In August, just four days after setting a record for the longest uninterrupted run as Japanese prime minister, Shinz Abe announced that he would be resigning due to ill health. The 65-year-old had first been premier back in 2006, and had cut an instantly recognisable figure on the world stage—not only because of his distinctive quiffed hair, but also because of his approach to Japan’s wartime legacy. (Abe had visited controversial war memorials that honoured war criminals, and quibbled in Japan’s parliament, the Diet, about how much coercion was used to recruit the “comfort women” who were forced into wartime military brothels.) His more recent spell in office had begun in 2012, and he now signalled it was time to step aside, saying he didn’t want his worsening ulcerative colitis to interfere with his decision-making.
As well as giving Japan a level of stability at the top that it had not seen in years, Abe oversaw Japan’s recovery from the devastating earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. His bold, multi-pronged “Abenomics” strategy promised to inject some life into the chronically anaemic Japanese economy; most experts were sceptical about its effectiveness even before Covid-19 struck. For a long time he enjoyed public standing as a man of action. Yet the once-popular leader had more recently dropped in the polls. He exited under a cascade of sordid revelations—cronyism scandals, cover-up allegations and close links with politicians indicted for bribery—which leave a tarnished legacy. For the man himself, however, there is little doubt what his biggest disappointment is: the failure to revise the pacifist Article 9 of his country’s constitution.
Written in 1947, under the supervision of the occupying Americans after the Second World War, Abe and other conservatives argue that Article 9 hampers Tokyo’s capacity to respond to the 21st-century challenges in its region, such as China’s hegemonic ambitions and North Korea’s nuclear weapons. In practice, Japanese governments—and the Abe government in particular—have circumvented the restrictions, but the deeper issue is more about identity: revising Article 9 was central to Abe’s ambitions to restore Japanese autonomy, pride and power. For those who regret the world’s turn towards nationalism and militarism in recent years, the collapse of the project might from a distance appear to offer a case study in hope. But does it really?
A family affair
Fundamental questions about Japan’s place in the world can be traced deep into the nation’s past. Between the early 17th and the mid-19th century, the country closed its doors under the policy of “Sakoku,” locking out most trade, diplomacy and other forms of international engagement, which ended only when US Commodore Matthew Perry forced his way in with a convoy of warships in the 1850s. At the turn of the 20th century, tentative democratisation and internationalism appeared to be advancing hand-in-hand, but the western-dominated world order remained profoundly racist towards Japan, and the effects of this—especially when compounded by the Great Depression—catapulted militarists into power. They shunted civilian politicians aside, moved first into Manchuria and then eventually into a wider war that aimed at the control of all China and subjugation of much of Asia and beyond, plunging Japan and the entire region into catastrophe.
The deep faultline over contested memories of the Second World War is the real starting point for today’s debate over Article 9. Liberals believe Japan’s wartime aggression was a tragic mistake, and they regard Article 9 as a guard against any resurgence of ruinous militarism, a reassuring talisman of the modern nation’s pacifist character. Conservatives like Abe want to rehabilitate this controversial history to allow contemporary Japan to become more assertive internationally.
The argument is both about symbolism and substance. The constitution’s practical strictures were sidestepped as long ago as 1954, with the establishment of the Ground Self-Defence Forces (GSDF)—to all intents and purposes an army, albeit one that operates with restraints. But that doesn’t detract from the intensity of pacifist sentiments. Indeed, it is precisely because the Article is so symbolic that it is—on both sides—a question of political identity.
For Abe, it was also about personal identity. Growing up in a powerful political family, he entered the Diet in 1993 two years after his father, a former foreign minister, had left. A couple of decades before, Abe’s great-uncle Eisaku Sat—who was, until the grand-nephew broke the record, Japan’s previous longest-serving PM—had successfully haggled with Richard Nixon to return administrative control of Okinawa prefecture, which since the Second World War had been commandeered by the US for military purposes. An even more significant influence, perhaps, was his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was also prime minister from 1957-60: as a wartime cabinet minister, he was heavily implicated in war crimes but never prosecuted.
