For months speculation has been circling around the Japanese commentariat that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will attempt to change amend the Constitution so that the country is no longer a pacifist nation. Due to the increased focus on military spending of China, the Japanese government is concerned that because of Japan’s comparatively small military China will become more expansionist when it comes to disputed territories like the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and Abe has said that the threat of terrorism is also of concern.
The threat of Chinese expansionism could be argued to be legitimate but the increased military budget and the removal of the pacifist element of the Constitution is nothing more than a political calculation to appeal to the most right-wing parts of Japanese society whilst hoping that his neo-liberal economic policies market the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to the floating voters around the ideological middle of Japanese politics which is what Europeans would call ‘centre-right’.
Shinzo Abe has angered millions of people in Japan by putting forward a defence budget that it 2.2% larger than last year’s; since reversing 10 years of defence cuts when he took office, the increase is the fourth annual expansion by the Prime Minister with Japan’s military budget now standing at ¥5 trillion or £26 billion. The Japanese Defence Ministry wants to buy a new Aegis radar-controlled missile destroyer, new Osprey tilt-wing aircraft, 17 surveillance helicopter, additional F-35 attack jets and Global Hawk spy drones in order to patrol disputed waters.
The main reason behind Abe’s desire to change the constitution is that he believes that if he was successful in doing so the more hard-line nationalists would support the LDP. The Prime Minister could use a programme of rearmament to increase employment thus keeping his party’s image of economic competence, although I would dispute that considering the Japanese economy went into recession on his watch and has a national debt of over $10 quadrillion, giving Japan the highest debt to GDP ratio in the world of 226%; by way of comparison Zimbabwe is second with 203% and Greece is third with 158%.
However this political gambit, I believe will fail. A poll done by Kyodo News in 2015 showed that 60% of people wanted the Constitution to remain pacifistic compared with 32% who supported the change; this is actually an increase on a poll done two decades ago by the Japan Association for Public Research who found that 55% supported the pacifist Constitution and 34% wanted a change. The same poll also found that 70% of respondents would want to see Japan improve their diplomatic relations with South Korea and China. I don’t claim to be an expert on the region but I can fairly confidently argue that Japan becoming the most militarised it has been since World War II would definitely not improve relations, especially as Abe has cited the need to defend areas that are disputed territories between both Japan and China, and Japan and South Korea. In addition, the poll found that 55% of people surveyed said that the absence of Japan in military action was “a positive development since World War II” which came second to economic development.
The final point is to call bullshit on something that Prime Minister said, which was that as well as protecting territorially islands, the increased military budget would be used to combat terrorism. The falseness of this statement is two-fold because it could be in reference to terrorism specific to Japan or Islamic fundamentalism that is concerning many countries. On the first point, the last terrorist attack in Japan took place twenty years ago by the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo which combines various religious doctrines from Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. According to the Public Security Intelligence Agency the organisation has had an ideological split and currently has around 1,000 members with this number projected to decline further as the remnants of the group have had trouble recruiting new members.
In regards to Islamic extremism I would say that Shinzo Abe systematically misunderstands the causes of animosity towards the West from groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. These groups, both of whom happen to be Sunni extremists, attack many different groups including, but not exclusively, Christians, Shia’a Muslims, and the West generally because of military interventionism. Whilst I grant that most people in Japan are not Muslim and therefore could be targets of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, these groups mainly target the US and Europe because of their involvement in military operations in Islamic countries; how would gearing up Japan to be able to join the US in combat protect Japan from terrorism when doing so is a major cause of it.
Also I don’t believe the massive investment in a larger Japanese Air Force would seem unnecessary as they won’t be many dogfights with ISIS any time soon; even if ISIS stole all of Iraq’s planes there probably wouldn’t be anyone able to fly them because its incredibly complicated. The idea of becoming more militarised to defend against terrorism is ludicrous because terrorists aren’t an invasionary force like the US was in World War II; if Shinzo Abe was concerned with the threat of terrorism he would keep Japan as a pacifist country because not even Al-Qaeda are stupid enough to attack a country that previously had no desire or capability to attack them.
To conclude Abe has only invested in the Japanese military to win favour with some far-right nationalists, when the politically astute thing to do would be to remain pacifistic to appeal to the significant majority of Japanese people who support the status quo. Japan should continue to focus on humanitarianism and maintain its hostility to nuclear weapons and militarism more broadly. By ignoring the sizeable protests of people who are historically reserved in regards to politics, will hopefully have electoral repercussions and see a more left-wing government elected, although this is unlikely as the research in a previous article has illustrated to me.
A shift away from constitutionally-mandated pacifism would only increase the tension in the East Asia at a time when China’s economy is slowing and questions remain over the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un; any form of military expansionism from Japan could easily worry either of these countries and/or destabilize the region.