Over recent years, Japan’s constitution has been hotly debated.
In large part dictated by the allied authorities at the end of World War Two, it is sometimes called the “Peace Constitution,” since its Article 9 stipulates 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.” It further denies Japan from having, “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential.”
For decades, however, a relatively large number of Japanese politicians have stressed the need for Japan to be recognized as a “normal country”— that is a country which, in accordance with the UN Charter, has the right to defend itself against military aggression, singlehandedly or in a coalition with other nations.
Such calls have intensified under Prime Minister Abe, who has openly declared his ambition to revise Article 9 in such a way that reflects Japan’s present realities.
Indeed, while Japan is one of the few countries in the world that has not been involved in any military conflict since the end of WWII, it nonetheless possesses significant, and technologically advanced, land, sea, and air capabilities as part of its Self-Defense Forces.
The proposed revision of Article 9, however, has been criticized in some quarters, including by neighboring states, as being a step too far towards the revival of Japanese militarism. In so doing, Japan’s actions in the first half of the last century are invoked as lessons from history.
Raising such warning flags are entirely legitimate. But to view the revision of Article 9, through the lens of past aggressions, as a revival of Japanese militarism ignores the fundamental changes which have occurred in the past seven decades.
Above all, the geopolitical situation surrounding Japan today is completely different compared to a century ago.
Spurred by Western military aggression in China in the mid-nineteenth century – notably the Opium Wars – Japan underwent a relatively rapid political modernization and reorientation away from isolationism. Indeed, it did not take long for the politicians of Meiji Japan to advance the argument that Japan needed to expand its influence on the Korean peninsula and the East Asian continent.
While managing to avoid the same fate as China and an invasion of foreign troops, Japan still had to accept “unequal” treaties with foreign powers and which had clauses of extraterritoriality favoring the other parties. This was accepted as a necessity while Japan focused on building up its military strength.
However, the sense of having been treated unfairly later proved to be an important factor for pushing Japan to renegotiate these treaties from a position of strength. Notably, already in 1876, Japan forced Korea to sign an unequal bilateral treaty. Japan’s military buildup was also instrumental in scoring important victories in the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05.
In parallel with Japan’s militarization arose a new domestic ideology based on emperor worship. This became a forceful tool by Japan’s political elite for controlling what was then a relatively uneducated, and to a large extent, rural population.
These were the historical circumstances in which Japan’s militarist ideology developed. Today, by contrast, Japan has one of the most educated populations in the world. It has an independent judiciary, a free press, and a parliament where government policies are freely and fiercely debated.
A precursor for any revival of militarism would also hinge on a rekindled ambition for Japan to expand its territories through an imperialist ideology; one, furthermore, which would have to enjoy strong domestic support. Such an ambition is clearly lacking. No one in Japan today advocates territorial expansion or establishing a Japanese-led regional order.
This is not to say there are no “risks.” Perceived Chinese aggression in the East China Sea accompanied by North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests have contributed to increasing tensions in the region. In such a context, there is a growing demand that Japan should boost its military capability, and even requests to acquire its own nuclear deterrent.
But such calls – whether merited or not – are based on facing an increasingly uncertain regional security environment.
In the end, the ambitions behind a revision of the Japanese constitution point not at reviving militarism, but rather at a wish to be treated fairly and ending the notion of Japanese exceptionalism.
Japan, after all, is a country which during the past seventy years has contributed to regional and global stability. Moreover, Article 9 has in any case not stopped Japan from possessing military forces.
Revising Article 9 should thus be understood as signaling the symbolic recognition of the de facto reality, and should not be used by detractors who continue to taint Japan with a belligerent image it has long shed.
Dr. Lars Vargö is Distinguished Fellow at ISDP and a former Swedish ambassador to Japan and South Korea.