[su_pullquote]“Under Abe, wartime history was literally rewritten in textbooks”[/su_pullquote]
Abe treated the rewriting of wartime history as one aspect of unfinished family business. On his watch, school textbook accounts of forced labour, chemical and biological warfare, and the “comfort women” system have been toned down, pruned or removed, while in public discourse fellow revisionists artfully depict Japan’s 1931-45 rampage as a defensive war to liberate Asia from western colonialism. But the constitution was another aspect which rankled Abe even more. In office, grandfather Kishi resorted to literal strong-arm tactics in 1960 (having opposition politicians carried out of the Diet before holding a vote) in order to revise and extend the 1951 US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. The process sparked mass demonstrations, and Kishi was ousted before he could realise his ambition to revise the constitution.
But that was 60 years ago. Kishi was operating in a nation still emerging from the immediate trauma of war, as well as the lingering shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The opportunities for his grandson to overturn the pacifist settlement, bolstered by fading memories, heightened regional threats and a less reliable ally courtesy of President Donald Trump should have been incomparably greater.
His biggest chance came in 2017, when his (traditionally dominant, if arguably misnamed) Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide victory that gave it, along with its coalition partners, two-thirds of the seats in both houses of the Diet. Here at last was the supermajority needed to push through a constitutional revision. But Abe had been too aggressive in his oft-stated desire to revise Article 9: polls recorded strong misgivings even among those who support that change about it happening on his watch. On top of this, his coalition partner, the Buddhist-affiliated Komeito, opposed any significant watering down of Article 9. Abe responded by incrementally whittling down his proposed amendments of the Article to a mere tweaking of the phrasing, adding a sentence recognising the nation’s military. But even this faced stubborn resistance. For most voters, more concerned about stagnant wages, rising taxes and a gathering recession, it looked like a distraction. Within Japan, there were never enough people who shared Abe’s fixation to overcome those who considered it an irrelevance or a bad idea.
After Abe formally stepped down on 16th September, his chief cabinet secretary Suga Yoshihide took over as prime minister, and is expected to remain in post until Abe’s term ends in September next year. In his former post, Suga was immensely powerful, combining the roles of chief of staff, government spokesman and party whip, acting as Abe’s pit bull in dealing with media critics and ensuring cabinet ministers stayed on message. Without Abe’s backstory and obsession, Suga is—like leaders around the world—currently more preoccupied with coronavirus and its economic fallout, which leaves constitutional reforms on the back-burner. Thus, Abe’s mission to revise the constitution has effectively been abandoned, but anxieties about North Korea, China and the US alliance persist. The country will now have to navigate them without having answered the question that underlay the whole constitutional argument: what is Japan’s place in the world?
Decades of double-think
Back in 1947, Washington wrote Article 9 into the constitution with a view to keeping a defeated and occupied foe at heel. But very soon, the US came to regret it—starting with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. Japan’s prolonged colonial rule in Korea from 1910-45 meant that many veterans and officials had first-hand experience and knowledge that could have made it a useful partner. When the US demanded it rearm, Tokyo brandished Article 9 and shrewdly concentrated on industrial redevelopment. But it gradually began the manoeuvres that would make a fiction of the pacifist clause, establishing a relatively small, lightly-armed National Police Reserve in 1950, with 75,000 members; expanded to 110,000 men and renamed the National Safety Force in 1952; and then reconstituted and rebranded again as the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) in 1954. Since then, under US pressure, Japan has gradually expanded its military capabilities while sidestepping constitutional constraints.
This strange situation—the existence of a powerful military which is theoretically banned by the constitution—clouds the Article 9 debate with cognitive dissonance. Japan now has a quarter of a million troops in uniform and, aside from the US 7th Fleet, the most advanced navy in Asia. On top of this, it has a large modern air force and an annual defence budget of about $50bn, which is similar to the UK and puts it in the top 10 nations for security expenditures.
Tokyo justifies this anomalous situation—while pleading compliance with its own constitution—through its membership of the United Nations, because the UN Charter gives every nation the right to self-defence. Abe stressed the absurdity of such sophistry to advance his demands to amend the constitution to reflect 21st-century realities and threats. Over the years numerous lawsuits against the article have been filed by citizens of very different leanings from Abe that have challenged the constitutionality of the SDF, notching up some victories along the way. But in the end, the Supreme Court has largely sided with the government’s interpretation. At the highest level, the country seems to have decided to have it both ways.
