Japan’s Pacifism Tested

Japanese history is one of the most intriguing narratives of nations. Spanning a period of almost  10,000 years of archeological records, and evidence, the history of Japan is one of the longest recorded accounts of any peoples. But throughout the course of such an extended time, one could hardly call the nation’s tale pacifist.  Apart from the tribal bickering in the early stages, It is more famously known for its feudal era of warring states, a brutal period of bloodshed and lust for power. It extends to the 1800s, and World War One, eras in which the Japanese military was renown for its success and ferocity.  The aggression of The Land of the Rising Sun got even fiercer in World War Two, with Japan’s imperial ambitions in Asia. The Empire launched a campaign of conquest on the Asian mainland and countries around, committing atrocities, war crimes, and allying themselves with the Axis powers. Japan gave the allies, primarily the United States, a run for its money, but the warring days of the country end with World War Two. After the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Emperor Hirohito and the Japanese Empire surrendered unconditionally to the United States of America. General Douglas McArthur and a team of American diplomats re-drafted the Japanese Constitution, and wanting to make sure that the nation’s imperialist ambitions were dead once and for all, they included a clause which prohibits Japan from ever forming a standing army, making it thus, a pacifist nation.

The Japanese people throughout the years got used to the idea, to the point where they deemed it the best way for Japan to grow economically, and for peace to prosper. There has never been craving for past glory, the Japanese have been fairly satisfied with their non-interventionist policies, being allowed to maintain a small self-defense force solely for the purpose of protecting the people from foreign attacks or natural disasters. But in the wakes of rising North Korean military activity, and political tension between Washington and Pyongyang, one begs the question: How will pacifist Japan react?


In the past years, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has tried to amend the Japanese constitution, attempting to include clauses that would slowly change the SDF to a full-fledged Military. Amends included the SDF’s ability to assist foreign governments with weaponry and logistics for a start, and now consider the ability of Japan to deploy troops in the protection of their National Interest, and expansion of military budget and personnel. In May of this year, at the 70th birthday of Japan’s constitution, Abe restated his ambition to reform the military and expand its role. But despite the Government’s efforts, the idea has been met with fierce resistance by the Japanese people. In a poll taken last May, 82 percent seemed to concur with the idea of maintaining a pacifist constitution. Abe has faced protests and a plundering approval rating as well, which halts his efforts, but not without achieving some success. Previous Japanese governments had also expressed their wish to finally end the debate of whether the military was constitutional or not, but none had taken action, while Abe’s government successfully passed legislation expanding the SDF’s powers.

The Japanese hold their pacifist views knowing the United States acts as their protector, but a radical change in the region’s political climate could very well trigger the country’s re-militarization. While the idea of the United States pulling out of the country is unthinkable, a conflict between Washington and Pyongyang is becoming more and more of possibility. The Japanese government is aware of the danger, thus trying to push forward with their military agenda. The people have been less convinced by the situation, but their mentality is slowly changing as well.


Napoleon Bonaparte once said of China, “Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world”, which has proven to be partially true. The Chinese are the second military power in the World, and their ambitions for Global leadership continue to Grow. Although wearing a mask of neutrality in the international arena, regionally the Chinese are very active. Like many Asian nations, Japan feels threatened by Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, and their growing Military power. Abe’s re-militarization efforts attempt to address this issue as well. The Chinese have been openly challenging the United States hegemony in the region, which leaves US allies to think of their own national strategies. China’s blatant disregard of Tokyo and other regional players has forced Japan’s hand in increasing their military budget to $42 Billion, the largest ever. Beijing has piggybacked on the discontent of the Japanese people to criticize Tokyo, expressing their concern regarding a “Militaristic Japan”. Though Abe’s efforts in this sense are not those of a warmonger, but rather a patriot looking to give Japan a solid boot on the ground in the increasingly unstable political climate of the region.


Approval for the SDF has increased, and while a majority do not want to amend the Constitution, they also have no problems with the Self Defense Force being more involved in international operations.  The Pacifist constitution acts as a symbolic documents in the minds of the Japanese, which want to be portrayed as pacifists in the realm of nations, but the reality is that the SDF is becoming more and more of actual military by the day, and the Japanese don’t seem concerned with the reality of the matter.     What the Japanese people are concerned with is their international image and the paper writing that attests to the SDF being a “Self Defense Force” thus justifying its increasing militaristic role, but calling it an Army does not resonate well with the public. The other reality is that the Japanese are willing to accept an expansion of the SDF’s role, as long as constitutionally there is no to the democracy and their neighbors.

One could make the argument that the Japanese want a temporary military, which could deal with the international threat if needed but could soon return to being a simple Self Defense Force. That could be a reason as to why the Japanese hold on so dearly to Article 9 of their constitution, which gives the people power to argue and decide the role of the SDF however they please, and in accordance with a given situation. The Japanese are responding to the North Korean threat but in their own way. Regardless, they are also aware that flirting with constitutional change is a long and sometimes dangerous path. The people of Japan are not yet ready to get themselves involved in Big Stick Diplomacy, knowing that it is a complicated labyrinth with no way out. Pacifism allowed Japan to focus on their domestic problems, and that is all the Japanese want to keep on their plate for the moment. Yet, despite the domestic bickering on the issue, the international threats continue to torment the nation, and will not go away unless action is taken. Former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said, “Someday, the time will come when Japan’s peace will have to be ensured by the Japanese people themselves.” Has the time come? Is Japanese pacifism on its last legs?

By: Rex Nazarko
Image Credit: Chad J. McNeely

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