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Japan rethinks pacifism

September 21, 2006|Mike Mochizuki | MIKE MOCHIZUKI holds the Japan-U.S. relations chair at George Washington University.

SHINZO ABE, who is virtually certain to be named Japanese prime minister next week, has said he will push to revise Japan's constitution, including Article 9, by which the Japanese people renounce the right to make war. Is this the beginning of the end of Japan's unprecedented 60-year experiment in pacifism?

In the last 15 years, Japan has been chipping away at its pacifism, which was a hallmark of the constitution the United States imposed on it after World War II. The 2004 ground force deployment in Iraq would have been unimaginable only a little more than a decade earlier during the first Persian Gulf war. But in that war, Japan paid $13 billion toward liberating Kuwait (a good chunk of the total bill) but got little recognition for its contribution. This humiliation prompted Tokyo to shed what some Japanese criticized as irresponsible "one-country pacifism."

In truth, Japan's pacifism has always been pragmatic. It has reserved the right to defend itself and has developed one of the world's most modern defense forces, and it has a crucial treaty alliance with the United States. While Japan's Self-Defense Forces may not help defend the U.S., it hosts and subsidizes U.S. forces and bases on its crowded archipelago.

The Japanese government since the 1950s also has been careful never to rule out its constitutional right to possess nuclear forces or to retaliate against missile attacks. What has made Japan's defense policy "pacifistic" are the three conditions it requires before it can use force: an imminent and illegitimate act of aggression against Japan; no appropriate means to deal with this aggression other than self-defense; and the use of armed strength confined to what is minimally necessary. The last condition has prohibited Japan from acquiring offensive military capabilities.

But the Japanese have been prompted to stretch the limits of their "no war" constitution by a series of developments, including the 1993-94 North Korea nuclear crisis, the 1995 Chinese nuclear tests, the 1996 Taiwan Strait missile crisis, the 1998 North Korean launch of a missile over Japan, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the rise of China as a potential security threat and the North Korean missile tests this summer.

Since 1996, Japan has strengthened cooperation with the United States, including developing an advanced missile-defense system. It has beefed up its coast guard to deal with maritime intruders and the defense of its southwestern islands as a counter to China. And it has expanded its participation in overseas security missions, such as peacekeeping and disaster relief.

But it's been careful not to violate the constitutional restrictions on collective self-defense. In practice, this means that Japan retains the right to use force to defend itself, but it won't use force to defend an ally. For example, although Japan refueled U.S. warships in the Indian Ocean during military operations against Afghanistan and Iraq, it avoided committing to defend those ships if attacked. Similarly, it has kept as many as 600 troops as noncombatants in Iraq for more than two years, but it has limited its activities to "humanitarian reconstruction assistance." And it's held defense spending to less than 1% of GNP.

Abe is unlikely to bring fast change, even if he would like to. He has said he wants to amend Article 9 so that Japan can exercise its right to collective self-defense. Such a revision would theoretically permit Japan to use force abroad to help defend the United States and other countries with which it shares common interests. But public support for such a change remains limited. Even many revisionists, who support a more robust Japanese security stance, believe that there should be clear limitations placed on military cooperation with other countries. Should overseas military activities be restricted to the framework of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty or the United Nations? Should they require prior parliamentary approval? Japanese have hardly begun to debate these difficult questions.

So, while Abe pushes constitutional revision, parliament is more likely to adopt a general legal framework for security missions abroad to replace the ad hoc measures passed after 9/11. If its neighborhood continues to grow more threatening, Japan could expand its interpretation of the right of individual self-defense and consider the acquisition of limited retaliatory capabilities, such as cruise missiles.

However, Japan's shift away from its pragmatic pacifism will continue to be slow and incremental. And that is good for the U.S. It will give Washington time to think through whether it prefers a Japan that will fight side by side with U.S. forces throughout the world, or a Japan that can better reassure its neighbors that it is not remilitarizing.

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