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Military Normalisation in Japan; A Foregone Conclusion?

Published 13 Sep 2015
William Read

Shinzo Abe recently pushed legislation through the Japanese Parliament (Diet) aimed at further implementing and expanding Japanese military capabilities in a move that is a step forward in the long awaited, and largely expected, plan for military normalisation. Article 9 of the National Constitution of Japan currently precludes Japan from using its armed forces to settle regional or international disagreements.

In the years following the end of occupation in 1952, Japan has slowly, with varying degrees of difficulty, driven defense policy towards achieving true military normalisation. Faced with intense antiwar sentiments, a pacifist Constitution and opposition from regional neighbours, the path to normalisation has not been an easy one, requiring long-term incremental policy making that balanced the expectations of a suspicious public with that of the reality of Japans regional and international security positions.

Japan, having faced an intolerable defeat at the hands of the United States at the close of the Second World War, has an ingrained pacifism that permeates much of Japanese society. It is this entrenched pacifism that has driven consistently high polls of the Japanese public against Abe’s push for constitutional amendment. Abe’s methods have been seen by many Japanese as underhanded legal wrangling, a ‘back door’ approach’, necessitated out of an inability to adequately sway public opinion. Abe himself has decried the apparent failure of his government to appropriately explain his proposed legislation in a way that assuages lingering concerns of the public.

Abe’s quest for military normalization has been buoyed by recent domestic legislative wins and backing from the United States. Since achieving his July 2014 reinterpretation of the Japanese Constitution, a precedent-setting feat, through cabinet resolution, Abe has defended his support for ongoing military normalisation. This reinterpretation effectively ended the ban on deployment of Japan’s military overseas and has sparked debate on whether or not Japan should engage in ‘collective self-defense’ if the need arose. The package of bills passed through the Diet, thanks largely to Abe’s ruling majority in this house. The bills now head to the upper house where they are likely to be passed in cooperation with coalition partner Komeito.

Though Japanese pacifism remains the general rule of the land, recent regional security issues have raised the prospect of revisiting Japanese self-defense, in spite of Article 9. An ever-present threat from a nuclear North Korea and squabbles in the South China Sea have brought this issue to the fore and encouraged the natural progression towards a renewed twenty-first century self-defense policy. This progression has roots in the late twentieth century wherein a Japanese defense white paper made reference to a regional, rather than domestic, security strategy. Critics of the current trend towards military normalisation routinely recall the hawkish and warmongering attitudes that the Empire of Japan exhibited during the mid-twentieth century that lead Japan to its brutal defeat, without acknowledging the reality of current day Japan. With widespread economic stagnation, ongoing regional instability and a key ally, in the United States, requesting a more involved Japanese military, a broadening in the purview of the Japanese armed forces is a sensible alternative to the inward looking, isolationist Japan of the late twentieth century.

The United States has been keen to build on its commitment to protect Japan from external threats, as outlined by the 1960 treaty, by empowering Japan to engage in a more mutual alliance of self-defence. The United States is cognisant of China’s military buildup and its claims among the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the South China Sea and would see increasingly assertive Japanese armed forces as a counterweight to this influence. It is mindful, too, that the provision of greater military flexibility that would, in turn, lend greater weight to Japan’s renowned use of diplomacy.

As both China and the United States bolster their respective naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan will look to loosen the hold of Article 9 to ensure that it is able to effectively strengthen its territorial and energy interests in the region, particularly in areas of strong contestation. Japan must shrug the mercantile and introverted maritime military strategy that dominated the previous half-century to successfully address the threats and challenges of the next fifty years. Abe, though faced with emotive public backlash, is ensuring that the Japan of tomorrow will be positioned as a constructive, self-reliant and responsible regional and international citizen.

William Read is a recent graduate of the University of Sydney where he majored in both Government & International Relations and American Studies. William has pursued his interest in the United States by first embarking on a semester abroad at the University of Richmond, VA in 2013 and recently undertaking a six month internship with the American Foreign Service Association in Washington, D.C. His research interests lie predominantly in the Australia-U.S. alliance, regional defence and security, cyber security and international economic concerns.