Shinzō Abe to remilitarize Japan?

By Daniele Pestilli on February 7, 2013
Image credit: DonkeyHotey (Flickr.com) CC

On 1 February, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe reiterated he would like to amend the constitution of Japan, so that the country’s Self-Defense Forces (jieitai – lit. self-defense squad) may turn into armed forces (kokubō-gun – lit. national defense military). During a recent interview he stated,  “in Japan, we wouldn’t call the Self-Defense Forces a military (guntai) force, but according to international law, they would be seen as such. Clarifying this viewpoint is essential.”

Abe has long sought to redraft parts of the country’s constitution in the name of national self-defense. He did so during his first term in office in 2006 and again in the run-up to polls, prior to his re-election in December. But this hawkish stance has made Japan’s neighbors very skeptical of the archipelago’s true intentions, both for historical reasons and because of Japan’s ongoing spats with Korea, China and Taiwan over the sovereignty of tiny islets.

According to Asahi Shinbun, the Prime Minister underlined that the constitution’s pacifism, its inviolable rules regarding civilian control and the renunciation of the right to belligerency will remain unchanged. One may wonder, then, why Abe would like to redraft the article in the first place.

In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. imposed a constitution unto Japan that in recent years, has become a topic of heated debate. Article 9 states, “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” and “The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.” Many Japanese see this mentality as outdated and in dire need of revision.

Trying to depart from this clause is not uncommon. Other right-wing politicians like BBC, the attack occurred in retaliation for France’s intervention against Islamists in Mali.

However, it would be naïve to believe this tragic incident alone is the reason why Japanese politicians are so keen on re-empowering their military. In fact, amongst the promises made by the Liberal Democratic Party before elections were that its leaders would not only revive Japan’s recession-bound economy, but also stand up to North Korea, China and other potential aggressors. But there is a slight problem with this tough-talk.

While Japan’s Self-Defence Forces are well funded and among the most technologically advanced in the world, China has the world’s largest military force as well as the largest standing army. In a military escalation between the two, the tides of fortune would likely not be as clement with Japan as they were in the past.

Beijing’s ongoing military buildup is clearly of high concern to Tokyo. According to the Japan Times, Manila, which also has a territorial row with Beijing, said it favors a stronger Japan that can act as a check to China. In the meanwhile, South Korean media is keeping a close eye on its neighbor’s next move since a militarily aggressive Japan brings back more painful memories than a militarily powerful China.

Abe, who successfully made it on the list of “Japan’s top 10 most useless PMs” for his prime-ministership in 2006-7 should take extra care to not make any more foolish decisions. He has already taken the inflammatory steps of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo twice, which honors Japanese Class A war criminals (hardly surprising, since his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a cabinet member imprisoned as a Class A war crimes suspect but never tried, who became prime minister in 1957.) But Abe’s hawkishness does not end here: he has denied the Nanjing Massacre, denied that the so-called comfort women who serviced Japanese soldiers in wartime brothels were coerced and called for a reconsideration of the 1993 and 1995 apologies for wartime sexual slavery. He has also had the brilliant idea of restricting the right to education in Japan to “us Japanese citizens” (ware ware Nihon kokumin – i.e. excluding foreigners) and replacing real educational goals with chauvinistic ones like “tradition,” “culture” and “love of nation.”

A return to such wartime rhetoric is potentially damaging for Japan. Instilling a sense of “Japaneseness" to the country's youth while empowering its military through constitutional revision seems like a recipe for disaster. It is a negative syndrome coming out of economic humiliation, territorial strife, insecurity and an embarrassing memory of wartime legacies. Yet there is hope if only the Japanese remember that this same political ideology once dragged them into the seventh layer of hell, causing unpardonable wrongdoings and unnecessary anguish on all fronts.