Guest Editorial Penn On Fall Of

Guest Editorial: Penn on the Fall of Pacifist Japan

Michael Penn examines the impact of the Iraq crisis on Japan.


Ending the “Irresponsible Peace”—The Fall of Pacifist Japan

by Michael Penn

More than two centuries ago James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers that “the mild voice of reason, pleading the cause of an enlarged and permanent interest, is but too often drowned, before public bodies as well as individuals, by the clamors of an impatient avidity for immediate and immoderate gain.” To put it in less-poetic modern language: In politics, short-term interests often win out over long-term interests. These are thoughts that are brought to mind by the recent turn in Japanese foreign policy, and by the forces in Washington that have so assiduously promoted this change.

In the immediate aftermath of the Pacific War, the Supreme Command of the Allied Powers (SCAP) was determined to ensure not only that Japan was really defeated, but that it would never rise again as an aggressive military power to challenge the American-dominated order in the Pacific. One of the main instruments that SCAP used to enforce its policy was Japan’s “Peace Constitution.” The Preface of the Constitution noted that the Japanese people were “resolved that never again shall we be visited with the horrors of war through the action of government.” The crucial Article Nine of the Constitution continued on as follows:

1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

However, with the onset of the Cold War, the priorities of the U.S. government began to change, and the Eisenhower Administration began to pressure the newly-sovereign Japanese government to take more “responsibility” for Japan’s own military defense. As a result, in 1954 the “Self-Defense Forces” (SDF) were created to help fulfill the perceived need for the defense of the Japanese home islands.

For decades afterwards, Japan’s opposition parties argued convincingly that the very existence of the SDF was a violation of the Constitution. However, as a practical matter the SDF received public acceptance so long as the “spirit” of the Constitution was maintained. The SDF was kept at home and kept quiet. Throughout the Cold War, Japan maintained an uneasy equilibrium between the actual text of the Constitution and its general intent by pretending not to notice that the SDF was really there.

It was the Persian Gulf Crisis of 1990-1991 that upset the equilibrium. At that time, the first President Bush was eager to assemble as broad a coalition as possible to challenge the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Japan responded quickly with sanctions and its traditional offers of financial support, but soon found itself reeling under a barrage of American criticism for engaging in “checkbook diplomacy” and avoiding the “dirty work” of military action. Major U.S. newspapers like the New York Times assaulted Japan’s dilatory performance and Congress even made open threats aimed at Tokyo. Japanese elites were stung deeply by this kind of criticism, but their hands were tied by the constitutional restrictions and by the fact that a large majority of the Japanese public was simply opposed to any major expansion of Japan’s military role. In the end, Japan paid about US$13 billion and sent minesweepers to the postwar Persian Gulf.

The Japanese government’s reaction to September 11 has stood in sharp contrast to that of the Persian Gulf War. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is far more popular and politically secure than Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, his Gulf War predecessor. He is also among the most determined of Japan’s leaders to restore the full legality and acceptance of Japan’s military service. His appointee as head of the Defense Agency was the rightwing military buff Shigeru Ishiba. Furthermore, his main foreign policy advisor on Iraq policy has been, until recently, Yukio Okamoto, a strong proponent of strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance and establishing “responsible pacifism” (which is far more concerned with “responsibility” than “pacifism”).

Many commentators from the American political establishment have heaped praise upon Koizumi for his more active role, and this, together with the North Korea issue, have helped Japan’s Right stage a remarkable rise in political influence. It is now open season on the postwar pacifist tradition in Japan as all the old red lines are being crossed one-by-one. First, the MSDF was allowed to send Aegis warships to support U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Next, Japan actively lobbied on the Bush Administration’s behalf to support the “preemptive” invasion of Iraq. Then, Japan actually sent its own SDF units to Samawa for the purpose of “humanitarian reconstruction support.” Now, Japan’s main business lobby has just asked permission to begin arms export sales abroad.

The fact that all of this is clearly contrary to Japan’s Constitution has been waived aside by the government as a matter of little importance (The official line is that there are “other ways” to interpret the Constitution). The fact that about 80% of the Japanese public opposed the American attack on Iraq at the time it began was also irrelevant. The salient point is that the government forced it through and thus made it a reality. As this new reality has set in, the Japanese public has been showing an increasing acceptance of the new status quo.

The Bush Administration and the Japanese Right have thus succeeded in bringing about a sea change in Japanese politics. Japan’s age of “irresponsible pacifism” and avoiding the “dirty work” of war is clearly at an end. However, before U.S. leaders uncork the champagne, there are yet a few unsavory points to take into account:

1) Japan has been effectively ruled by a single right-leaning political party for almost half a century with only one short lapse in the early 1990s. In other words, Japan is not a very mature democratic country in spite of its free elections.

2) Real power in Japan tends to lie with a bureaucracy that is not accountable to the public and tends in fact to operate above the law. The infrastructure of a genuine civil society remains weak in Japan.

3) The SDF is already showing signs of discomfort with civilian political control. In late 2001, Japanese officers secretly asked the Pentagon to pressure their own government to allow them to send Aegis warships to the Indian Ocean. Also, Admiral Koichi Furusho in early June 2004 requested that the new position of Joint Chief of Staff not be under the authority of any civilian in the Defense Agency. The Constitution hasn’t even been revised yet and already the old military-civilian conflict that plagued prewar Japan is beginning to reappear.

In his recent book on Japan’s destruction of its own natural environment, Alex Kerr, a lifelong resident of Japan, made an interesting observation about the workings of Japanese government and society. He noted that “many an admiring book tells of how subtle [Japanese] bureaucrats gently guide the nation, magically avoiding all the discord and market chaos that afflict the West. But while the experts marveled at how efficiently the well-oiled engines were turning, the ship was headed toward the rocks. Japan’s cleverly crafted machine of governance lacks one critically important part: brakes. Once it has been set on a particular path, Japan tends to continue on that path until it reaches excesses that would be unthinkable in most other nations.”

The Bush Administration—in alliance with the re-born Japanese Right—has now helped Japan shed its excesses of peace. If Kerr’s analysis of Japan is correct, then what Japanese excesses are waiting for us now in this age of an eternal “War on Terror”? When future generations of Americans look back upon what has been done in these days—to abuse and castigate the Japanese for being too peaceful until they finally began to accept the “responsibility” of war once again—will they say that we have “plead the cause of an enlarged and permanent interest” (that is, a happy and peaceful Japan), or that we have forsaken our own long-term interests in favor of “an impatient avidity for immediate and immoderate gain”? As Madison may have said: Let Reason be the Judge.

Michael Penn

The University of Kitakyushu

mep1071 a t hotmail d o t com

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