Japan – failed peace state?

Jan 31, 2023
Flag of Japan

A little over 75 years ago, a Japan-designed Asia-Pacific community collapsed, leaving not only Japan itself but much of the region in chaos, millions dead, cities in ruins.

The lesson the world – and the Japanese people – took from the catastrophe was incorporated in the constitution of Japan agreed one year later: under Article 9 Japan pledged to forever renounce “war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes,” adding that “land, sea, and air forces … will never be maintained.”

That pledge remains, but has been steadily emptied of content, and the aspiration to create a new kind of state, one resting on a “peace” principle, has been largely forgotten. Over subsequent decades, the US itself came to regret its notion of Japan as “peace state” and to exert steady pressure on Japan to revive and expand its military. With US encouragement, over time Japan built formidable land, sea, and air forces, evading the constitutional proscription by calling them “Self-Defence” forces (rather than Army, Navy, and so on), Other states with good reason to know and fear Japanese militarism (Australia included) also abandoned their commitment to the idea of its permanent demilitarisation. With Japan henceforth “on our side,” what could there be to worry about, they seemed to say. For as long as this author can remember, no public figure in Australia ever went on record as endorsing Japan’s constitutional pacifism.

The constitution steadily sidelined, by early 21st century Japan was one of the world’s great military powers. During Shinzo Abe’s second term as Prime Minister (2012-2020) Japan gave highest priority to the construction of a major new base for the US Marine Corps at Henoko in the north of Okinawa Island, and a chain of military bases for its own (Self-Defence) forces time along the islands from Kyushu to Taiwan (on Amami, Miyako, Ishigaki, Yonaguni) with a completely new facility to be shared by all three Japanese forces on the uninhabited Mage.

The Australia-Japan security and defence relationship, defined in 2007 during the leadership of Shinzo Abe and John Howard as a “Special Strategic Partnership,” reaffirmed in Tokyo in December 2022, gradually assumed the significance of a quasi-alliance, despite the absence of public debate or decision on either side. Both countries, in effect integrated into the US Indo-Pacific Command, adopt fundamental hostility towards China as the “unprecedented and greatest strategic challenge,” whose rise as global competitor to the United States was deemed incompatible with a “rules-based international order,” i.e. with continued US hegemony. Till his assassination in July 2022, Shinzo Abe (PM, 2012-2020) played a key role in embracing and coordinating such agendas. His was a minority position, facing strong criticism and opposition, but post-Abe governments, including Kishida’s, nevertheless adopted and strove to implement his legacy.

When a state funeral for Abe was mooted, one group of prominent Japanese citizens, including former mayor of Hiroshima Akiba Hidetoshi, urged prospective foreign guests (including current and former Australian Prime Ministers Anthony Albanese, John Howard, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott) not to attend. Akiba’s 21 September Statement pulled no punches, declaring that “it is common knowledge that Prime Minister Abe violated the Constitution, trivialised the Diet, and caused numerous scandals, especially those related to the Unification Church.” However, ignoring the pleas of Japan’s constitutionalists and democrats, in effect the Australians supported the long-running rightist (Abe-led) campaign to subvert and revise the constitution and to further militarise Japan.

In December 2022, the Government of Japan announced a series of measures designed to substantially elevate Japan’s already significant military posture, doubling military expenditure from one-percent GDP (the NATO level) and expending a grand total of around 43 trillion yen ($US 335 billion) over the five-year period to 2027, bringing it to world No 3 (after only the United States and China). Among other things, Japan would purchase hundreds of ship-launched Tomahawk missiles (with the potential to strike enemy bases in China and Russia), plus large quantities of attack and reconnaissance drones, F-35 stealth fighters, submarines, and warships. It also declared readiness, under certain conditions, to carry out pre-emptive attack on threatening enemy forces. To such a degree had the Article 9 principle been degraded

From January 2023, Japan assumed a globally significant role of a two-year membership of the United Nations Security Council and simultaneously chair of the G-7 group of industrial states. After visiting major G-7 countries (France, Italy, UK, Canada), Prime Minister Kishida called on President Joe Biden in Washington. He stressed throughout the need for strategic coordination between Japan and the NATO states (under US direction) and support for the US/NATO war against Russia. The Statement to which he and Biden added their names on 13 January referred to the Japan-U.S. alliance as “the cornerstone of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region,” and to “Japan’s bold leadership in fundamentally reinforcing its defence capabilities.” In the fine print was the ominous message that the US would defend Japan “using all capabilities, including nuclear weapons.” Such explicit reference to the “deterrence” afforded by the US nuclear umbrella was rare, raising the question of whether Kishida had sought it in advance. In any case, the nuclear nature of the US-Japan relationship, as no doubt also the US-Australia relationship, was plain.

The post-World War Two Asia-Pacific settlement thus continued to morph from the 1947 declaration of peace towards war preparation. Tanks and missiles are despatched to remote East China Sea Japanese islands, evacuation drills are conducted and local residents urged to make contingency plans, for war. The US Marine Corps “re-purposes” its Okinawa-based units, facilitating their deployment to farther, further islands and arms them with anti-ship missiles for use against Chinese shipping in the event of any Taiwan “contingency.”

With the world careening towards a potentially nuclear Armageddon, Japan’s decision to overrule its constitutional prohibition of war and massively increase war preparedness is acclaimed in NATO and US political and military circles and by prominent Australian military affairs specialists (Mick Ryan in Sydney Morning Herald of 25 January).

As the tempo and intensity of war-rehearsals and “games” built up, and tension rose especially in the frontier islands, the nation-wide support level for the Kishida government fell, passing the sensitive 25 per cent level in December 2022. As current policies bite and military expenditure is re-doubled, national debt, already number one by far of industrial states at 265 per cent of GDP, inflates, taxes rise, pushing the economy into high-risk territory and destabilising people’s livelihood.

Over coming months, the G-7 industrial states will prepare to discuss global concerns at Hiroshima in May. Prime Minister Kishida, host for Hiroshima, could offer no greater contribution to the world than if he were to pledge to return to Japan’s 1947 principles, universalising the war-outlawing principle and proclaiming the causes of disarmament, peace and cooperation. That today may sound improbable but the alternatives – war or continuing, fragile, militarised standoff – are, or should be intolerable.

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