If this double-think has proved strangely durable domestically, there have been moments when it has looked like it could come unstuck diplomatically. During the first Gulf War (1990-1), Japan only contributed money in support of coalition forces, and it drew flak internationally for practising “ATM diplomacy” while leaving the heavy lifting to others, particularly embarrassing for a country so reliant on oil and gas imports from the Middle East. Unease about this “freeriding” saw Liberal Democratic Party heavyweights take up the cause of making Japan a more “normal nation” on military matters. The Diet passed legislation in 1992 allowing participation in UN peacekeeping operations under very strict rules of engagement. Later that year SDF members were dispatched in support of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia, and have participated in numerous peacekeeping missions since.
But this was never going to be enough for Japanese conservatives, or indeed for the US, which had originally imposed the constraints. In 1997, amid tensions between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan, US-Japan defence guidelines were negotiated, expanding what Tokyo was willing to do in support of the US in a conflict in the region. Previously, Japan was under no obligation to intervene, citing its constitutional constraints. The scope of Tokyo’s action under the newly-reciprocal arrangement was still limited to “areas surrounding Japan,” but this nonetheless created potential new licence for it to act to maintain peace or stability across the East Asia region. A military officially retained only for self-defence was later subject to more mission creep in the face of rising Chinese might—particularly in relation to tensions over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo—and North Korea’s escalating nuclear arms programme.
[su_pullquote]“Although constitutionally pacifist, Japan still ranks in the top 10 nations of the world for security expenditure”[/su_pullquote]
But the most drastic shift in Japan came under Abe, in 2014. On the anniversary of the establishment of the SDF, Abe unilaterally reinterpreted Article 9 to allow Japan to engage in collective self-defence, a stealth “revision” of Article 9, bypassing normal procedures for such amendments by simply changing the government’s interpretation, with potentially sweeping implications. Awkwardly, Abe’s handpicked constitutional scholars testified that the 2015 enabling legislation was unconstitutional, but the measure was forced through the Diet, and the Abe Doctrine came into being. Abe branded his country’s new stance “pro-active pacifism,” but this spin couldn’t draw its sting. The streets erupted with the largest protests since the 1960 rallies that had toppled his grandfather, with polls showing 80 per cent opposition to his security initiative.
In parallel, on the international stage, the US-Japan defence guidelines were again overhauled, greatly expanding once more what Japan agreed to do militarily in support of the US, while also removing the previous restriction to the East Asia region. The late US Senator John McCain—a former soldier and a powerful voice on defence—baldly spelled out that the new guidelines would commit Japan to sending in combat troops if conflict erupted on the Korean Peninsula, or if the US or its allies were under attack anywhere in the world. This was highly unpopular in Japan and Abe faced tough questioning in the Diet—but he prevailed.
By this point, Abe had radically changed the underlying terms of Japan’s defence policy. The logic now was collective self-defence, which in some ways resembles the logic that underpins Nato. This was a big shift, not at all welcomed by a public in fear of being dragged into conflict by Washington, and so Abe still had to tread carefully when it came to specific decisions about wielding real power. Earlier this year, Washington pressed Tokyo to join a US-led coalition patrol of the Persian Gulf; it wouldn’t have been hard for them to invoke “national interest,” since Japan imports nearly 90 per cent of its oil from the Middle East. But in the event, Abe—who was desperate to avoid a backlash that could snuff out his hopes of constitutional revision—demurred. Instead, he dispatched a single destroyer on an intelligence gathering mission, ostensibly acting separately from the US coalition while co-ordinating with it. When the most hawkish of Japanese prime ministers pulled back from an express request for help, the idea of Japan becoming like the UK, a dependable deputy sheriff to the US, was exposed as a pipe dream.
A monstrous paradox
Abe has come and gone, and pacifism is still a matter of national self-image. Anxiety about being dragged into war and Japan’s place in the world permeates popular culture, and yet here—as much as in politics—we can see a double-think at work. Just as the US hydrogen bomb test loomed over the launch of the Godzilla film series in 1954, four years ago Trump’s first presidential campaign provided a troubling backdrop to the latest instalment, Shin Godzilla. Trump had called into question the US commitment to the alliance with Japan, and suggested the country might want to develop its own nuclear weapons. The film, a blockbuster hit, portrays the Japanese government’s fumbling response to the notorious monster’s attack. The US comes across as an overbearing, self-seeking ally that puts its own interests ahead of Japan’s, threatening a nuclear attack on Tokyo to kill Godzilla in order to protect the US.
