuna Islands,  the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, and many others (notably including Vietnam) over the Spratly and Paracel Islands. If Chinese ambitions are realised – giving its future blue water navy undisputed control over the South China Sea waterways – Japan’s main peer competitor will be able to dictate the flows of maritime shipping lanes that underpin 90% of Japanese trade. Indifference and impotence will only encourage Chinese opportunism. Geopolitically, this could be fatal, drastically curtailing Japan’s effectiveness as a NATO ally and in exercising agency free of Chinese influence on the world stage.

Equally, Japanese indifference to the changing strategic environment might lead American leaders and voters to question whether they should continue to commit to the defence of a nation that refuses to do so for itself. This kind of sentiment already reared its head last year, when President Trump demanded Japan contribute $8bn annually to the maintenance of the US military establishment there or risk its withdrawal.

Japanese leaders are realising this. Already, by gross tonnage, Japan operates the world’s fourth-largest naval force, outweighing the combined fleets of the British and French navies. However, numbers alone do not constitute a competitive military force. The quality and lethality of Japanese assets have historically been constrained by stipulations within the Constitution, preventing possession of strategic platforms such as aircraft carriers and ballistic missiles. Abe Shinzo’s government, notably, has acted to correct this imbalance. Last July, it was revealed that Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) would gain a fully-fledged aircraft carrier, JS Izumo. Izumo will be converted from a helicopter carrier (a defensive platform permitted by the Constitution), able to field squadrons of F-35B stealth fighters. Accompanying Izumo will be JS Kaga, named after an Imperial Japanese Navy carrier sunk at Midway. This move would usually be interpreted as against the spirit, if not the letter, of the Constitution.

However, the Abe administration’s parliamentary majority meant numerous constitutional alterations made their way through, including the reinterpretation of Article 9 to encompass ‘collective defence’ within self-defence. This permits Japanese forces to act in a defensive capacity alongside foreign forces (as vaguely as the role sounds) or intervene on their behalf if they were attacked even outside Japanese territory. Not for nothing has this been labelled the single largest reconsideration of Japanese military policy since 1945. American figures support the move. Marine General Robert Neller has stated to Japanese officers that the US would ‘help as much as possible’ to realise this. A lot has changed since 1945.

Strange bedfellows

The Abe administration made massive headway in remilitarising Japan. A major change was the dissolution of the old Defense Agency, to be replaced by a stronger and better-funded Ministry of Defence in 2007. Japan’s military administration, therefore, owes its existence to Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Abe installed a string of defence ministers who closely echoed his political ideology. Of Japan’s 19 Defence Ministers, 11 – including the incumbent, Kishi Nobuo – have been affiliates of Nippon Kaigi (“Japan Conference”, henceforth NK), an ultranationalist lobby group of which Abe was also a member. What seems to be its most important goal is a revision of the Constitution to support a more potent military capability.

Nippon Kaigi exerts disproportionate power in Japanese politics, and its political priorities coincide with NATO’s strategic ones in the Asia-Pacific area. Despite having under 40,000 members, 289 out of 480 members of the Japanese Diet are aligned with it. NK is also expanding its influence into younger generations. Before his resignation, Abe appointed an NK affiliate, Hagiuda Koichi, as Minister of Education, in a prime position to influence the revision of Japan’s history curriculum.

The movement and its ideals should not be embraced wholeheartedly as a necessary means of confronting China. The last few decades of Japanese pacifism have given Western observers a certain complacency about the directions of Japanese politics. Alternatively, it could represent historical amnesia, forgetting that Japan is by no means a benign power nor a natural Western ally.. That cannot blind us to the threat NK’s philosophy continues to pose for regional stability and cooperation. The organisation advocates historical revisionism towards Japan’s crimes in the Second World War. This includes repudiating responsibility for the use of “comfort women” by the Imperial Japanese military and worship at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Japan’s war dead – including 1,068 convicted war criminals. It is for this reason that no Japanese emperor has visited Yasukuni since 1975. Along with its stated desire to instil patriotic education in Japanese schools and reinstate official emperor worship as part of State Shinto, NK seems to be pushing for a cultural reversal into the tropes and ideologies which characterised the militaristic Japan of old.

The road ahead

NK’s rise poses two essential problems for Japan and its allies. The first is the historical trajectory of ideologies such as those propagated by the group – militarism, ethnic exceptionalism, and a fundamentally ahistorical reading of Japan’s past. The terminus of these trends in the Second World War was horrific the first time around. This is not to argue that history repeats itself – it is often said that history can rhyme. Any historical rhyming here will herald a similarly negative outcome.

The second problem is equally substantial: should NK (and any allied movements) continue to succeed in their attempted reshaping of Japanese society, the viability of east Asian alliances to contain Chinese influences diminishes. Tensions already frequently flare up in Japan and South Korea’s relationship over Japan’s laconic atonement for the institutionalised sexual enslavement of Korean women in World War II (which Nippon Kaigi essentially denies) and the disputed Liancourt Rocks. This is one of the stronger strategic alliances in east Asia. An uncontrolled, aggressive, and resurgent Japan in the mold conceived by Nippon Kaigi would undermine key relationships necessary to confront China, the main objective underpinning US and NATO support for the LDP’s remilitarisation of Japan. It is not that the ends would fail to justify the means – the means would undermine the ends themselves.

The best defence against these influences is Japanese civil society. The Japanese public remains largely resilient against the kinds of rhetoric NK advocates. Overwhelmingly, the concept of Japan as a ‘peace state’ (heiwa kokka) remains popular. Annual polls in Japan’s largest newspapers – Asahi (liberal), Yomiuri (conservative) and Nikkei (business-oriented) show no major upsurge in support for constitutional revision in the long-term. There are short-term spikes, usually in response to specific incidents. In a 2020 poll for Asahi, 43% supported revising Article 9 entirely, while 46% did not. Yet following repeated Chinese incursions in late 2020 and early 2021, polls in the centre-left Mainichi Shimbun showed 48% now backed revision (up a third on the previous year). 51% backed the revision of Article 9 to stipulate the existence of the JSDF. It would appear domestic support for remilitarisation is mainly non-ideological, considered, and conditional.

The coming years will put immense stress on Japanese society as foreign pressure on its near shores mounts. The strength of civil society will determine how far the LDP leadership and NK decide to permit public opinion to hinder its efforts to rebuild Japan in their own image. Liberal democracies outside Japan should not feel they have to sacrifice their morals at the altar of countering China and jump into bed with movements such as Nippon Kaigi as solely a means to an end. How this all plays out will surely be a bellwether for the health of Japanese democracy, the bulwark of the liberal democratic order in Asia as the new, post-war Japan faces up to the biggest threat in its history. 

Image featured: the haiden (hall of worship) for the Yasukuni Shrine, Chiyoda, Tokyo. Credit: Lemon Loco Gifts.

Chris Conway

Chris is a Junior Editor in Global Affairs and a second-year historian at Magdalen College. He has his own blog (https://thearrow2021.blogspot.com/) focusing on defence, technology, and foreign affairs....