Japan’s persistent pacifism

Author: Daniel Clausen, Florida International University

Japanese pacifism appears to be fading.

As the generation that experienced the Second World War is replaced by a new cohort that is psychologically detached from the horrors of the war, the number of devotees to fervent pacifism has been shrinking. Japanese pacifism as a meaningful policy alternative is no more. The once-significant Japan Socialist Party (JSP), a staunch proponent of unarmed neutrality during the Cold War, split in 1994 when the socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama accepted both the constitutionality of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and the legitimacy of the US–Japan Security Treaty as part of a deal to create a coalition government with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). In any case, the governors of Japan always tacitly accepted the need for a military force, the utility of the US nuclear deterrent, and the need to cooperate militarily with the United States, so Japan never truly embraced pacifism. What it embraced, both in its domestic and foreign policy, was an aversion to using coercive force.

But one can point to the decline of pacifism without outright rejecting its existence at some level. Pacifism lives on in forms that are subdued, but still very influential.

Political parties such as the Communist Party, New Komeito, the Social Democratic Party, and to an extent the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) continue to emphasise pacifist themes because they appeal to women voters and those who associate the shocks of globalisation with US militarism. In practice, the commitment of the various parties to pacifist principles has varied. Small parties like the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party (the rump party of the Japan Socialist Party) have been the most persistent in their devotion to pacifist principles. The New Komeito continues to use pacifist rhetoric in its campaign literature and to lobby for restraint in Japanese defence policy, but has on many occasions compromised its stance to maintain its coalition with the LDP. Meanwhile, the diverse views of DPJ members, including some pacifist members, has resulted in a vague and confusing policy discourse and muddled policy initiatives. Because both the LDP and DPJ have had to form coalitions with minority parties such as the New Komeito and the Social Democratic Party, they have often been deterred from strong moves toward remilitarisation such as revising Article 9 (the peace clause) of the constitution.

For the most part, the purest forms of pacifism continue to thrive at the local level, where it is both more relevant and more nimble in its formulations. Pacifism is a strong and persistent aspect of local identity in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two cities that advocate for the abolition of nuclear weapons through initiatives like the Mayors for Peace initiative. The unique standing of these cities as the birthplace of atomic warfare provides them with significant moral authority to express pacifist sentiments and denounce the use of nuclear weapons.

Okinawa, too, is heavily influenced by a particular brand of pacifism. During the Second World War, Okinawa was abandoned for the sake of mainland defence, and many Okinawans feel that the continuing concentration of approximately 75 per cent of Japan’s US military bases in Okinawa prefecture represents another sacrifice of Okinawa for the interests of the mainland. Not surprisingly, various elements of nationalism, pacifism, and environmentalism are often subsumed in the anti-base movement.

Despite evidence of weakening grassroots activism, there have been some very meaningful successes. Advocacy campaigns by the Article 9 Association (Kyū-Jō no Kai), which has had up to 7000 branches nationwide, have blunted the efforts of national-level politicians in their attempts to revise the peace clause of the constitution.

Thus, even if pacifism is declining in Japan, it can still have an important influence on Japanese defence policy and politics. Its most obvious influence is its ability to frustrate actors in the political mainstream who desire the revision of Article 9, more frequent dispatches of the SDF overseas, and the ability to participate in collective self-defence. The local pacifisms of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Okinawa will survive as the purest forms of Japanese pacifism even as its influence in defence policy diminishes over time. Even in national policy, however, the influence of pacifism will continue to be felt as long as politicians need to strike bargains with minority parties and maintain party cohesion.

Daniel Clausen is a graduate of Florida International University’s PhD program in International Relations. 

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