Thursday, November 20, 2014

Abe’s Long March

TOKYO – Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s coalition government has decided to “reinterpret” the postwar Japanese constitution. According to Article 9 of the constitution, drafted by American lawyers in 1946, when Japan was under Allied occupation, Japan renounces “war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” The new interpretation would allow Japan to use military force in support of an ally if Japanese security is under threat.

Abe chose to reinterpret the constitution because revising it would require the approval of two-thirds of the Japanese Diet. Given that most Japanese are still allergic to military force, securing the necessary votes would have been impossible.

The reinterpretation will almost certainly result in protests from China and South Korea against resurgent Japanese militarism. Because Abe is the nationalist grandson of a former prime minister who was once arrested as a war criminal, and because he has paid public tribute to soldiers who died for the emperor in World War II, these protests might seem reasonable.

Abe’s break with Japan’s pacifist consensus is beyond doubt. But the circumstances under which Japan would use force are so restricted that a revival of militarism is still a very long way off. More worrying is the effect on Japanese democracy: Elected governments do not simply change the meaning of the constitution without even bothering to get parliamentary support.

There is, however, an odd contradiction in Abe’s nationalism. Constitutional pacifism was part of the postwar order imposed by the United States during occupation and largely supported by the Japanese people, who were tired of war. Unlike in Germany, Japan had no Hitler or Nazi party on which to blame their wartime atrocities. What needed to be purged instead, postwar reformers believed, was a specific form of Japanese militarism, rooted in emperor worship, the samurai tradition, authoritarian “feudalism,” and so on.

Much in the remaking of Japan after 1945 is still to be admired: democracy, women’s suffrage, land reform, freedom of speech. But taking away Japan’s sovereign right to use military force had one major consequence: Japanese security was put almost entirely into American hands, reducing Japan to the status of a vassal state. That is why the main goal of nationalist-minded Japanese leaders, starting with Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, has been the return of full Japanese sovereignty by revising Article 9.

That was not possible when Kishi was prime minister in the late 1950s. The Japanese were not ready for it and Kishi was tainted by his wartime record as Minister of Munitions. Abe’s dream is to make it happen now – and to go further. He would like to restore some aspects of an older Japan, discredited by Japanese military behavior, such as patriotic pride, a more central role for the imperial institution, and even a reappraisal of Japan’s wartime record itself.

Hence his tributes to the Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of imperial soldiers, including notorious war criminals, are worshipped. Many Asians, including some Japanese, see this as a sign of new militarism. Abe would like it to be viewed as an attempt to restore Japan’s international reputation as a “normal country.” But Abe’s idea of normality is not yet shared by the majority of Japanese, let alone other Asians.

The contradiction in Abe’s nationalism is this: even as he talks about sovereignty regained and patriotic pride, he has done nothing to distance Japan from the postwar dominance of the US. On the contrary, his reinterpretation of the constitution is meant to help the US in its military policing of East Asia.

In fact, what appears to be driving Abe’s endeavors even more than the desire to revise the postwar order in Japan is a widely shared fear of China’s increasing regional dominance. A cursory glance at the Japanese press, or even the kind of books piled high in Japanese bookstores, shows just how frightened the Japanese are. All of the talk in Tokyo is about Chinese aggression in the East and South China Seas.

Abe’s reinterpretation, then, is not really a radical departure from the postwar order at all. China’s growing power has actually reinforced Japanese dependence on the US for its security. Japan’s main worry is that the US may not wish to risk a war with China over territorial disputes in the East China Sea. What is feared most, in addition to the rise of China, is the possible decline of the US.

The Japan-US alliance is an irritation to the Chinese, who would like the US to get out of the way, in order to be Asia’s dominant player. Or so they say in public. In fact, Chinese attitudes may be more complicated and less unified than they seem.

Indeed, China faces a rather stark choice. Either it must live with the continued Pax Americana in Asia, for as long as it lasts, or face a more independent, nuclear-armed Japan. Privately, many Chinese might still prefer the former.

This may seem to be the most stable solution. In fact, it is fraught with danger. To be sure, the US military presence still imposes a certain order with which most parties can live; but it risks dragging the world’s largest military power into petty regional conflicts, a prospect that should alarm us one century after 1914.

