Japan’s foreign policy in the post-world war two era is renowned for their strong focus on pacifism and non-aggression. This can be directly attributed to anti-war sentiments that arose after Japan’s defeat in the war, and also due to their own post-war constitution which came into effect in 1947; born out of a joint effort by both the Japanese government and the Allied forces during their occupation of the country. This post-war constitution ultimately overhauled the Japanese government, shifting it from a previously militaristic quasi-absolute monarchy under the Meiji constitution towards a form of liberal democracy with a constitutional monarchy.
The new post-war constitution did not merely overhaul the structure and system of the Japanese government, but ultimately defined Japanese foreign policy in the modern era through three simple sentences in what was known as “Article 9”. Article 9 of the Japanese constitution was added during the Allied occupation of Japan, and states:
“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… land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained… belligerency of the state will not be recognised.”
The addition of Article 9 to the constitution marked Japan’s departure from its historically imperialist and militaristic foreign policy under the Empire of Japan, and a strong shift towards pacifism and self-defence which has ultimately become a defining feature of post-war Japanese foreign policy for decades. However, this strongly pacifist posture has recently come under debate, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his intention to reform the Japanese constitution, notably (and most controversially) through the reform of the anti-war Article 9 clause by the year 2020.
So why is Prime Minister Abe considering reforming Article 9 of their constitution – which essentially limits the capabilities of the Japanese Self Defence Force (de facto Japanese military of Japan) both at home and abroad? Although Japan’s post-war military primarily focused on self-defence and an avoidance of conflict, Abe now wants Japan to reconsider its staunch value of pacifism in the face of numerous challenges to Japanese security. Japan’s Ministry of Defence highlighted particularly in their annual white paper, their concerns regarding North Korea and China. North Korea’s increasing military activity and rhetoric is currently one of the gravest concerns of Prime Minister Abe, who has taken a strong stance against the DPRK, and sided with American and U.S. allies in his condemnation of the country. North Korea has already fired two missiles directly over Japan in less than a month was seen as a provocative move by the DPRK towards Japan. Increased Chinese military activity in the South and East China Seas is also one of Abe’s major security concerns. Russia has also launched a military build-up in the disputed Hoppo Ryodo (Northern Territories) islands, which have been claimed by Japan. To add to this quagmire, Abe also faces pressure from the United States – one of Japan’s most important military allies – as President Donald Trump called for Japan to play a bigger part in regional defence of the Asia-Pacific region.
Despite all these challenges, the Japanese Self Defence Force is still not constitutionally recognised as per Article 9 which significantly limits their military capabilities. As Japan and the rest of the world enters a significantly more dangerous and unstable time, especially within the Asia-Pacific region, many are beginning to see the Article 9 clause as an anachronistic remnant of the past and an unnecessary limitation to Japan’s influence in Asia. As North Korea has significantly escalated the frequency of missile testing, including firing two missiles directly over the Japanese mainland, coupled with strong war-like rhetoric, Japan must now seriously consider constitutional recognition of the Japanese Self Defence Force through the reformation of Article 9. Doing so will ensure Japan is able to bolster international cooperation with their military allies including the United States and Australia, as well as play a more pivotal role in keeping the balance of peace in the highly volatile Asia-Pacific region.
So what will constitutional reform of Article 9 mean for Japan? Whilst the reformation process is simply a constitutional recognition of the Japanese Self Defence Force, this will have ramifications throughout the region and the world. Ultimately, four major countries will potentially be at the forefront of these ramifications – the United States, North Korea, South Korea and China. Prime Minister Abe has described this move as forming the basis of “proactive pacifism” for the future of Japanese foreign policy. In moving towards “proactive pacifism”, Japan has already been significantly increasing military expenditure in recent years, with the Ministry of Defence requesting a record $48.1 billion for 2018, the largest-ever Japanese defence budget, representing an increase of 2.5% from 2017. This funding will likely include the purchases of Aegis Ashore missile defence systems, SM-3 Block 2A intercept missiles, PAC-3 MSE missiles, upgrades to the Patriot Advanced Capability 3- missile defence system, two destroyers, six F-35A stealth fighters, development of glide bombs and four Osprey tilt-rotor transport aircraft. The record defence budget will also include expansions of next-generation radar systems to detect stealth fighters, enhancements to the automatic detection and warning system for missile strikes, and development of a system to monitor space activity. Essentially, this move towards proactive pacifism highlights the fact that Abe wants to escalate Japan’s involvement in regional and world peacekeeping affairs, as well as to increase their contributions to regional security. This will satisfy requests from Washington D.C. which has called on Japan to play a bigger role in regional security.
