On Sunday, July 21, the Japanese electorate propelled Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) (together with its partner, the New Komeito Party) to the majority in Japan Diet’s House of Councillors (or upper house). The victory ends the parliamentary impasse, in which the LDP controlled the lower house and its opponents the upper house. The biggest issues of the election were Abe’s “three arrow” economic policies and how he hopes to restore Japan’s national power grid. But many also saw the election as a referendum on Abe’s plans to boost Japan’s self-defense forces and possibly even amend Article Nine of the country’s constitution, which renounces the threat or use of force to settle international disputes and prohibits Japan from establishing formal armed forces.
Though the victory was not large enough to immediately pass a constitutional amendment, it has raised concerns among those Japanese who oppose any revision to Article Nine. They worry that Japan could experience a resurgence of its pre-World War II militarism or, at the very least, could be pulled into foreign conflicts by its main ally, the United States. Others, however, are open to amending the constitution; they believe the document, largely written by American lawyers in the occupation authority, should better reflect the needs and will of the Japanese people. And an increasing number wonder whether the real question is not why Japan should consider amending its constitution, but rather why it has not already done so? Many young Japanese (like many young Germans) wonder how long their country must repent for and be constrained by the sins committed by their forbearers nearly 70 years ago. They would like Japan to become, in Abe’s words, an “ordinary country.”
Of course, the debate within Japan has not occurred in isolation. There have been calls from abroad for Japan to better meet its international security obligations as a major developed country. After the Persian Gulf Conflict in 1991, some (mainly Americans) found fault with Japan’s contribution to the Coalition war effort, which came largely came in the form of dollars (over $10 billion of them), rather than soldiers. By the early 2000s, Japan had begun to send small military detachments overseas, usually in clearly defensive, humanitarian, or peacekeeping roles. Its ground forces were deployed to Iraq as part of the reconstruction effort after 2003 and its maritime forces escorted allied shipping through the Indian Ocean. And since its inception, Japanese warships have participated in the multinational anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden.
But it has been Japan’s increasingly worrisome security environment over the last several years that has really spurred many Japanese to reexamine the role of their self-defense forces and seriously consider changes to Article Nine for the first time. North Korea’s unusually prolonged saber rattling this past spring only served to underscore their heightened sense of insecurity. Despite Japan’s alliance with the United States and much bandied-about American pivot to Asia, other powers in the region seem bent on exploiting Japan’s pacifism. Since the mid-2000s, Japan has closely monitored a rise in Russian incursions into Japanese airspace as well as a steady increase in the number of Chinese warships that pass near its southern islands and, in some provocative cases, circumnavigate Japan’s home islands. And, of course, over the last year tensions between China and Japan have risen as a result of their territorial dispute in the East China Sea, which includes the sovereignty over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands. Indeed, in the week prior to Sunday’s election, China began drilling for oil in a disputed area of the East China Sea, prompting Japan to dispatch a geologic survey ship.
Even so, any overhaul of Japan’s self-defense forces will take time. It took almost a decade for Japan’s annual defense white paper to even acknowledge that a rising China presented new challenges, presumably because Tokyo wanted to reduce the potential for Chinese backlash against Japanese commercial interests in China. Following the Cold War, far more Japanese have been concerned about reviving their national economy rather than their national security. Most believed that the qualitative superiority of Japan’s self-defense forces was sufficient to ensure their safety. But after years of under investment, together with China’s rapid military modernization and Russia’s revival, Japan has seen its qualitative margin eroded. And given the recent behavior of its neighbors, a growing number of Japanese feel that more attention must be given to national defense, either with or without an amendment to Article Nine. The Japanese media frequently reports on the strains that constant patrolling of disputed airspace and waters have put on Japan’s self-defense forces and coast guard. At a practical level, there is much to do, even apart from new hardware procurement—from making Japan’s self-defense forces work together more jointly to deciding how (and under what circumstances) they would be used. If tangible progress is made, then the election will have proven itself to be a turning point for Japanese national security.