Tokyo despatch | International

The post-war pacifism is in for an update

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe inspects the U.S. Navy nuclear air-carrier USS Ronald Reagan during the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force fleet review at Sagami Bay in Yokosuka, Japan on October 18, 2015.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Caught between North Korea’s provocative weapon testing and a tense territorial dispute with an ascendant China, Japan is being forced to confront the contradictions between its constitutionally mandated post-Second World War pacifism and the realities of its precarious topography.

In the last few weeks, North Korea has tested a powerful nuclear bomb as well as sent an intermediate-range ballistic missile flying directly over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. The result is a new urgency to long-held debates in Japan related to developing more muscular military capabilities, including a possible constitutional revision.

Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution explicitly states the decision to “forever renounce war as a sovereign right” and to eschew the maintenance of military forces. This pacifist stance has been facilitated by a security alliance with the U.S. that commits the latter to defending the archipelago in the event of an attack.


Article 9 has been reinterpreted several times. Since 1954, Japan has had a self-defence force (SDF), which has over the decades grown into a 2,50,000-strong military, trained to use some of the most cutting-edge defence equipment in all of Asia. These include fourth-generation battle tanks, licence-built Apache attack helicopters and modern reconnaissance drones.

However, substantial cultural, legal and budgetary restrictions on Japan’s military capabilities remain in place. For example, ‘offensive’ weapons like bombers and long-range ballistic missiles are not permitted to the SDF and nuclear weapons are a huge taboo.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a nationalist for whom the country’s pacifism is misguided. In 2015, he revised the SDF law to permit “collective self-defence”, giving the green light for Japan to come to the military aid of allies under attack. This revision was met with huge public protests and Mr. Abe’s plans for a constitutional revision — he has set a 2020 deadline for it — are a major reason for a plunge in his approval ratings, which dropped to 20% in July.

However, North Korea’s provocations are playing into the Prime Minister’s hands. A recent poll conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper shows that following Pyongyang’s latest tests, Mr. Abe’s ratings have rebounded to 50%.

The Japanese media are currently full of security experts calling for Tokyo to develop pre-emptive strike capabilities. The purchase of cruise missiles is being mulled. And the Defence Ministry has announced a record ¥5.26-trillion ($48 billion) budget for 2018, which would cover the purchase of upgraded missile defence systems such as land-based Aegis Ashore interceptors.

Mutual support

Some analysts are even suggesting that Japan reconsider its aversion to nuclear weapons. Mr. Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump have responded to North Korea’s testing with avowals of mutual support. However, on the campaign trail, Mr. Trump had criticised Japan for riding on U.S. military power, suggesting that Tokyo acquire its own nuclear deterrent to avoid an over-reliance on the U.S.

By demonstrating that it can attack U.S. military outposts like Guam and possibly even drop a nuclear bomb on the U.S. mainland, North Korea has shaken the foundations of Japan’s national security. Washington’s commitment to protect Japan is based on the idea that the American mainland would remain safe from North Korean retaliation. However, this is no longer certain. What does look certain, however, is that Japanese “pacifism” is in for an update.

(Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist and author based in Tokyo)

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Dec 9, 2021 5:08:56 PM |

Next Story