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Fighting Pacifism: Japan’s Complicated Relationship With Its Military

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Snap Shot Article

By Jack Parkinson

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Article 9, the section of Japan’s constitution concerned with defence, has been a flashpoint of controversy in the island nation since it’s promulgation. Implemented in 1947 under the supervision of the occupying US military administration, it forbids Japan from maintaining any armed forces and from using war as a means of settling international disputes. Imposed upon the country after the second world war, whereby the Japanese Empire had engaged in a ruthless and bloody attempt to secure complete hegemony over East Asia, it sought to ensure that another attempt at Japanese empire building never took place again. But now, after seven decades of thriving and fair democracy, Article 9 looks ridiculously, if not dangerously, outdated.

“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"

“land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained”

- Excerpts from Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution

Japan has an incredibly strong ‘Self-Defence Forces’ (SDF), its fashionably named military, with over 300,000 highly equipped personnel, a formidable air force, and an elite navy. Today, it has the 8th highest military budget globally and ranks among the greatest military powers in the world. Technically, Japan’s army is unconstitutional, yet both the Japanese government and the US have long recognised that a nation without any means of self-defence is more likely to invite war rather than deter it. Nevertheless, some dovish actors within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and nerves over public backlash have prevented any amendments to the Japanese constitution or Article 9, despite the best efforts of Shinzo Abe, Japan’s late prime minister.

This constitutional sidestepping complicates matters. It makes keeping Japan’s defences up to date a delicate and tricky business: it is incredibly easy for someone to decry unconstitutionality every time Japan seeks to deploy or expand its forces. Not even mentioning the damage done by turning a blind eye to part of the constitution, it also greatly slows the SDF’s ability to make decisions to operate abroad or join international security efforts. After the US withdrawal in Kabul, by the time Japan was able to send aircraft to evacuate, they realised that everyone had already left. Japan’s peacekeeping efforts are even more comical:

“Its troops in Iraq had to be protected by Australian forces, because they were not allowed to shoot back at militants who attacked their base. This year Japanese UN peacekeepers pulled out of South Sudan after it was revealed that the war-ravaged African country was, yes, a bit dangerous. In July Mr Abe’s defence minister had to resign for allegedly covering up this well-known fact."

(The Economist (2017) ‘Time for Japan’s prime minister to change the constitution’)

Despite this, things are changing. With North Korea launching nuclear capable missiles over the island, and China becoming increasingly belligerent around Taiwan, many feel unsafe. Hence, since 2014 Japan has reinterpreted its constitution twice to allow for greater planning of defences beyond just self defence (such as helping defend Taiwan) as well as allowing the military to act against “existential threats”, vague as it may be. Since 2016, Japan has opened a league of bases to counter Chinese aggression and increased the size of its submarine fleet from 16, to 22, a meaningful difference. Ministers and officers alike have also been working diligently to close off ‘choke-points’ that may threaten Japan in a conflict, seeking to avoid the same type of gas blackmail that Europe succumbed to earlier this year. Medical equipment and semiconductors are a priority.

In particular, the invasion of Ukraine nearly a year ago was a wake-up call to those who felt Japan’s military should remain as unthreatening as possible. Remembering the threats posed by autocracies who care little for international law, Japan has been spurred into action. Although not declaring anything as dramatic as a “Zeitenwende” or ‘turning point’ like his German counterpart, on December 16th the Japanese Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, approved long-awaited revisions to its national security strategy and key defence policies. It codified plans to raise defence spending from 1% (from a rule established in 1976) to 2% of GDP by 2027, giving it the 3rd largest defence budget in the world. On top of this, the SDF will greatly expand its forces and even acquire long-range missiles that would allow it to strike targets in enemy territory. Mr Kishida is acutely aware that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow”.

This is a far cry from the situation some 10 years ago; the provisions of long-range offensive missiles would have been unimaginable back then. Japan’s army may have been unable to shake off its legal shackles, with Article 9 looking set to stay for now, but if the SDF did not look formidable before, it certainly will soon. Ultimately though, it’s important to see how this new money is spent. Beefing up the military will not be an easy task. Japan has a rapidly aging population, recent polls show few young people would fight for their country in a war, and the economy is in decline. The GDP to debt ratio is 262.5%. Japan, as one of the worlds most important mature democracies, should be playing a role in protecting international law and order from those who threaten it. This new budget heralds a new era of Japanese defence but only time will tell how attitudes have changed to Japan’s role on the world stage. Bigger guns mean little if you are not willing to use them.


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