Japan’s Sensitive Military Normalization

NEW YORK – Soon after the Islamic State’s brutal murder in January of the Japanese hostages Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for the country’s “biggest reform” of its military posture since the end of World War II. Abe wants Japan to become a “normal” country again, with the capacity to defend its interests and citizens wherever they are threatened. But how should his government go about it?

Even for a Japanese public that still generally supports their country’s post-war pacifism, the hostage crisis was unsettling, not least because it highlighted Japan’s military impotence. Unlike Jordan, which was able to consider a rescue mission for its own hostage and launch a powerful military response after he was killed, Japan’s constitution left it no options for rescue or retaliation.

Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, which was adopted in 1947 under US occupation, prohibits the country from maintaining armed forces or using force to settle international conflicts. Though interpretations of Article 9 have liberalized over the years, and Japan now maintains a very capable self-defense force, constitutional constraints continue to impair Japan’s military capabilities and posture considerably.

To be sure, Japan’s treaty alliance with the United States provides for its security. But the risks that Japan faces – including an increasingly assertive China, a nuclear North Korea, and an Islamic State that has threatened to murder Japanese citizens abroad – have raised legitimate questions about whether the country needs greater latitude to defend itself.

This could be achieved in several ways. For example, Japan could simply continue to increase the defense budget, reinterpret the existing constitution, and strengthen collective security; the capacity of Japanese special forces could be expanded; or Article 9 could be repealed altogether by a vote in both houses of the Diet, followed by a national referendum. Regardless of the specific route taken, Japan deserves to be able to protect its territory and population, just like any other country.

But any boost in its military capabilities will meet strong opposition, particularly from China and the Koreas, which continue to insist that Japan’s alliance with the US provides it with all the security it needs. Moreover, they argue that Japan has yet to come fully to terms with its colonial and wartime record.

Japan has indeed benefited enormously from US protection. But there can be no guarantee that the US will continue to defend Japan’s interests indefinitely, particularly in any clash with China. Questions, justified or not, about America’s ability to retain its dominant position in Asia’s security architecture in the medium to long term – together with the rise of isolationist sentiment within the US – have spurred its regional allies and partners, including stalwart friends like Australia, to hedge their strategic bets. It is only logical that Japan would share such concerns.

Likewise, though Japan’s behavior before and during WWII was undeniably atrocious, its record since 1945 – including championing the United Nations and other multilateral institutions and providing guidance and assistance to developing countries – has been exemplary.

It strains credulity to argue, as China and North Korea have, that a normalized Japan would threaten regional stability any more than China’s massive military buildup and territorial aggression, or North Korea’s bellicosity and nuclear weapons, already do. In fact, it is far more likely that a normalized Japan would enhance regional security by playing an important role in the balance-of-power system that China is steadily advancing with its unilateral behavior.

Nonetheless, if Japan chooses to move toward military normalization, it must demonstrate more convincingly that it has come to terms with its history – or risk seeing that effort undermined unnecessarily.

Though Japan has made significant efforts to atone for its past – by issuing repeated apologies, for example, and providing development assistance – revisionism and insensitivity by some of its leaders lately have revived historical tensions with its neighbors. That should stop.

For starters, Japan’s leaders should either forswear visits to Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni shrine, or find a creative way to have the souls of the 14 Class A war criminals that it honors moved elsewhere. Likewise, instead of refuting claims about the extent of sexual slavery during the war, Japan’s government should build a monument in central Tokyo – possibly even on the Imperial Palace grounds – commemorating the “comfort women” from Korea and elsewhere who were forced to provide sexual services to the Japanese Imperial Army. The authorities could even establish an annual conference to bring together world leaders to find ways to help protect women in conflict zones.

Finally, rather than protesting the way Japan’s WWII activities are described in US textbooks or squabbling over the number of people murdered during the Nanjing massacre, Japan should seek to help its own citizens understand and process their country’s wartime record. Other countries, particularly China, may have strong domestic political motives for their anti-Japanese propaganda, but Japan’s more sensitive treatment of its history could at least stop adding fuel to the fire.

Japan’s achievements since the end of WWII – including its enormous contribution to global peace and security – count for a lot. But, unless Japan makes more sensitive treatment of its history a cornerstone of its effort to change its military posture, the past could well become an impediment to a more secure future.

Jamie Metzl, Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council and author of Genesis Code, served on the US National Security Council and in the US State Department during the Clinton administration.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.