Japan’s Sensitive Military Normalization

NEW YORK – Soon after the Islamic State's brutal murder in January of the Japanese hostages Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for the country's “biggest reform" of its military posture since the end of World War II. Abe wants Japan to become a “normal" country again, with the capacity to defend its interests and citizens wherever they are threatened. But how should his government go about it?

Even for a Japanese public that still generally supports their country's post-war pacifism, the hostage crisis was unsettling, not least because it highlighted Japan's military impotence. Unlike Jordan, which was able to consider a rescue mission for its own hostage and launch a powerful military response after he was killed, Japan's constitution left it no options for rescue or retaliation.

Article 9 of Japan's constitution, which was adopted in 1947 under US occupation, prohibits the country from maintaining armed forces or using force to settle international conflicts. Though interpretations of Article 9 have liberalized over the years, and Japan now maintains a very capable self-defense force, constitutional constraints continue to impair Japan's military capabilities and posture considerably.

To be sure, Japan's treaty alliance with the United States provides for its security. But the risks that Japan faces – including an increasingly assertive China, a nuclear North Korea, and an Islamic State that has threatened to murder Japanese citizens abroad – have raised legitimate questions about whether the country needs greater latitude to defend itself.