The Japanese government under Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has been rigorously attempting to pass a bill that would allow deploying its self-defense forces overseas. The effort is largely driven by Abe, who wishes to fulfil his promise to his American allies that Japan would take a more proactive role in maintaining security in East Asia. However, the effort had backfired as the Japanese public, and constitutional experts believe Japan must maintain a pacifist stance and perceive Abe’s proposal as ‘unconstitutional’. The bill would hinder Japan’s democratic foundation, and it would also be interpreted as an act of hostility by Japan’s neighboring states (China, especially). Therefore, it is questionable whether Japan’s abandoning its long pacifist tradition to take a more proactive role in maintaining security in East Asia would be worth the cost.
Abe’s objective is to increase Japan’s Self-Defense Force’s (JSDF) role in ‘collective self-defense’, which involves JSDF taking a more proactive role in defending Japanese lives in both home and overseas. In March, Masahiko Komura, the Vice President of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), visited the US and informed U.S Defense Secretary Ashton Carter that the Japan’s Self-Defense Force will be happy to assist U.S armed forces defending U.S. military assets in East Asia. The new security guidelines also propose allowing JSDF to participate in peacekeeping missions.
Fulfilling the promise would require amending the pacifist clause of Japan’s postwar constitution adopted in 1947. Abe has promised U.S. President Obama that he will seek to amend Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, which prohibits Japan’s Self-Defense Force from conducting missions overseas and using force to settle disputes with other neighboring states. So far, his plan has not progressed smoothly. Some of Japan’s constitutional law scholars have criticized the bill as an ‘unconstitutional’ work, composed by ‘amateurs’. Yasuo Hasabe, one of the scholars, has criticized the Japanese government’s effort to pass the bill, expressing his concern that the bill aims to fulfil the LDP’s partisan goal. Yasuo argues that the bill would destroy the constitutional restraints on government’s power if it passes.
The majority of Japanese civil society does not support this effort either. A poll shows 63.7% of respondants are opposed to collective defense. About 25,000 protesters gathered in front of the parliament on June 14 to condemn the LDP’s bill.
One of the reasons that the bill is so controversial is because Abe endorses it. Over the years, Abe’s personal view and his offensive remarks demonstrating his nostalgia for the ‘glorious’ days of Imperial Japan have become seriously controversial in Japan and elsewhere. Many have been outraged by his and his close associates paying regular visits to Yasukuni Shrine (a place where Japanese war criminals of the Second World War are enshrined). Another incident in 2013 has been an undeniable proof that Abe feels nostalgic about Imperial Japan’s days of glory. While visiting Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force’s aerobatic team, a photo of Abe posing with his thumbs up inside a jet trainer emblazoned with “731” was taken. The problem is that “731” symbolizes Unit 731, Imperial Japan’s covert military unit, notorious for experimenting on human beings with biological weapons. Most of the victims were Chinese and Korean POWS. The photo sparked up an outrage and a series of condemnation from South Korea, Japan, and the US.
Japan’s initiative to actively participate in ‘collective self-defense’ may seem attractive to Washington D.C., desperate to contain China’s increasing influence in Asia. However, Abe’s personality remains an issue. As many Japanese suspects, Abe’s intention is not pure as he willingly aims to weaken Japan’s democratic foundation for the sake of national security.
The US turns a blind eye to Japanese elites’ imperial nostalgia and supports the LDP’s effort to amend the constitution, it would be a heavy blow to Japanese democracy, which has already suffered from the notorious state secret act that prohibits the Japanese media from reporting any information that the government has classified as ‘state secret’. Also, the bill would inevitably polarize the Japan-China relations even further. The Chinese government has already responded by openly denouncing the bill. The policymakers in Washington D.C. must be aware of the negative consequences of supporting the bill with a classical realpolitik mindset. They must thoroughly assess the underlying danger of strengthening ties with a leadership that holds imperial nostalgia.