Japan – back to being a ‘normal’ state?

Your World Explained is back after a summer break. I’m heading back to university for one of the busiest semesters yet, as I’m taking courses in both Leiden and Nijmegen. As a result, the blog may be a little less regular than last year, but I’ll be doing my best to update twice a week!

70 years after the atomic bombing of Japan and the end of World War II in the Pacific, Japan is a very different country. From utter devastation in 1945 it has expanded into the world’s third largest economy and a vital part of the international system. The West now sees Japan as the home of anime and all things weird, rather than a militaristic and aggressive island.

A major part of this is the unique Japanese constitution, which renounces war on behalf of the Japanese people. This has long been an assurance to Japan’s East Asian neighbours, many of whom still mistrust the Japanese. However, the parliament of Japan now looks set to approve a crucial ‘reinterpretation’ of the constitution, bringing it more into line with other countries. So what exactly does Article 9 of the constitution say, and what changes are being suggested? And what impact will this have on an already tense East Asia?

Will Japan’s soldiers be heading for foreign shores?

The article in question is part of the 1946 constitution, not exactly written without outside pressure. Japan was under occupation by the United States, and their government and institutions were being completely rebuilt. There’s some dispute about whether the article was the idea of the Japanese PM or the US Commander, but in any case Japan ended up with these words:

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…
(2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.

It’s an extremely clear few lines, and it’s unique in modern history. However, the United States soon came to regret it in some ways, as when China turned Communist, Japan became their most important and strongest ally in the region. An ally which can’t use military force however isn’t always too useful, but the article was extremely popular among the Japanese public. Over the next decades though, despite the second part of Article 9, Japan did slowly build up a ‘Self-Defence Force’, which by now is one of the strongest armed forces in the region.

Recently though, the political winds in Japan have changed. Firstly, growing tension with a rising China has become sharply focused on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands – administered by Japan but claimed by China. The current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has made numerous comments which seem to play down Japan’s wartime atrocities – such as enforced prostitution and the horrific Nanking Massacre. He is also connected to the right wing, militarist Nippon Kaigi organisation, which advocates nationalism and rearmament.

It is Shinzo Abe who has pushed through this legislation that looks set to ‘reinterpret’ Article 9. The constitution will not be changed, as that would require a much larger majority. Instead, a new law will pass an interpretation of the article which allows Japanese forces to fight overseas to defend allies who have been attacked if that threatens Japan. This could include a war in Korea, or more worryingly for China, a potential conflict between them and the US. Japan would no longer need to be actually invaded before its powerful military could be put in action.

While the changes can be seen as Japan becoming more of a ´normal´ state, and letting go of the baggage of its past, it isn´t that simple. Not only in other countries, but in Japan itself, there is significant mistrust of the intentions of a Prime Minister with such a nationalist record. The pacifist constitution is hugely important to Japan, and it is worrying to many that the government has avoided real debate by simply ´reinterpreting it´. Even a survivor of the Nagasaki bombing told Abe in a speech at the commemoration `Do not meddle with the constitution´. However, with the changes almost certainly going ahead, all of East Asia will have to get used to a ‘new’ Japan.

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