Japan Needs Military Options

Naomi Takasu thinks her country’s constitution deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Japanese homemaker launched a campaign last year to persuade the Norwegian Nobel Committee to bestow its prestigious prize on Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, which famously renounces “forever” the right to resort to war and prohibits Japan from maintaining a traditional army, navy, or air force. Last month came word that the Nobel committee had officially accepted Article 9 as one of the 278 nominees for the 2014 peace prize, which will be announced in October. Of course it’s a long shot. But if Japan’s constitution actually wins the Nobel Prize, Takasu was asked at a press conference, who should travel to Oslo to receive it? Her answer: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should “do so willingly as the representative of Japan.”

That would be … awkward. Abe has been pushing hard to reinterpret Japan’s pacifist constitution ever since his Liberal Democratic Party surged back to power in December 2012. He has long been in favor of boosting his country’s military profile, for reasons both ideological and strategic.

As a matter of national pride and patriotism, Abe regards the postwar restrictions imposed on a vanquished Japan by the United States as a humiliation yet to be overcome. But the issue has become decidedly more pressing lately, thanks to China’s menacing brinksmanship over the Senkaku Islands and its aggressive declaration of an air-defense zone over the East China Sea. Abe has likened the worsening relationship between Japan and China today to the tensions between Britain and Germany in 1914 — tensions that ultimately resulted in World War I.

The prospect of war erupting between Japan and China is ominous enough. What’s worse is that just as Japan finds itself more and more anxious about Chinese power and intentions, it finds itself less and less certain that it can rely on the United States for protection.

“There is real fear about whether the U.S. will step up to the plate if Japan is threatened by China,” says Thomas Berger, a professor of international relations at Boston University and a specialist on Japanese politics. “The Japanese feel they have their backs against the wall; they see China trying to bully them.” Japan wants the reassurance of America’s security guarantees, “but the U.S. seems less reliable these days.” That is adding urgency to Abe’s determination to change the constitutional status quo.

President Obama spoke the right words when he traveled to Japan last month. “Let me reiterate,” he said at a press conference with Abe on April 24, “that our treaty commitment to Japan’s security is absolute, and Article 5 covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku Islands.”

That was a welcome and encouraging message, but in national security as in so much else, deeds outweigh declarations.

“There is a clear feeling here that Americans are becoming more isolationist, less willing to let their sons bleed for other nations,” political scientist Masaru Kohno, a scholar at Japan’s Waseda University, told me when I reached him in Tokyo on Tuesday. U.S. public opinion polls confirm that anti-interventionist sentiment in America is at flood tide. When the Japanese look at the U.S. retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan, or at Washington’s failure to enforce its “red line” in Syria, says Kohno, it doesn’t fill them with confidence about American resolve.

That doesn’t mean they’re about to jettison Article 9. One of the paradoxes of Japanese politics is that the postwar pacifist charter became more popular with the nation it was imposed on than with the one that imposed it. As far back as the 1950s Washington was ready to see Japan rearm and share more of the burden in the Cold War. But Japan embraced its new identity as a peace nation. Article 9 was interpreted to allow a limited Self-Defense Force, but one barred from any belligerent fighting. As a result, the U.S. alliance with Japan is highly asymmetrical — American forces are pledged to defend Japan if it is attacked, but the responsibility doesn’t go the other way.

Security-minded Japanese leaders have tried to change Japan’s defense policy, but until recently Article 9 has been an untouchable barrier. There is a sense, however, that this time may be different.

Let’s hope so. No serious nation can “forever” renounce the use of military force — especially one that shares a neighborhood with China and North Korea. Japan today is free and democratic. But it will take more than pacifism and peace prizes to keep it that way.


Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe, where this article first appeared.

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