It’s only a film, and the bumper box office tallies arguably proved nothing other than the allure of an enduring, familiar monster. But some took it as embodying a feeling that Japan should get out from under the US thumb, stand alone and presumably rip up Article 9. Clearly, the public is anxious, and there is an abiding crisis of confidence that Abe didn’t quite dispel about Japan’s receding influence in a fraught region. The Trump years have only aggravated these anxieties since: Japanese confidence in US foreign policy plunged from nearly 80 per cent under Barack Obama to 24 per cent under Trump.
The 45th President is an aberration in many ways, but that did not harm him in an election where he held up better than expected. A poisonous campaign revealed an insular American mindset on both sides: Joe Biden may have been politer about traditional allies, but he didn’t talk about them much, nor in any sustained way did he challenge the presumptions of “America First.” Irrespective of the result, the US will remain in relative decline as a world power. Staking everything on it continuing to make sacrifices for Japan deep into the future looks like an obvious risk. And yet it was in his unwavering allegiance to a US partnership that Abe really ran aground, as his handling of the grievances of Okinawa demonstrates.
[su_pullquote]“Japan will not be shaken from pacifism by a nationalism that defers to the US”[/su_pullquote]
Three quarters of a century after the devastating battle of Okinawa, American military facilities continue to cover around 17 per cent of the island’s land area, alienating locals because bases can be noisy, environmentally damaging and hotspots for crime. Two years ago, Okinawans voted against the US military presence in a series of local elections, installing the anti-base Independent Denny Tamaki as governor in a landslide victory over the pro-base candidate backed by Abe, a humiliation for a PM who had been determined to placate the Pentagon. In a local referendum held last year, 70 per cent of islanders voted against the construction of a new US base, and yet Abe proceeded with the ill-fated project anyway. As far as Abe was concerned, Japan lives in a dangerous neighbourhood and will inevitably, even as it builds up its own forces, continue to rely on US protection.
Herein lies a paradox that could be important for where Japan goes next. The country has an unequal, almost “client-state” relationship with the US in matters of foreign and security policies, and yet, for all their avowed nationalism, conservatives see the alliance as essential and the only option for countering the threats from North Korea and China. Progressives, by contrast, fear the country’s entanglement with the US could not only accentuate regional tensions, but also encroach on sovereignty, contravene the constitution and subvert democratic values. Abe and like-minded conservatives believe the days of pacifism are numbered: in a world of rising threats and fraying alliances, they argue it has already become a luxury that Japan can ill-afford. But just as deep-rooted pacifist norms come into contact with the reality that Japan’s increasingly well-armed country now has free rein to use force in all kinds of scenarios, so too the pro-Washington assumptions of right-wingers like Abe confront the unreliability and ebbing power of the US.
The idea of “Japan alone” sends a shiver up the national spine, which renders a rupture of bilateral relations unlikely. Nonetheless, it is tempting to conclude that Shin Godzilla is more clear-eyed than politicians on either side of the constitutional divide. The film suggests relying on Japan’s own technological ingenuity, social cohesion, teamwork, indomitable spirit, and—yes—military power, but it does so on the assumption of a break with America.
In his 2020 biography The Iconoclast: Shinz Abe and the New Japan, Tobias Harris concludes that despite his long tenure and control of the Diet, Abe leaves a slight and tenuous record as a statesman. As Abenomics sputtered and promises on gender equality and corporate governance went unfulfilled, the former prime minister squandered energy on his doomed efforts at constitutional revision.
From his own nationalist point of view, however, Abe leaves behind not only a country with a strengthened military but, thanks to the expanded US-Japan defence guidelines and enabling legislation, also greatly enhanced licence for his successors to use it. His failure to prevail in his symbolic struggle to bury pacifism might be better understood as his failure to understand that the strongest argument for doing so is America’s isolationist turn.
Japan will not be shaken out of its pacifist norms by a compliant conservative nationalism that automatically defers to the US. The pacifist clause was made in Washington all those years ago; it was slowly subverted at the behest of Washington in the long decades since and, if it is eventually abandoned, it seems a fair guess that the root cause will trace back to Washington once more.
Jeff Kingston is the author of “Japan” in the Polity Histories series