Reforming Article 9 will also signal a more resilient stance towards North Korea’s provocative moves towards Japan, as their military capabilities will be enhanced not only through constitutional recognition, but also through significant funding. Whilst this move will not likely result in the cessation of North Korean missile tests and live fire drills, Abe’s tougher “proactive pacifism” will at least represent a broadened show of force towards any further provocation by North Korea.
However, this move to increase Japan’s military capabilities may widen the rift with China and South Korea – both countries which were widely devastated by Japanese actions during World War Two. Beijing has already expressed concern over Japan’s pursuit of “proactive pacifism”, especially in regards to their record high military budget, and their pursuit of constitutional reform. Japan faces a critical decision – should they begin to adopt a more influential position in the Asia-Pacific by playing a greater role in regional security? In doing so, Japan will satisfy the United States which has recently been locked in a war-of-words against North Korea, but may potentially draw condemnation and concern from China and South Korea. Or should Japan retain the status quo, without recognition of the Japanese Self Defence Force and the retention of the original anti-war clause Article 9 of the constitution? This move will likely satisfy concerns expressed by China and South Korea, but will subsequently result in an emboldened North Korea which has already fired two missiles above the Japanese mainland in what represents a significant provocation towards Japan.
Taking all these aspects into consideration, Japanese constitutional reform is still justifiable and necessary. Japan is one of the major countries at the forefront of North Korean provocation (the other being South Korea). Whilst the instability in the Korean peninsula is kept in check largely due to American military presence in both South Korea and Japan, it is essential that American military allies in the region are able to contribute significantly to regional security. Japan’s largest-ever military budget is already indicating their intentions to respond to local regional provocations. As long as the capabilities of the Japanese Self Defence Force remains limited, North Korea will likely continue to not recognise Japan as a suitable military force, exemplified particularly by the DPRK’s launch of two missiles over Japanese land. Reform of Article 9 will allow Japan to expand on the roles of the Japanese Self Defence Force, signalling to the DPRK that Japan can develop the capabilities necessary to respond defensively to any potential North Korean attack. Retaining the original Article 9 clause will be an anachronistic remnant of early post-war Japan and is an unnecessary barrier to Japanese contributions to regional security. At a time when North Korea is posing such an immediate threat to Japanese security, Japan should seek to bolster its national defence in order to deter further potential escalations from the DPRK.
Whilst Abe hopes to achieve constitutional reform by 2020, Japan has already begun developing its new stance of “proactive pacifism” to reaffirm the country’s role in regional security and affairs. Despite this, the road to constitutional reform is marred with obstacles, including international opposition from two major powers and ultimately, challenging the deep rooted post-war pacifist focus that has so permeated and dominated Japanese foreign policy since the adoption of the 1947 constitution. Yet, without constitutional recognition of the Japanese Armed Forces, their military capabilities both at home and abroad remains limited. The balance of peace within the Asia-Pacific region and ultimately the world is largely influenced by events in the Korean peninsula, which has recently sent shockwaves and distress throughout the international community by the DPRK’s rhetoric and military activity. Japan, as one of the nations at the forefront of this crisis, should therefore play a more pivotal role in aiding regional security. The Asia-Pacific region has changed significantly since post-World War Two, in terms of both the balance of power and the balance of peace. Japan should, therefore, adapt to this change, and seek a more influential role in maintaining regional security based on “proactive pacifism”.