Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has a belated new year’s resolution: establishing a “new era of Japanese diplomacy,'' according to a speech delivered to the Japanese Diet (parliament) on January 20th.
Certainly, this is nothing unexpected. Since coming to office in 2012, Abe has pursued a foreign policy that is exceptionally active compared to all his predecessors since 1945.
Most recently, he has attempted to position himself as a mediator between the US and Iran, and has, for the most part, been successful. Japan has much reason to be invested in keeping the peace - 90% of its crude oil imports pass through the Persian Gulf - and so has thrown its weight behind maintaining the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). Iran seems entirely appreciative of this arrangement; it sees in Japan (and European states that continue to support the JCPOA) a sympathetic ear that can weaken Washington’s hand both in direct negotiations and in countering Iranian proxy forces in the broader region.
Also on the agenda are dealings with more immediate neighbours: signing a formal peace treaty with Russia, which will involve a settlement over the disputed Kuril Islands (known as the Chishima Islands in Japan); smoothing over relations with China; and resolving a key dispute with South Korea. This last matter is the most important, revolving around the South Korean judiciary demanding Japanese companies pay reparations for forced labour imposed during the Imperial Japanese occupation, and its fallout has affected everything from trade to a key intelligence-sharing agreement, GSOMIA.
Make no mistake, however - for all his genuine commitment to Japan becoming a new diplomatic player in the Middle East and cleaning up old wounds in east Asia, Abe’s favoured method for rebuilding Japanese prominence is not in speaking softly through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He’s far more interested in carrying a big stick, and this is where he turns his attention to the Japan Self Defence Forces (JSDF).
In late December of last year, the Japanese government announced that it would be sending a warship and maritime patrol aircraft to waters near Iran, tasked with protecting Japanese shipping. Despite the extremely modest size of the contingent and limited mission, the move has stirred great controversy within Japan - a poll conducted by Kyodo News found that a full 52% of respondents were opposed to the deployment. The outrage is understandable: by law, Japan shouldn’t even have warships.
In theory, all of the branches of the JSDF are inherently illegal according to Article 9 of the constitution, which is quite clear on the matter: “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” Being illegal has not prevented the JSDF from becoming the 6th most powerful military in the world according to the Global Firepower index, nor has it stopped them from becoming a key security partner of the very nation that forced them to adopt constitutionally-mandated pacifism in 1945.
Abe is by no means the first Prime Minister to sneer in the face of Article 9; he’s simply taking it further than all his predecessors, making moves ranging from lifting Japan’s decades-old ban on arms exports to attempting to go after the Article itself - critically, without going through the legal process of constitutional amendment. In 2015, he succeeded in amending it to provide a legal basis for “collective self defense”, which was met with protests both foreign and domestic; in one poll conducted by the Japan Times in 2018, over 60% of respondents opposed the idea of Abe making any constitutional amendments.
All the while, an entirely sympathetic JSDF couches the expansion of its martial muscle in vague terminology reflective of its genuinely self-defensive past. Often, this wink-wink-nudge-nudge semi-adherence to Article 9 goes into the territory of the almost comical. Aircraft carriers are generally perceived as being predominantly offensive weapons systems; Japan, of course, has no aircraft carriers, merely “helicopter carriers” that lack the equipment necessary to launch most planes. The JSDF’s purchase of F-35B fighter jets, which have short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) capability suitable for such vessels, is, of course, entirely coincidental.
What isn’t funny in the slightest is the mythology being developed around the JSDF. Since its formation, its ground and naval branches have flown the rising sun flag that is inextricably linked to the militarism of Imperial Japan; despite decades of diplomatic protest by regional allies, the JSDF refuses to get rid of the symbol. Part of Abe’s strategy for justifying the JSDF, in fact, is his government’s extensive revisionism of Imperial Japanese atrocities - if the population can be made to forget the ravages of Imperial Japan’s conquests, the logic goes, they will be more accepting of a rearmed Japan. Only time will tell if it works.
Japan reasserting itself on the world stage is certainly not a bad thing in and of itself; at a time when the international liberal order is under threat, and its traditional champion is increasingly unreliable as a guarantor of that order, I would go so far as to welcome any liberal democracy that wants to step up to the plate. However, it is a stain on that very same liberal order to allow such re-engagement to be done in a dishonest, belligerent, and unconstitutional manner. When the Japanese population is ready, let them vote accordingly - but until then, Article 9 should remain the law of the land.
Image: Flickr/Casino Collection