Japan may have crossed a rubicon as it will only be a matter of time before it acts like a ‘normal’ country where troop deployment is concerned.
ON July 1, the Cabinet of Shinzo Abe decided that Japan would no longer abide by the policy of not engaging in collective self-defence.
This may appear innocuous but to those conversant with Japanese defence policy since World War II (WWII) this could amount to a sea of change.
The Americans, in an attempt to prevent a remilitarised Japan after WWII, imposed on it a constitution which contains Article 9, an article probably found in no other constitution. It states that Japan renounces war as a sovereign right of a nation and cannot resort to force, or the threat of the use of force, to settle international disputes.
The defence of Japan was guaranteed by the United States in a security agreement signed with Japan after the American occupation. Nevertheless, the United States also insisted that Japan take some steps to defend itself.
Thus, Article 9 was not interpreted literally by subsequent governments as excluding Japan from establishing a Self-Defence Force (SDF), but it could not be allowed to participate in collective self-defence. Japan could not send its military force to help any country, however friendly, except for humanitarian purposes.
This approach, perhaps unexpectedly, worked brilliantly for Japan.
Freed of the need to build a large military establishment, Japan devoted its energies to economic development and built what was until recently the second largest economy in the world.
But as the United States began to realise that Japan was the greatest beneficiary of this approach, it applied pressure on Japan to give up this “free ride”, and start deploying troops overseas, especially to aid American military expeditions. The Japanese resisted.
They argued that the SDF could be sent overseas for humanitarian purposes but not for combat as this would involve Japan in collective self-defence, even if only to aid Japan’s crucial ally, the United States. Article 9, as then interpreted, would be violated.
But the Japanese could not resist US pressure for long. Since then the Japanese have sent Japanese vessels to supply fuel for US ships to attack Afghanistan, and troops to Iraq in the war against Saddam Hussein.
But though these troops were placed in combat situations, their presence was justified, however contrived, for humanitarian reasons. They were not there for the purpose of collective self-defence!
This has now changed with the recent Cabinet decision. Despite assurances from the Abe Cabinet that Japan will only use troops after all means have been exhausted, henceforth it can send troops not only to help US forces if attacked but also to the defence of any other country that it might feel an obligation to. Japan may have crossed a rubicon as it will only be a matter of time before it acts like a “normal” country where troop deployment is concerned.
China and South Korea are against it. They fear that this could lead to the remilitarisation of Japan as they believe Japan has not sufficiently come to terms with its past of aggression against Asia.
Many South-East Asian nations, on the other hand, have been impressed by Japan’s peace diplomacy since WWII, and may be less inclined to believe the Japanese will remilitarise. Even though many South-East Asians, particularly those of Chinese descent, suffered from Japanese atrocities, they are more ambivalent about the Japanese war record.
The Japanese occupation in South-East Asia was a military one and lasted only about three-and-a-half years. Compare this to Korea, which was colonised by Japan from 1910 to 1945, when Korean cultural identity was subjected to an eradication campaign by the Japanese colonisers.
Or the Chinese, who since the Sino- Japanese war of 1895 had suffered almost half a century of Japanese threats, colonisation (Manchuria in 1931) and invasion (from 1937-1945.) Memories of Japanese atrocities such as the Nanjing Massacre are still vivid in their minds.
South-East Asians are concerned that the history issue, whatever the merits of the case, will continue to prevent reconciliation between Japan and Northeast Asia, in particular China.
Sino-Japanese relations will not stabilise unless that issue is resolved. This will not be good for South-East Asia, given the profound economic and geopolitical impact these two countries have on the region.
There is also some reason for unease in the manner in which Abe implemented the change. Over a matter of such importance, the Abe government should have gone through the procedure of amending or abolishing Article 9 of the constitution, instead of resorting to the tactic of changing governmental interpretation.
It is true that this will be difficult, given that a recent poll shows 56% of the Japanese population are against the Abe move. (A constitutional change needs a two-thirds majority in both houses and a majority in a national referendum.) Nevertheless, it is the task of Abe and his people to convince the Japanese people of the necessity of the constitutional change. If the Japanese people are unconvinced, then Abe should leave things be.
More concerning is that this normalisation is accompanied by a nationalist agenda of visits to the Yasukuni shrine by Japanese legislators and indeed by Abe himself, and by other actions that suggest Japan did no wrong in the war.
Japanese nationalists like Abe argue that they are only praying for the souls of the deceased when they visit the Yasukuni shrine, and they have no wish to resurrect the past.
But there are other aspects of the nationalist agenda the Abe people are pushing which may survive. One is the introduction of patriotic education, that can have a long-lasting effect on the Japanese population.
It can be argued that the Abe move to make Japan a normal country should be welcome. Japan is a large country with a population of around 120 million.
Moreover, it has the third largest economy, and is technologically one of the most advanced in the world. It has also convincingly demonstrated a record of more than 60 years of peaceful diplomacy.
At the same time, many Japanese, particularly the younger generation, no longer want to carry on with the mentality of a defeated nation so long after the war. Nevertheless, it is a pity that their government has to pursue the normalisation of Japan while at the same time pushing a nationalist agenda.
Dr Lee Poh Ping is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of China Studies in the University of Malaya. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.