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    1. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Mr. Buruma can really speak of "Abe's long march". Shinzo Abe has been trying to realise his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi's dream for years. Already a decade ago his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi had questioned whether to uphold the post-war constitution. His party, the LDP agreed to submit a bill on constitutional reform by 2005. The LDP was formed after a merge of Kishi's party with another one in 1950.

      In 2003 Japan's Diet members discussed legislation paving the way for the country to play its biggest role in military operations abroad since World War II. In its first deployment in combat zone since World War II, non-combat soldiers had been dispatched to Iraq to offer humanitarian aid.

      Like Abe und Koizumi, many in the LDP believed revision was the only way Japan could maintain its security in the face of international terrorism and a nuclear-armed North Korea, which was Japan's biggest concern a decade ago. Today it's China!
      Opponents, who wanted to protect the constitution , said it would send the wrong messages to Japan's neighbours, and send the country back down the slippery slope to militarism. They believed there were many ways Japan could contribute to world peace without having to use the military. They accused the LDP of following commands of the Bush administration.
      Koizumi was a loyal supporter of US policy in Afghanistan and Iraq and he capitalised on Pyongyang's suspected nuclear weapons programme to urge for military reform, claiming Japan had to be able to engage in collective self-defence and to take part in military operations with allies overseas.
      His party's plans for the constitution were boosted when Japan's biggest opposition, the Democratic party, said it would draft its own set of reform proposals by 2006. Yet the Democrats were divided over Japan's military role. So was the LDP's coalition partner, the pacifist Buddhist-backed New Komeito, which opposed to changing Article 9. The Socialists and Communists rejected reform of any kind, saying they had the public on their side. All parties agreed on a draft constitution, which would have to be approved in a referendum.
      Relations between China and Japan were strained under Koizumi. When Abe became prime minister in 2006, the first he did was to create a fully-fledged defence ministry, the first since World War II. In July 2007 the ruling LDP suffered a crushing defeat in upper house elections. In September Abe resigned.
      Since then Japan was embroiled in a political turmoil. No government lasted longer than a year. In 2012 voters had enough of instability and gave Abe and his party a comfortable majority in both houses, so that they could pass bills without bickering. This allowed Abe to realise the dream of his grandfather, who saw the pacifist constitution a humiliation imposed upon Japan by the US. Nobusuke Kishi would hardly approve of "Pax Americana in Asia". China would rather prefer to have Americans in its backyard to having an insurgent and a "nuclear-armed Japan" right under its nose, as both countries haven't been able to come to terms with the traumatic history. The US will have to walk a fine line, in order not to be dragged "into petty regional conflicts".

        CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

        Mr. Hettlingen,
        Abe's policy is not remilitarization of Japan, not back to the Japanese past. His policy is supported by all East Asian countries except three, the three being all fundamentalist adherent countries to Confucianist philosopher Zhu Zi. Read, if interested, my comment to Young-Kwan/Asia's Military Revolution.

        I think there is no country that is so much misunderstood as Japan as far as the World War II is concerned. If I said, as I do, that Tojo was not a dictator, or that Japan was not a totalitarian country even in the 1930s, would I be denying that Japan was not an aggressive country? In almost everywhere of our world democratic traditon is tenuous snd frail, "one may conclude by wondering not why democracy failed in Japan, but rather how, despite the undemocratic tradition and the pressures of war, a totalitarian dictatorship did not evolve there (Ben-Amy Shillony, Politics and Culture in Wartime Japan, Oxford University Press, 1981)." "General Tojo, the premier, has great power, but his authority in the Japanese government does not equal Roosevelt's in the United States nor Churchill's in England, to say nothing of Hitler's and Mussolini's dictatorships (quoted by Shillony, ibid)."

        Did Hitler want to avoid war with Stalin? No. But militaristic Japan wanted to avoid war with the United States. It also wanted to get out of the quagmire of war with China, though with some imperialistic interests achieved. If interested in some more tidbits, read my two comments to Harrell/History Lessons for China and Japan, and my four comments to Burnett/War Drums in Asia: Back to the European Future?.

    2. CommentedLeo Arouet

      La dependencia de Japón de Estados Unidos es muy excesiva. Creo que Japón tiene el derecho a desarrollar altamente su industria de defensa para contener y disuadir una agresión china. La idea de reformar la constitución en el sentido de la defensa, me parece lo más adecuado.