The twenty-three minute ceremony aboard the deck of the Battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Japan, on September 2, 1945, was the most significant event in Japan’s recent history, and the most painful. The ceremony established the surrender of the Empire of Japan and marked the end of World War II.
After the horrific experience of the war, and to create the legal basis for the country’s future peaceful development, a new Constitution was enacted, which was called the “Postwar Constitution” or also the “Peace Constitution”. It became the fundamental law of Japan. The Constitution’s most characteristic component was the renunciation of the right to wage war contained in Article 9, and a provision for de jure popular sovereignty in conjunction with the monarchy.
Article 9 states that 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”. To achieve this, the article provides that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” The extent of Article 9 has been debated in Japan since its enactment, particularly after the establishment of Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF), a de facto military force in 1954.
It is possible that originally the SDF were intended as something similar to what Mahatma Gandhi called the Shanti Sena, or soldiers of peace, or as a collective security police (peacekeeping) force, operating under the United Nations.
However, in July 2014, Japan introduced a reinterpretation of this role, giving more power to its SDF, and allowing them to defend its allies in case of war against them. This action, which potentially ends Japan’s long-standing pacifist policies, was supported by the U.S. but was heavily criticized by China and North Korea.
More recently, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for a new interpretation of those policies, asking that they allow for “collective self-defense” and for Japan to pursue a more active deterrence policy. Because of what many perceive as a decline in American hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan may want to fill the power vacuum left by the US and play a more assertive role in regional security.
To that effect, it has reached some military agreements with countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam that are engaged in territorial disputes with China. At the same time, Abe wants to revitalize Japan’s economy and meet increasing social security demands resulting from a worsening demographic situation. According to the Financial Times, in January 2015 Japan had reached a Debt/GDP ratio of 245, placing Japan as the most indebted nation.
It is possible that a redefined military force would make Japan more assertive in the international arena while at the same time, through increased military sales, it would receive additional income to help balance its economy. On 2014, the Abe government lifted the ban on arms exports and hosted a trade show on military defense systems. On July 16, Japan’s lower house passed Abe’s security legislation, which potentially allows the use of troops in conflicts outside Japan, and sent it to the upper house.
Not everybody agrees with Prime Minister Abe’s new push to militarization. Last June, Seiichiro Murakami, a veteran lawmaker from Mr. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, wept during a press conference while denouncing Abe’s policies. “As a person who was educated under the postwar education system, I believe in the principle of pacifism, the sovereignty of people and respect of basic human rights should be something absolutely cannot be changed,” he said.
Rearming Japan carries also the risk of igniting a regional arms race of unpredictable but certainly not good consequences for peace in the region. Given the extreme volatility in the region, Japan would do well to follow the precepts established in Article 9 of its Constitution.