At the beginning of the month, Japan modified its famous Article 9 of the national constitution. “Article 9” has become a by-word for Japan’s pacifism and de-militarization. This provision has been a source of both pride and consternation for the Japanese: many have taken pride in the country’s non-aggressiveness and its promotion of peace (especially in light of the massive atrocities of the Second World War), while others have seen it as a weakness and sacrifice of sovereignty. The latter viewpoint is held especially by nationalist Japanese.
Article 9 of the Japanese constitution had long been erroneously portrayed as a law which stated that Japan could not have any armed forces, but that the Japanese maintained armed capabilities anyway and that the United States simply turned a blind eye and begrudgingly tolerated this state of affairs. Article 9, however, decreed that Japan would not use aggression to ensure the interests of the state. The armed forces, as it were, constituted a self defense force, essentially an extension of the national police service. Their origin comes from when US troops in Japan were deployed to fight in the Korean War (1950-1953), which left Japan defenseless.
Craig Martin of the Washburn University School of Law asserts that the revision of Article 9 is a violation of Japan’s rule of law. This is because of the course Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took to modify Article 9, without debate in the Japanese Diet (parliament). To be sure, debate has raged among the Japanese public for years over Article 9, and some of Japan’s more hard-core nationalists have even gone as far as to say Japan should acquire nuclear weapons as a matter of pride. Professor Martin himself has advocated for Article 9 revisions as being necessary for the new realities of Japanese and regional security issues.
I personally agree that Japan ought to have the right to modify the legal ramifications of its security, yet cannot help but be apprehensive of the potential consequences. While Japan’s actions run the risk of stoking regional tensions, there are sound reasons why Japan would undertake such actions. My intention here is not to justify recent Japanese actions or to take sides, but rather to explain why Japan has taken such moves.
In Northeast Asia, Japan almost bears the dubious distinction of being “the country everyone loves to hate.” It’s easy to think that this is simply because China, the Koreas and even Russia are still sore over Japanese atrocities and brutal imperial rule that happened up to just over a century ago, during a relatively small window of time. Indeed, historic memory of Japan lingers here a lot more strongly than memories of the Germans in Europe, and many in Asia state that the sight of a Japanese “rising sun” flag (with protruding sun rays) would be the equivalent to seeing a Nazi swastika in modern Europe.
The history of Japanese military activity in the region is a long one. Indeed, Yi Sun Shin, the “[Horatio] Nelson of the East,” defeated an attempted Japanese invasion of Korea way back in the 16th century. Nevertheless, while Japan has instigated security crises in the region over the years, in many ways, today Japan is also a lone wolf in a hostile neighborhood, and that neighborhood includes US allies (such as South Korea) as well as other countries against which Japan could not likely depend on the US for help (namely China and Russia). To this day Japan is locked into territorial disputes with China, Russia and South Korea, mostly over small but resource-rich islands and even rocks and reefs.
Recently, Japan repealed a ban on selling arms to foreign customers. To be sure, there were strong economic considerations behind this, as Japanese officials decided increasing arms sales would help boost economic growth for the country. Arms transfers in Asia in particular have long had geopolitical undertones, as countries have sold weapons to customer countries which have enemies allied with the enemy of the arms-manufacturing country (i.e. as India and Pakistan are enemies, China may sell weapons to Pakistan, and Japan may sell to India). No doubt, this combined with the much more recent revisions of Article 9 will send shockwaves through Asia, and, these decisions taken in Tokyo may stoke the fires of regional tensions to the point that things backfire against Japan. Japanese officials, however, have seemingly calculated that they will not produce an unfavorable backlash.
Indeed, as historic memory informs regional attitudes toward Japan, lessons from Japan’s own history may be a driving force behind its recent decisions. After US naval commander Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to open its doors to trade with the West in the mid-1850’s, Japan, under Emperor Meiji, realized that it had two choices: it could either modernize its military and take a forward-leaning, aggressive posture, or it could suffer the fate of neighboring China and Korea, becoming subject to an imperial carve-up by outside powers. Japan successfully modernized, to the point where it became a major imperial power in its own right, taking land, creating alliances with European powers and even earning the distinction as the first Asian country to defeat a European state in war (at the Battle of Fukushima in 1905, when a Russian fleet was all but destroyed).
To be sure, Japan and South Korea are united in their common alliance with the US (and by a shared mistrust of North Korea) but that is about as far as Japan-South Korea warmth goes, and other than that there is little to no lost love between the two. Many South Koreans feel a certain affinity for China; Korea was a tributary state to China, and China has defended Korea against Japanese aggression in centuries past. No ink need be wasted on North Korea’s visceral detestation of the Japanese (North Korea, in fact, sees Japan and the US as working in collusion to subjugate all of Korea in its imperial designs).
Therefore, as historic tensions and animosities linger and the geopolitical cauldron in East Asia continues to rumble and a slow but rising boil, Japan finds itself proverbially with its back against the sea and no sure-fire allies that are willing to unconditionally defend it. The task at hand for not only Japan, but for all countries and powers in the northern part of the Asia-Pacific to see to it that however far Japan goes in re-arming and re-militarization, this is not the catalyst for a massive interstate Pacific conflict.