Asia Program

Events

Changing Japanese Attitudes towards National Security: The End of Pacifism?

October 26, 1999 // 12:00am

By Alexei Kral

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. --Article 9 of Japan's constitution, promulgated in 1946

A pacifist constitution has defined Japan's stance on defense issues since World War II. But today, security concerns pose new challenges to that stance. The Taiwan Straits crisis in 1996 drew close Japanese attention and raised concerns about Japan's response to potential conflicts in the region. In August 1998, the Japanese public was even more shocked when a North Korean Taepodong missile overshot Japan. And in March 1999, Japanese watched anxiously as their Self-Defense Forces chased mysterious North Korean ships out of Japanese territorial waters. In the wake of these incidents, the Japanese public and media have become increasingly sensitive to security issues. In the coming years, Japan's approach to national security will have deep implications for the future of Japan, regional dynamics, and U.S. foreign policy. To analyze Japan's emerging stance on defense issues, the Woodrow Wilson Center's Asia Program sponsored an October 26, 1999 seminar featuring Thomas Berger, a political scientist; Major General Noboru Yamaguchi, the defense and military attaché at the Japanese Embassy; Ronald Spector, a historian; and Reinhard Drifte, a political scientist.

The Japanese attitude towards national security is best characterized as "anti-militarism," Thomas Berger, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, argued. He noted that this anti-militarism emerged in the early post-World War II period and was anchored in three aspects of Japan's domestic and international political environment: Japan's geostrategic position of dependence on the U.S. for both military and economic security; the lessons it drew from the past, i.e. that military power alone cannot guarantee Japan's security and that the military as an institution cannot be trusted; and the institutionalized manifestations of anti-military sentiment in Japan's postwar political system.

Japanese anti-militarism was institutionalized through a variety of laws, including a war-renouncing constitution, a policy against manufacturing, stationing, or transiting nuclear weapons in Japan, and a ban on dispatching military forces overseas, Berger observed. The end result was not a pacifist Japan, but a Japan that is deeply divided over national security issues. Berger concluded that the key policy issue for the next decade would be how to modify Japan's anti-military attitudes so that Japan's potential power can be used to build a stronger regional security framework.

Noboru Yamaguchi, a major general in Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force, stated that international and domestic crises increased the Japanese public's awareness of security needs. He cited the Gulf War, North Korea's missile launches in 1993 and 1998, the devastating Kobe earthquake, the poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, the Taiwan Straits crisis in 1996, and incursions by North Korean speedboats in March 1999. Popular perceptions of Japan's security needs have become more realistic and pragmatic, Yamaguchi asserted. Now, the Japanese public is more tolerant of using the Self-Defense Forces in non-combat or semi-combat operations and agrees on the need for more effective crisis management. In addition, Japanese are now more aware of the importance of the U.S. military presence in the region and recognize the need for Japanese contributions to maintain peace and stability in the region and the world, he maintained.

To enhance national security, Tokyo has taken important policy steps during the 1990's, Yamaguchi commented. First, Japan is participating more actively in international peacekeeping and humanitarian missions. Second, Japan has expanded its confidence building measures in the region. Third, Japan has enhanced its capability to cooperate with the United States and deal with contingencies in areas surrounding Japan. Yamaguchi acknowledged that the changes seem drastic but noted the government and public remain cautious as they struggle to adjust national security policy to the post-Cold War era.

It is possible to have anti-militarism without anti-military feelings, Ronald Spector, Chair of George Washington University's History Department, commented. He recounted that elements in the U.S. and Japan wanted Japan to maintain a military after World War II. Several Japanese prime ministers moved to increase Japan's defense capabilities, but the dominant view in the postwar era has been a preference for seeking foreign policy goals through economic policies. Most Japanese who lived through the Second World War feel that the war dead died for peace, Spector noted. And while the military is invisible in present-day Japanese public life, there continues to be a fascination with World War II in Japanese popular culture, he observed.

Reinhard Drifte, Chair of Japanese Studies at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, pointed out that young Japanese are more self-confident and see the dangers of the external environment. Viewing the US-led NATO intervention in Kosovo, young Japanese saw that military force counts. Drifte asserted it is dangerous for Japanese to avoid discussing the issues of Japanese defense and participation in collective security. Such public discussion is important to avoid a sudden, emotional reaction in a crisis situation - like the public outcry after a North Korean missile launch last year. Therefore, the Diet's current debate on reforming Japan's pacifist constitution - to clarify Japan's defense capabilities - is a healthy development, Drifte concluded.

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