Japan’s defence and diplomacy heading in the wrong direction

Author: Arthur Stockwin, Oxford University

Japan is at a momentous turning point. On 16 July 2015 the government of Shinzo Abe used its big majority in the House of Representatives to override objections from opposition parties and pass legislation permitting collective self-defence (CSD). But this is one of several misdirected solutions following years of conservative revisionism.

If CSD is permitted, Japanese Self-Defense Forces may fight alongside US forces in conflicts not directly related to the national security of Japan. The upper house of the Japanese Diet now has to debate the legislation, with the government determined to enact it by the end of the parliamentary session on 27 September.

This overturns decades of official interpretation of the ‘Peace Constitution’ of 1947 that CSD was not acceptable except on a case-by-case basis. Even though the Abe government is supported for its attempts to revive the economy, it lacks majority support in relation to the current bills.

For the first time since November 2014, those disapproving of the Abe cabinet in the monthly Asahi Shimbun poll on government performance outnumber those approving it. Snap polls conducted by the Asahi, Mainichi and Yomiuri newspapers, and by the national broadcaster NHK, reveal unhappiness with the current legislation ranging between 56 and 67 per cent. Abe justifies CSD with the term ‘proactive pacifism’, seemingly based on George Orwell’s Big Brother principle that ‘black equals white’.

This has not happened in a political vacuum. Since the Abe government began in December 2012, it has worked hard to dismantle much of the post-war settlement set up during the Allied Occupation and following the return of full Japanese sovereignty in April 1952.

Principal among the government’s targets has always been the ‘Peace Constitution’, with its peace clause, its liberal chapter on human rights, its separation of religion from the state, and its designation of the emperor as a ‘Symbol of the State’ rather than ‘Head of State’. But the constitution is very difficult to revise, and today it appears unlikely that the mandatory 50 per cent plus one majority in a national referendum on a revised draft would be achieved, even if two-thirds could be obtained in each parliamentary chamber (which may well be possible at present).

Well aware of these obstacles, Abe decided on ‘revision by reinterpretation’ given the political hurdles of ‘revision by redrafting’. The current CSD legislation is the prime example of this approach. It has been under attack by increasingly well-organised campaigns of articulate opinion outraged by a government that ignores constitutional proprieties and risks dragging Japan into wars not of its own making. Such concerns are reinforced by recent agreements with the United States for increased cooperation and ‘interoperability’.

It has been a central goal of the Abe government to reverse previous war apology approaches. The gold standard for such apologies was the war apology made by the former Socialist prime minister Tomiichi Murayama on 15 August 1995, the 50th anniversary of the defeat. Murayama’s apology was a thoughtful reflection on the terrible events between the late 1930s and 1945, and contained key words that have stuck in the craw of conservatives ever since, including ‘mistaken national policy’, ‘colonial rule and aggression’ and ‘apology’ (o-wabi).

Another significant war apology was that of a senior Liberal Democratic Party politician, Yohei Kono, in August 1993, concerning the so-called ‘comfort women’ issue. The Abe government has put extensive resources into rebutting the contention that ‘comfort women’ were coerced into serving the Imperial Armed Forces as prostitutes. More generally, the government has sought to maintain previous war apologies formally, but attack their content in successive speeches so as to rob them of any real meaning and substance.

Another crucial piece of legislation steered through parliament by Abe was the Designated Secrets Law, which imposed draconian sanctions against government officials and journalists convicted of publicising vaguely defined ‘designated State secrets’. This was widely attacked as suppressing freedom of speech, as was the government’s appointment of those closely associated with its own views to the board of NHK.

Abe’s 2013 pilgrimage to the Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of 14 wartime leaders are among those enshrined, attracted hostile reactions from China and South Korea. Relations between China and Japan have deteriorated severely since the Abe government was elected. For this, the governments of both countries are equally responsible: Japan for its insensitive revisionism and nationalism, and China for its expansionist policies in the East and South China Seas, for its belligerence over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, as well as for its military build-up.

The result of all this is deeply unfortunate. Antagonistic relations between Japan and China were far from inevitable. After the economic opening of China from the late 1970s, Japan–China relations developed magnificently, and with moderate Japanese leadership, good will could have prevailed. The mutual economic benefit of Japanese investment in China could have borne political fruit. As it is, the advantages of economic interaction are jeopardised by Japanese reactionary nationalism and Chinese military expansion.

Arthur Stockwin is an emeritus fellow and founding director of the Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies at the University of Oxford.

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