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Japan's attitudes and military behaviour is changing

The once weak Japanese military is now again ranked on the top somewhere between 4th and 7th best in the world

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Image Credit: U.S. Navy/MC3 Nathan Burke

The past years have seen a significant shift in Japanese attitude towards war, from a pacifistic to a militaristic outlook. The pacifism that resulted from the consequences of the Second World War is still an important part of Japan’s national identity. Consequently, resurgent militarism is therefore even more surprising, but a complicated set of factors might shed light on its causes.

After a catastrophic WWII, where Japan lost 3 000 000 of its citizens, 200 000 of which were casualties of the atomic bombs, Emperor Hirohito sued for peace and in a radio broadcast called for a “grand peace for all the generations to come”. This signalled a 180 degree turn from the imperialist strivings which characterised the previous decades. The unconditional surrender was followed by an occupation, and a U.S. dictated constitution in which art. 9 stipulated that “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”. Furthermore, it also stated that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained”. Thus, the idea of pacifism became deeply entrenched in its national identity.

However, the emergence of the Cold War, most visible in Asia through the outbreak of the Korean and Vietnamese wars, forced the country to change the interpretation of this paragraph, which allowed the establishment of the Self Defense Force (SDF). This was a small force created primarily for the defence of Japan. The end of the Cold War brought a brief few years of relative build down of tensions and forces, but North Korea’s aggressiveness in the region since the 1990s, coupled with the recent Chinese challenge in the South China Sea alarmed Japanese defence experts. However, the public remained staunchly opposed to any kind of armament.

Nevertheless, change in this outlook started somewhere in the 2010s. It is impossible to pinpoint an exact date, but there are multiple factors contributing to this shift. Firstly, Japan is not an exception to the global rise of conservative nationalist parties. Shinzo Abe, the conservative prime minister who is in his fourth term, is pushing the country to the right. His rhetoric reflects this increasing shift, as he consciously attempts to convey military strength in a positive light. Secondly, the earthquake and the tsunami in 2011 saw massive deployment of the SDF for humanitarian aid purposes, which clearly resonated positively with the affected population. Thirdly the previously mentioned uncertainties regarding China and North Korea, coupled with recent neglect of the Trump administration of its allies in the region also contributed to a revised understanding for the need of a strong SDF among the general public. Consequently, the positive outlook on the SDF rose from 55% in the 1980s to 71% in 2015 and 90% in 2018, which presents a gradual but significant change.

This shift allowed Abe to pursue significant legal and financial changes. In 2015 the parliament pushed through a bill that allows the SDF to be deployed abroad in the defence of its allies, despite large protests from the general public. He also repeatedly called for a revision of the constitution in order to clear the way for expanding Japan’s military capabilities. These calls became increasingly desperate after the election of Trump. Military spending has risen significantly in the past years allowing Japan to equip itself with state-of-the-art technology and reshape its strategy to possible pre-emptive strike capabilities. The constitutionality of these changes is increasingly hard to justify, since the SDF as its name suggest is not supposed to pursue such strategies, hence Abe’s push for constitutional changes.

A good case study is the Izumo-class “helicopter carriers”, commissioned in 2015 and 2017 respectively. These ships received by the navy, have the capability to operate from their decks the new fleet of F-35 Bs Japan purchased recently. These fifth generation fighters are capable of vertical take off and landing, thus transforming these ships into small aircraft carriers. Interestingly, instead of commissioning the two ships in a humble way to avoid controversy, Japan’s leadership made sure that they would be presented as the pride of the navy, thus further exemplifying the changes in regard to pacifism. All in all, the once weak Japanese military is now again ranked on the top somewhere between 4th and 7th best in the world. With 225,000 active duty personnel, and technological advance such as a ballistic missile defence system or the F-35 fighter planes, Japan has no doubt gone through a thorough shift, although, any change to article 9 still remains a heated question.

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